Why beautiful Valparaíso is the id to Santiago's ego

October 30, 2017

As in many hilly towns, I was told while walking around Valparaíso that the women of Valparaíso were famous for their great gams.

“It’s all the climbing,” the woman who was showing me around town said, with a broad smile and eyes sparkling just enough to let me know she was half kidding, but only half.

From what I could tell, the men’s weren’t bad, either.

I was in town for Halloween, so my sparkle-eyed host, a transplanted American who’d married a Chilean man, took me to a house party.

There were people sprinkled about the place, but what kitchens are to Canadian house parties, terraces are to the people of Valparaíso.

Perched on the side of a hill looking out over the initially blazing orange and then starlit water and the sides of other hills, this middle-class house had the sort of view that drives Los Angeles architects wild. But here, it’s a view shared by thousands of neighbours — poor, wealthy, and in between — and is the reason, it seems, many of them choose to live here instead of in the capital, Santiago, about an hour away.

The views of Valparaíso. Photo courtesy of Chris Goldberg.

The views of Valparaíso. Photo courtesy of Chris Goldberg.

“We call it stadium seating,” said our host, a member the local arts community, upon seeing me awestruck. I was going to say “amphitheatre”; it reminded me of being in the upper levels of the one in Caesarea, overlooking the Mediterranean. And I’d been reading Neruda, finally, since I got to Chile — he lived on and off in Valparaiso from 1961 to 1973, in a house (now a museum) called La Sebastiana — and while leaning on the railing, feeling exquisitely alone amid the suspended glasses of heavy wine and clouds of exhaled smoke, his ode to the city he called “Window of the Hills” (as translated by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria) seemed perfect: “On my solitary day the sea/receded: then I beheld/the hills’ vital flame,/every house perched precariously, the/pulse of Valparaiso:/the high hills brimming/with lives, doors painted/turquoise, scarlet and pink.”

But in the land of fútbol and the homeland of Arsenal’s Alexis, stadium it is.

This stadium is built out of about 45 hills, each with its own neighbourhood and character, but all stemming directly from the 19th century, when Valparaíso was at its peak. Before the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, Valparaíso was the principal port of the Pacific coast of South America for ships that had to circumnavigate the continent. Though it’s still the seat of the Chilean navy — and much of the Chilean government, which it shares with Santiago — Valparaíso is very much a post-industrial city and, like Brooklyn, Rotterdam, Manchester, and Antwerp, benefits from all the investment that goes into these erstwhile economic engines that are spending their afterlives becoming some of the most vibrant, beautiful urban spaces on the planet.

But the show these houses puts on reminds me more of Jalousie in Port-au-Prince, or a ramped-up version of St. John’s Jellybean Row. As Neruda implies, it was once just the doors that were colourful, back in the ’40s when he was writing, and Valparaiso was still struggling, economically and existentially, with what to do now that all the ships were gone. It took another couple of decades until they discovered what so many towns, cities, and regions have begun to figure out: that, with the rise of international tourism and a globally voracious appetite to simply see what other places are like — to see beauty where locals just see home — people and places can make their living from simply being who and where they are.

That may explain the rise of the UNESCO’s World Heritage list, dotting the world’s maps with places the world has decided are perfect just the way they are, and giving them an alternative to demolition and reconstruction in the form of the mass tourism cultivated by their universally respected and well-publicized seal of approval.

Valparaiso, with its 15 funiculars, colonial architecture, blind alleys, and winding roads, was a UNESCO shoo-in, and has been a World Heritage site since 2003.

But if these houses in the hills are the seats, the show is down below, in the Plan. The Plan is Valparaíso’s downtown, the flat bit that all those hills surround. It’s lively enough during the day — this is where the less expensive shops are, where people do their everyday shopping – but at night, it explodes. The bars may close, at some point, but I have no personal evidence of it. From working-class cubbies with plain plaster walls to neon-lit beer palaces to plaza patios and genteel dark-wood bars where you can sip a vaina and watch the world stumble by, the Plan at night is one big, friendly fiesta. Some people are a little drunk, others are very drunk, but I saw nothing but smiles, the shouts only friendly. Even the (many) stray dogs seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Santiago has much to recommend. Every street seems to lead to a pretty Ande that fills the horizon; its economy is more stable than any place on the continent; its buildings the safest. A new generation of chefs have recently discovered traditional Chilean cuisine, rescuing their restaurants from a century’s saucy French stranglehold. But there’s nothing like the Plan in Santiago. If you were Freudian, you might want to call it the id to Santiago’s ego; or, if you’re more of a ’90s kid, the Joey to its Ross.

But, really, just forget Santiago for the moment. The funiculars in the morning, a stroll through the plazas amid the Pacific breezes under a bright afternoon sun, a terrace at sunset, and the Plan after dark is all you need to know about Chile.

Bert Archer lives in Toronto, but spends much of his time travelling the world and writing about it. He teaches a course in the practice and ethics of travel writing at the University of Toronto, and you can follow him on Twitter @BertArcher and Instagram @World_of_Bert.

Getting there

Ready to check out the stadium seating of Valparaíso? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to Chile here.

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