Taking in Valparaíso from the water

If you are looking for a different perspective of Chile’s principal port city, then head out onto the water for a boat trip around the harbor.

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One of the most charming characteristics about the fabled port city of Valparaíso is its rich supply of breathtaking views. Spread out like a blanket over more than 40 hills around a placid bay, Valparaíso is blessed with several amazing vantage points for taking in the beauty of the colorful houses, pointy church steeples and soothing azure waters. And even better, each lane and lookout offers a different perspective of the vibrant city, above and below.

Climbing a steep flight of stairs, you find yourself face to face with a striking street mural, set against the backdrop of the endless Pacific Ocean. Turn a corner and you come across a rickety, wooden ascensor carriage, meandering past a row of ramshackle homes.

But to gain a complete understanding of the city, it’s best to get out on the water.

Regular harbor tours set out from Muelle Prat (Prat Pier) on the western edge of the bay, about every 15 minutes. Heading to the water from the historic Plaza Sotomayor, it’s hard to miss the tourist boats, thanks to the large signs and the enthusiastic promoters, calling out in Spanish: “Harbor tours. Only CLP2,000 (US$4)!”

After a short wait in line, it’s time to hop on board one of the small, timber launches with an outboard motor that holds 30 passengers. Life jackets are handed around, the engine splutters to life and the tour begins.

As the boat pulls out from the dock, a middle-aged man in a sailor’s cap stands up in the middle of the vessel and welcomes the passengers aboard. He’s the guide and his first duty is to introduce the guests to the resident family of sea lions (lobos marinos) sprawled out to sunbathe on a rusty, red buoy not far from the shore. Although they have received no formal training, they know how to please the boatloads of tourists, twisting their bodies and nodding their heads. Like professional performers, they finish the act with a bow.

Now the boat has pushed out further from the shore and the city starts to take shape. The tall office towers down near the water no longer look so large and the rugged hills, so steep to climb, seem friendlier and much less imposing. The sunlight glistens on the water, lapping against the boat, and the pleasant smell of salt water fills the air.

Speaking in rapid, sea-dog Spanish, the guide points out some of the city’s better-known attractions. Up on Cerro Artillería is the crisp, white Maritime and Naval Museum. The low-lying Cerro Concepción stands out due to the tall, green clock tower rising up from the old Lutheran Church. And on Cerro La Florida, nestled between the two apartment blocks and the grey church spire, it’s easy to make out La Sebastiana, the colorful, five-story home of Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda.

Other highlights round the bay include Chile’s cream-colored National Congress, the murals and pastel apartments atop Cerro Barón and the classical buildings of the Universidad de Valparaíso standing proudly on the point.

Having reached the other side of the bay, the boat turns around and starts sailing back to Muelle Prat. On the way it passes by a massive oil tanker and a collection of solemn, gray naval vessels before slinking past a hulking container ship being loaded by the even bigger blue cranes that tower above it.

Half an hour and dozens of photographs after it began, the boat pulls back into the dock. The life jackets are returned and the passengers disembark. Now it’s time for some more exploring up in the cerros.

By Tim Dixon

Teaser photo: courtesy Turismo Chile