Valparaiso is a collection of colourful clapboard houses, weathered Victorian mansions and cobble-stoned esplanades that cling to the sides of cliffs
Darkness had just begun to fall on the Pacific coast of Chile as our taxi made its way down the steep hills and narrow streets of Valparaiso to our boutique hotel in the city’s trendy district of Concepcion. Built on 45 hills overlooking an expansive bay, “Valpo” is one of Chile’s oldest cities and the port of call for the country’s capital city of Santiago, where we had recently arrived from Miami to begin our 14-night cruise around the horn of South America to Buenos Aries, Argentina.
Valparaiso was first discovered by the indigenous Chango and settled by Europeans when Spanish explorer Juan de Saavedra arrived on his ship “Santiaguillo” in 1536. In its early years, the city was a favourite haunt for pirates and privateers, including Sir Francis Drake who sacked the town in 1578. But Valparaiso didn’t become an important city until it was rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1730, and boatloads of immigrants started to arrive from Germany, Yugoslavia, and England in the middle of the 19th century.
Today, Valparaiso is a collection of colourful clapboard houses, weathered Victorian mansions and cobble-stoned esplanades that cling to the sides of cliffs and provide a spectacular panoramic view of the bay and commercial centre below. The city is divided into two zones, the “cerro” or hills, and the “plan” or flat area by the coastline, and they were connected by a series of 30 quaint hillside elevators or “Ascensors” built between 1883 and 1915, 15 of which are still in use.
After a good night’s sleep, we decided to begin our walking tour of Valparaiso early Saturday morning on Paseo Gervasoni, a pedestrian-only promenade lined with elegant 19th-century mansions including the Gran Hotel Gervasoni, the Mirador de Lukas House, and the Café Turri. The promenade is also home to the top station of the Ascensor Concepcion, where we boarded an old wooden cart pulled by cables along two steel rails so we could descend to the city’s landmark Turri Clock some 70 metres below.
Walking southwest from the clock along Calle Prat, we came to Plaza Sotomayor and its Monument to the Heroes of Iquique, which commemorates Chile’s War of the Pacific and contains the crypts of several military heroes including Arturo Pratt. The plaza is also home to a number of interesting buildings including the former
government palace which now houses the local headquarters of the Chilean navy within its Wedgwood-like blue and white façade, Grace House and the old post office.
Just down Serrano Street near Plaza Echaurren is the tired-looking Mercado Puerto, the old fish market designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1922 (the same architect who built the famous Parisian landmark). And around the corner lies the city’s cherished Iglesia La Matriz, which has an old wooden sculpture inside known as “The Agony of Christ,” which was a gift to the people of Valparaiso from the Spanish Crown.
It was now time for lunch, so we walked over to the Plaza Justica to catch a ride up the hill to the Cerro Allegre on the Ascensor El Peral. At the top of the elevator we discovered the pretty Dalmatian-style Barburizza Palace, which was built by a
Yugoslavian entrepreneur as his home in 1916, but today houses the city’s Museum of Fine Arts. The museum sits on the edge of the Paseo Yugoslavo, a beautiful terrace that overlooks Plaza Sotomayor and the industrial port beyond.
Eventually we made our way back to the neighboring district of Concepcion and along the Paseo Atkinson to the Hotel Brighton, where we sat on the patio of the hotel’s fabulous cliff-side restaurant. While we basked in the warm sunshine and enjoyed the stunning views of the bay with the beaches of Vina del Mar in the distance, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch of Chilean Sea Bass, and a mouthwatering grilled steak sandwich filled with garlic mayonnaise, chili and green beans, all washed down with a bottle of local Chardonnay.
After hiking up, down and around Chile’s colourful city of hills, it was the perfect way to end a very tiring day and board our cruise ship.