Up and Down in Valparaiso

January 22, 2015

Sailing out of Valparaiso, Chile,

Valparaiso is the port for Santiago, Chile’s capital.  The ship offered several tours to the capital and the wine country.  In our two port days we never got beyond gritty Valpo and its more refined neighbor, Viña del Mar, an adjacent upscale beach and bedroom community.  Valpo kept our interest.

The city is a giant amphitheater looking down at a harbor.  It’s been hit by earthquakes and tsunamis, burned and sacked by pirates.  It keeps rebuilding.  Colorful houses, many made of corrugated metal, climb the hills.  Its streets wind and hairpin.  The city has 15 ascensors, “elevators,” that climb the hills.  These are perilously steep funicular railways built between 1883 and 1916.  Cables driven by big red wheels powered by electric motors pull small wooden cars up widely spaced tracks.  Originally they were steam driven.  The driver sits in a cab permanently mounted at the top of the run, controlling the giant wheel that moves the cable.  A conductor at the bottom takes fares and ushers people into the cars.  Fares run between 100 and 300 pesos, 16 and 49 cents.  Some of the ascensors look like they’re held together by ingenious jury rigs.  But they’ve kept rattling up and down Valparaiso’s hills for more than a century.

The woman at the tourist information booth at the port told us that they weren’t working.  I didn’t believe her so she told us that they were dangerous.  Well, they are rickety but she was referring to the pickpockets who work the old turnstiles.

We set off on the Micro-612, which Lonely Planet called the poor man’s tour bus.  It rides a circuit up the hills, around hairpin curves and through several different barrios.  But wear old clothes; there is a lot of grime.

We got off at Ascensor Crodilera.   It wasn’t working.  Perhaps the information lady was right.  The two cars were suspended one third and two thirds up the track and guys were climbing the ties below the tracks to get to the cars.  The conductor saw us watching and said “two minutes” and two minutes later we were rattling up the hill.  We also rode the oldest ascensor, Concepción and the Holy Ghost (Spirito Sancto) elevators.  I could have spent the whole two days happily riding those contraptions and looking at their mechanisms.

Mass transit was kind of a theme for this visit.  We rode the Metro, mini buses and electric trolley buses. They provide great entertainment.  Musicians get on; they have laminated licenses to busk.  They sing, play guitar, accordion or fiddle.  After a few songs they collect change and move on to the next trolley bus.  Valpo mass transit is a rolling concert.  A little drama was added when a thief climbed on and tried to grab a purse while the woman was paying the fare.  She held on so he grabbed a man’s baseball cap instead, jumped off and ran.

Most people were inevitably friendly, helpful and polite.  Whenever a woman with a child, a pregnant woman or a person with a cane came on a bus, trolley or metro people immediately got up to offer seats, no exception.  Residents wanted us to enjoy the city.  Folks would tell us “get off here, it’s really pretty.”  A bus driver told us, as we got off, which direction to walk to see nice things.  At the top of the Holy Ghost an old man told us to “walk that way, good view — pretty.”  It was.

Valparaiso is colorful with public art.  The city commissioned artists to paint colorful murals.  This public art is everywhere, and, of course, there are a lot of volunteer murals.  They cover walls and houses that, otherwise, might look in need of repair.  Some of the forms were fantastic, some whimsical, some funny, some strange and many beautiful.  Even Garbage trucks have art.

And there is street performance art.  A couple tango between cars at red lights.  During the light the woman has a very concentrated face.  Once the light changes and she is not dancing she has the most delightful smile.  Tango requires concentration.

Our first day we stumbled on Villa Victoria, a house built in 1865 that survived the 1906 earthquake.  It has been a fine home, became a bakery and finally a derelict.  Kenneth and Victoria Pugh (many Valparisians are descended from English immigrants) bought the house and worked, with their kids, to restore it.  They got Oregon pine to replace beams, and commissioned ceramic tile to match the original.  They set up an interpretative center with a multi-media show.  Kenneth, Victoria, Duncan or Marina, appeared at different places, in costume (Victoria did several costume changes) to interpret the rooms.  They have a workshop for tinsmith, cooperage (where we got to try using the tools) and forge work.  Before and after the presentation they served us coffee or tea and chatted about the history of Valparaiso, a city they obviously love.

They customized their presentation to the interests of the people visiting.  For Suzi and me they talked about American whaling and the importance of Valpo as a way station on the way to the California Gold Rush.  For the Australians they talked about South Pacific trade and links between Valpo and Sydney.  For Brits it was the British Navel Squadron ported in Valparaiso.  We spent quite a bit of time talking history with Kenneth and Victoria over coffee especially the close ties between Valparaiso and the States that diminished after the opening of the Panama Canal.

The docking arrangements in Valparaiso were awkward.  The ship docked within sight of the main square and several ascensors.  We were in a container port and we were surrounded by cranes, containers and ships.  The “landscape” around us changed hourly as walls of containers went up and came down and ships sailed and docked.  Because of this activity we had to ride from the ship to the port gate in a shuttle but.  But when we got on it did not take us to the nearest port gate at Plaza Sotomayor near the Porto Metro stop.  It took us on a rambling ride through the port to the passenger terminal, three metro stops away.  At the terminal we had our day packs x-rayed (customs and agriculture), there was a tourist information office, bank, wine tasting (which we enjoyed), internet café (where the crew hung out, skyping home), bar, cafeteria and shops that stretched out for over 100 meters in an old warehouse.    At the end of the warehouse we were released onto the street beneath two intersecting traffic viaducts.  There is a metro station there and for about 50 cents you get back to the center of town.  The bus ride from the ship to the terminal could take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes depending on port traffic and the route we had to weave around the container walls.  Despite the inconvenience of being let out away from the center the bus ride through the port was fascinating.

The natural setting and ship traffic make sailing out of Valparaiso an experience.   The pilot boats are named “Hades” and “Zeus.”  As we sailed out I thought of my grandfather, the one who ran away from Ireland to go to sea at the age of 13.  He loved the sea and always relished a new port.  As a kid he told me stories of exotic ports like Hamburg and Baltimore his favorites.  And he took me on boats to increasingly exotic ports as I got older.  First, as a young kid, we sailed past the Statue of Liberty to Coney Island and Rockaway Beach, then, at age 10, on an old three funneled ship to Bermuda, and finally, at 14, across the Atlantic to Le Havre, Southampton and the Cobh of Cork.  It’s because of him that I “need” to live by the sea and have to travel.  He never got to Valparaiso.  I had to go there for him.

Take Care,


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