Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Chile III - Valparaiso

Valparaiso "The Jewel of the Pacific"
Valparaiso, thirteen hours by bus from La Serena, has to be one of the most colourful, fascinating and lovable cities I have ever come across. Until the Panama Canal opened in 1914, it was also one of the busiest and richest in South America as every ship that sailed between the Atlantic and the Pacific was obliged to call in.

Victim of history -this luxury hotel intended to be the grandest in South America was almost completed when the Panama Canal opened in 1914. It fell into decay as the city's fortunes faded
 It was also very international with immigrants flooding in especially from from Italy, Ireland, England and Germany. They and their descendants are commemorated in many streets and monuments in this city and elsewhere. Bernado O'Higgins for example, and his friend Mackenna were of Irish descent and prominent in achieving independence from Spain in 1818. Arturo Prat who stands at the head of Sotomayer Plaza was a naval hero and most likely of Catalan descent, as was Manuel Montt who became the first civilian president of Chile. Valparaiso also had the first bank, the  first newspaper "El Mercure" which still publishes today, the first telegraph, the first running water, trams, the first street lights and and the first telephones.
It also had the first fire brigade  - still a voluntary organisation. However, each country protected its own. Thus there is a German Fire Brigade, an American one and even one funded by the King of Belgium. The volunteer status created considerable controversy recently when a huge fire broke out in April 2014, ravaging three of the hills and leaving around 11,000 people homeless and fifteen dead.


Valparaiso is built over forty -seven hills (more or less depending on whom you consult) and each neighbourhood has its own character. Indeed, residents identify themselves by the hill or "cerro" on which they live and regard outsiders with suspicion. The whole town is made up of narrow alleys and stairways which definitely favour (fit) pedestrians. However it also has a unique system of "Ascensors" steep funiculars to help those less able or inclined to get back up. The first of these dates from 1883. Originally there were around 35 of these, but only 19 are still in use. The World  Heritage Commission now recognises them as World Monuments. Indeed, since 2003, the whole town has been declared a World Heritage Site because of its wonderful improvised and original buildings.

Ascensor- El Perla from memory. As one car comes down, another comes up. 

It's a long way to the top but better than walking, and cheap too
I gleaned most of this information and much more during a three hour Tours for Tips walk with Wallies, Melissa and Priscilla. On the way, they introduced us to all the resident stray dogs which accompanied us on different sections of the walk. We also enjoyed some taste treats such as homemade chocolate covered biscuits with caramel inside and a local drink made from fruit and possibly white wine, most likely Ponche since I had some difficulty finding my way back. I should have taken notes. In between we rambled up and down the lanes and over the boardwalks, hearing about the history and admiring the excellent graffiti, often by very famous artists. Valparaiso is the Graffiti Capital of the world.

Up the stairs and alleys 
Small Graffiti....

... house size graffiti

Larger still....
Supersized -  both the above are by Stgo who also has large examples in Santiago
I could have filled my entire memory card with fabulous street art. There are several sites on the web devoted to it, but if you want to know how it evolved this one, offers some insights. They do have competitions every year. But Valparaiso doesn't limit itself to graffiti. Performing Arts are everywhere too. Just coming from the bus station in a taxi and waiting for a traffic light to change, there was a fire juggler working the intersection. Beats the usual windscreen washers!

Buskers were everywhere too
And why is Valparaiso so colourful? When I asked Melissa she said that because most of the original buildings were made of  adobe, scrap tin used as ballast in ships was used to protect them from the salty sea air. However, the tin rusted quickly for the same reason, so odds and ends of paint left over from the shipyards were used to protect the tin.
Melissa, one of the guides
The adobe houses still survive earthquakes better than those of other materials, important in a place that experiences catastrophic earthquakes from time to time. The last big one, 8.8 on the Richter scale, was in February 2010. There was even one on the first night that I was there -a  mere 6.5. The hostel was in an old building in an old part of town - Cerro Allegre (meaning "lively") where the sailors used to go. Some time after I had gone to bed the walls rattled and the building shook. No one moved. Nor were there any orders to evacuate so I just rolled over and went back to sleep. I didn't even notice the 5.5 aftershocks.  

Allende, the world's first socialist president is remembered too
Valparaiso also remembers his friend  -poet and diplomat, Pablo Neruda, who won the Nobel Prize in 1971. I visited "La Sebastiana " one of his three houses (the others are in Santiago and Isla Negra) which is now a museum.  It was certainly original and full of eccentricities, especially the bathroom in the bar. I didn't think you were allowed to take pictures so click on the site for more. What I can tell you is that while almost every house in Valparaiso has sea views, Naruda's house has them from all of its five floors. 
I also took a tour around the harbour on one of the old boats. There were some lovely views of the town from here too and also of a sea lion.
Down at the harbour - former fishing boats are available for harbour cruises

Nosy Sea Lion
Sotomayer Plaza- the glass box building on the left was the catalyst for World Heritage listing
The town was virtually blackmailed into allowing this black box (yes, it is actually black) to be built on top of one of its historic buildings. It caused such an uproar among the citizens that UNESCO intervention was sought and World Heritage listing was granted in 2003.

One of several impressive Navy buildings on the same square
Melissa  and Priscilla and the dogs (they know them all by name and I thought they were theirs until they  treated the other dogs on our route with the same familiarity and affection) also showed us where to get the best food and drinks, especially cakes, icecream and freshly made juices. 

Apart from a few ethnic restaurants and the many Chifas (Chinese restaurants) most of the fare was rather similar throughout Chile - the usual gringo food - hamburgers, pizza and pasta, or Chicken, Trout, or Loma Saltada (Beef stew) and the thick casoulet (a sort of meat and vegetable stew which I enjoyed often), Ceviche  which contains raw fish, which I didn't want to risk in most cases (at least I didn't once have an upset stomach either) and of course Empanadas, among the local foods, and I began to realise how much more interesting and varied our diet is by comparison. I blame our own immigrants for this and our proximity to Asia. (Please don't say the word 'fusion'  - it makes me puke). They do do a nice grilled steak in some places in Chile and it is possible to order salad or veg as extras, but these make an expensive meal beyond the reach of most backpackers. 

I had  planned to report on the night life and especially the music - both said to be good, but unfortunately my 'date' stood me up - hope you are reading this, and it didn't happen. 

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