More than 40 technicolor hills – or cerros – tumble haphazardly toward a brilliant blue, crescent-shaped bay along the Pacific Coast. Sailboats, yachts and cargo ships dot the harbor, and winding flights of stairs ascend steeply from the flat seaside streets to viewpoints facing out over the ocean. By day, cafes and restaurants dot the most popular cerros, while by night music and revelers pour out into the streets, celebrating for any reason at all – not least of which the sheer pleasure of being in Chile’s cultural heart: Valparaíso.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2003, Valparaíso shoulders its proud legacy of mercantile wealth and 19th century globalization with grace and verve. Though founded in 1536 by Diego Almagro, the city boomed as the most significant port on South America’s Pacific coast following Chile’s independence in 1810. Merchants and sailors flocked here to welcome the influx of ships along the route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, building their homes up the hillsides overlooking the narrow strip of flat land along the water.
With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, Valparaíso saw its importance as an international port drop off, but has never lost the excitement and buzz generated by its time along a major international trade route. Over the years earthquakes and fires have ravaged the hills of Valparaíso, but this most dramatic of cityscapes always springs back, more vibrant than ever.
Today, the ‘Jewel of the Pacific,’ as the city is known, is one of Chile’s most important attractions. Visitors from across the world come here to enjoy humble seafood dishes at the restaurants of the historic port district, or fine dining at fashionable restaurants in cerros Bellavista and Concepción; to admire the graceful graves of the municipal cemetery, or see arts events at a renovated prison; to celebrate the memory of Pablo Neruda at one of his three houses, La Sebastiana, or seek out street art along hidden staircases; to sip pisco sours and hear old Chilean songs in historic restaurants like Cinzano or Jota Cruz, or dance until dawn to the most exciting independent music coming out of Chile today.
Ascending one of Valparaíso’s steep-sided lookout points in an antique funicular, or navigating winding alleys between pastel-hued houses perched at unlikely angles, you cannot help but be stricken by Valparaíso’s magic. It is this spell that has kept Porteños – as the city’s residents are known – living here for generations. It is this spell that continues to draw poets and artists from all around the country and the world.
Rather than neighborhoods, Valparaíso is divided into cerros, each with a distinctive personality. Bellavista and Concepción tend to house most of the city’s trendiest restaurants, bars, nightlife and hotels, while Cordillera, Polanco and Barón introduce visitors to more traditional Porteño life.
Once you’ve ascended one of the cerros using one of Valparaíso’s signature funiculars, the best way to get around is walking – but prepare for a workout. Unexpected dead-ends and staircases at every turn will get anybody’s heart pumping.
The house of Chile’s most famous poet, Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda, sits high in the hills, commanding marvelous views over the port. Inaugurated by Neruda in 1961, the house is a testament to his creativity and singular aesthetic. Open Tuesday to Sunday year round, the museum also includes the adjacent cultural center with permanent exhibits works by local artists. (Ferrari 692, (5632) 225 6606, www.fundacionneruda.cl.)
Open Air Museum
A collection of 20 murals graces the walls of these streets, stairs and alleyways just above the Plaza Victoria on Cerro Bellavista in central Valparaíso. Developed as an official project in 1990, the Museum contains works by major Chilean artist Nemesio Antúnez, Mario Toral and Roberto Matta, among others.
Plaza Sotomayor and Muelle Prat (Sotomayor Square and Prat Pier)
Backed by the impressive neo-Renaissance façade of the Navy building, Valparaíso’s grandest city square separates the downtown area from the harbor port district, opening onto Muelle Prat, or Prat Pier. The Plaza often hosts open air concerts and government events, while the pier is the best place to pick up boat for a loop around the harbor, the best way to see Valparaíso the way incoming seaman once did: from the water.
The flat grid of streets running northwest from Plaza Sotomayor is lined with old sailor’s bars, nightclubs, seafood restaurants and fresh fish markets ideal for exploring during the day, especially when you get tired of legging it up and down the hills.
Getting to Valparaíso
From Santiago, the public bus to Valparaíso cost under CP$4,000 (US$8) and take roughly an hour and 45 minutes. Buses leave from Estación Alameda.
NB. Don’t confuse the station with Estación Central. For Alameda, use Metro Universidad de Santiago, one stop after Metro Estación Central. Buses leave regularly throughout the day.