Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Vibrant Valparaíso

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“Valparaíso, what an absurdity you are, how crazy: a crazy port. What a head of dishevelled hills, that you never finished combing. Never did you have time to dress yourself, and always you were surprised by life.” – Pablo Neruda

The amazing view from my hostal over the hills of Valparaíso:

The wooden ‘Blue House’ on the hill: my wonderful hostal (for less than a tenner per night):

Valparaíso is a wonderful, sprawling, chaotic city. Built upon 42 (VERY steep) hills, it is also a nightmare for cyclists! Despite that, so many people had recommended a visit, that I diverted my planned route away from Santiago to see what all the fuss was about. I wasn’t to be disappointed.

Valparaíso is one of the South Pacific’s most important seaports. Its heyday was in the late 19th century, when ships travelling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans used it as a stopover point. Apparently (i.e. according to Wikipedia), it was known as ‘Little San Francisco’ by international sailors, and was a magnet for European immigrants working aboard the ships, plenty of whom decided to set up homes and families there.

As you walk around the harbour, many indications of the city’s former significance are still evident, such as the building that housed Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, and the old custom’s house that was the first ‘port of entry’ for all ships.

The late twentieth century was a disaster for Valparaíso, as the opening of the Panama Canal caused the local economy to collapse and decimated the community. The city fell into disrepair, with buildings abandoned and high rates of crime. Since then, it has undergone a ‘rebirth’, attracting artists, musicians, architects, cultural entrepreneurs and a lot of tourism. If (big if!) I understood correctly, Valparaíso has the country’s only left-wing local government, and the Valparaísians seemed to be very proud of some of their local social initiatives.

Valparaíso’s furnicular railways

These ‘elevators’ transport pedestrians up the steep hills. The first was opened 1883. There have been 28 at various times, but now about 13 working elevators remain to serve the city.

Ascensor Reina Victoria (Queen Victoria)

Many apartments have lifts to take people up to their front doors

The streets of Valparaíso

The streets twist and turn up the hillsides. Some parts of the city have brightly coloured houses, especially ‘Cerro Alegre’ (Happy Hill) where many British immigrants settled. One story goes that sailors used to paint their house a bright colour so they could easily spot it from out at sea, hence the cheery name.

You can see clusters of old architectural styles from the different immigrant communities of the past – British, German, French, Swiss, Italian, and so on.

Many houses seem to be built on the hillsides in impossible ways

There’s some great art-deco architecture dotted around

The city was granted UNESCO World Heritage status, but this entails strict rules for renovating property. These renovations are very expensive due to the difficulty of accessing buildings through the steep and tightly packed streets, often inaccessible to cars and trucks. Following various severe fires and earthquakes over the past 10-20 years, many beautiful and historic buildings have now fallen into disrepair as owners decide not to invest in these expensive repairs. UNESCO  is reportedly considering removing WH status to help the city rejuvenate however that also brings concerns about the impact on tourism.

The port – still one of the most important in South America today

La Sebastiana – Pablo Neruda’s House

Pablo Neruda is a famed poet and winner of the Nobel prize for Literature. He bought and completed the construction of this marvellous house, which ‘seemed to float in the air, but was settled on the ground’. Every window has an amazing view across the hills of the city and out to sea.

He is described as having been a fun and flamboyant character, and an avid collector. He believed water tasted better if drunk out of red or green glasses. The house contains some wonderful pieces, such as a stuffed pink flamingo hanging from the ceiling above the dining table, a bar (behind which only Neruda was allowed to go – and apparently where he often dressed up in fancy dress costumes to serve cocktails to his guests), and his chair, called ‘The Cloud’, where he sat and wrote (and which still shows splodges of the green ink he was apparently famous for writing with).

Casa La Sebastiana

The view from Neruda’s desk

The house is full of funky nick-nacks

A post card of Neruda’s ‘Ode to the Bicycle’ which I didn’t previously know about – it was a nice surprise to come across. I love how he likens the bicycle to a humming insect. So true riding along these quiet country roads in the spring sunshine. You can read a translated version in English here:

One thought on “Vibrant Valparaíso

  1. Some fab architecture- normally world heritage status just brings in coach parties and actually destroys the fabric of the place – towns and cities should evolve organically. Hope you are still having fun!


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