Chile is that long, skinny country on the Pacific side of South America extending from Cape Horn at its southern tip to Bolivia and Peru in its north. Halfway along this stretch is the harbor of Valparaiso, today as it was centuries ago, a port of great importance to those sailing not only the Pacific waters of South America but also those venturing the Cape to far away destinations in the Atlantic and Europe.
As with any great port city, Valparaiso has attracted cruise ship traffic. Your South American cruise may start or end in this colorful city nicknamed “the Jewel of the Pacific”. Largely unfamiliar to many, here are some things you should know about Valparaiso:
- It is the second largest metropolitan area in the country, and home to the Chilean National Congress.
- It boasts a number of firsts such as home to the oldest Spanish language newspaper in the world that is still printed today, the oldest stock exchange in Latin America, and South America’s first volunteer fire department. It boasts one of the most beautiful fireworks displays in the world at New Years.
- Chile has earthquakes – many earthquakes. The day this article was written there were 6 earthquakes in Chile, one of 76 in the past week – the latest one recorded just 4 hours before was 5.4 on the Richter scale. But Chile covers a long stretch of the continent so these may be far afield from Valparaiso. Buildings are constructed to withstand most quakes and to move with the shifting earth. Occasionally, a whopper comes along and there are deaths and destruction (the last big one in Valparaiso itself was over a century ago). Besides its hilly terrain, this is probably one reason Valparaiso is also known as “Little San Francisco”.
- The city besides occupying a narrow stretch along its bay also spreads itself over forty-five surrounding hills.
- Funiculars called ‘ascensores” provide easy and cheap access ( <$1) to all parts of the city. Only one is vertical. There were originally 28; now there are only twelve working, the oldest of which started service in 1883. Fifteen are declared Historical Monuments. These are the number one”must do” in the city. At the top you have spectacular views from many look out points.
- What about historical importance? With an old quarter of the city declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003, there are many buildings and monuments to see. The best way to get an overview of Valparaiso’s history (it was founded in the mid 16th century) is by visiting the Villa Victoria which houses a much praised museum.
- If art is your interest, all one needs to do is walk about the city – it is around every winding corner, twist in an alleyway, or up a steep stair.
Street art is literally everywhere. If you wish to see a collection, visit the Museo a Cielo Abierto created about forty years ago by local art university students.
- No street numbering became the root cause of all the colorful houses in the city as a means to identifying your address. You will bedazzled by the variety of colours of not only the street art but also the houses.
- Another must is to take the Ascensor Conception to Paseo Gervasoni and wander an area of cafes, shops and bars. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to find a seller of jewellery featuring lapis lazuli. This semi precious gem is only to be found in Chile and Afghanistan. What a treasure to take home as a souvenir.