As you are probably aware, Santiago is the capital of Chile, and overwhelmingly dominates the nation in population and economic terms. However, there is another city that is increasingly proving a worthy rival in the tourism and cultural stakes – Valparaíso. Located only some 75 miles from the capital, the mountainous scenery between the two serves to highlight that the character of Valparaíso is markedly different, and seemingly worlds apart from the rest of Chile.
Valpo, as it is known to locals, is hardly brimming with conventional tourist attractions, but rather it is the overall character and landscape of the city that gives it irresistible appeal. With its origins as a colonial port city, the seafront is the focus of the city, and is framed by sharply rising mountains, crammed with a chaotic maze of brightly coloured houses that scale the dizzying hillsides. Unlike the regimented grid system typical of most South American cities, the hill neighbourhoods (known as cerros) are reached by twisting alleys, staircases and a system of lifts and funiculars collectively known as ascensores. These elevators may delight tourists for their sweeping views and ability to ascend what appear to be impossible inclines, but equally are a crucial means of commuter transport, saving residents from arduous climbs home from the city centre. Valparaíso has also become famous in the cycling world, whereby daredevil downhillers race at breakneck speed through the precipitous streets.
The port of Valparaíso went from strength to strength as Chile became independent in the 19th century, and the city developed as a prosperous commercial hub, with the grand civic architecture to match. Fortunes were built on revenue from the copper and silver trades, as well as the city’s function as a stopping off point on the long and treacherous route from Europe around the southern tip of South America to the Pacific. The next century was not so kind to the city, with a catastrophic earthquake in 1906, and the opening of the Panama Canal shortly after which secured its economic stagnation. Over several decades of decline, the grand stock exchanges and suburban mansions became vacant and run down.
Today, Valparaíso retains its slightly decadent and faded air, with a healthy dose of port-city grit. This, coupled with the innate attractiveness of the urban landscape has attracted buzzing arts and cultural scenes. Attracted initially by low rents, artists have created many cutting-edge venues hidden within the labyrinthine streets. In particular, the Cerro Bellavista neighbourhood is known for its creative ambience and striking murals, known collectively as the Museo a Cielo Abierto, or ‘open air museum’. A stroll around Valparaíso is extremely rewarding, as the city shows off the scars of its past and the energy of its present with equal and unmistakeable pride.
As students at Friendly Spanish, try to think about where your Spanish skills could take you. Do you have a dream destination in Spain or Latin America? If you are searching for inspiration, the travel sections of online newspapers like El País or Clarín may give you some tips on exciting destinations.
Your Friendly Spanish team