Perhaps no other city in Chile casts a spell as mesmerising as the port city Valparaiso. Certainly, it strikes a dramatic pose, nestled on a thin strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and 43 steep, rolling hills. You might think it’s a wonder that settlers built a city on this terrain at all! But as you stroll its narrow, labyrinthine streets—among mansions that cling to their once-grandiose days, stunning ocean views, and hard-working porteños taking a break over cafecitos (small black coffees) in cafés—you will be very glad they did.
Indeed, Valparaiso—or Valpo to those in the know—is nothing if not authentic and romantic. Chilean native and Nobel prize winning poet Pablo Neruda regaled the city in his works Canto General and I Confess that I Have Lived. In return, proud locals honoured him on his 100th birthday by “composing” the world’s largest poem, an epic collection of contributions from Chileans that scrolled 65 feet long and three feet wide. Other artists have been similarly inspired: the city’s rich street art—huge colourful and beautifully wrought paintings that cover the sides of buildings—appears at every turn. And a host of world-class museums dot the cityscape.
Founded in 1536 by a Spanish conquistador, Valparaiso is a UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrated for its improvised urban design of late 19th century hillside structures and seaport architecture. The most glorious buildings were constructed during its heyday, when it was a major stopover for ships sailing between the Atlantic and Pacific. Immigrants from Britain, Germany, and Italy poured into the city during this boom, each bringing its distinctive culture and architectural styles into its own hillside neighbourhood. When the Panama Canal opened in 1914, the ships and the people stopped coming, but the city remains Chile’s second most important port and today is affectionately known as “Little San Francisco” for its many hills.
Its historic center is a maze of winding cobbled streets, all of it overlooked by towering cliffs crowned with richly textured suburbs. These hilltop residences are linked to the barrios below by steep stairways or by ascensores, or funiculars. No matter how you decide to ascend, you’ll marvel at spectacular vistas, but riding the funicular is rightly heralded as Valparaiso’s most distinctive and thrilling experiences.
Though they are traditionally called elevators, only one of the city’s renowned funiculars runs in a true vertical direction. The rest carry visitors and locals alike up angled tracks. The original ascensores, introduced in the 1880s, ran on steam. As many as 28 have operated since and about a dozen still operate. Fifteen have been declared National Historical Monuments as local organisations work to ensure that they continue to play an active role in the city’s rich heritage.
You’ll fall under the spell of Valparaiso during our new Natural Wonders of Bolivia & Chile small group tour. Join us!