Sprawling over a crescent of 42 cerros (hills) that rear up from the sea 116 km west of Santiago, Valparaíso is a one-off. The main residential areas here are not divided into regimented blocks, as in all other Chilean cities; instead Valparaíso is really two cities: the flat, vaguely ordered area between the bus terminal and the port known as 'El Plan', and the chaotic, wasp-nest cerros, in which most porteños (people from Valparaíso) live. It is possible to spend weeks exploring the alleyways of the cerros, where packs of dogs lie sunning themselves, brightly painted houses pile on top of one another and half-forgotten passageways head up and down the hills, offering fantastic views of the Pacific, the city and - on a clear day - right over to the snow-capped cordillera. The Bohemian and slightly anarchic atmosphere of the cerros reflects the urban chaos of the city as a whole. Here you will find such unusual sights as a 'monument to the WC' (Calle Elias) and a graveyard from which all the corpses were shaken out during a severe earthquake. Valparaíso is all about contradictions - the fact that both Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet were born and raised here expresses this fact more eloquently than anything else - but the oppositions can also be seen in the juxtaposition of flat El Plan against the labyrinthine cerros; the sea against the views of Aconcagua; and the city's grandiose mansions mingling with some of Chile's worst slums. Given this it is no surprise that Valparaíso has attracted a steady stream of poets and artists throughout the last century.
There are inter-urban buses to Valparaíso from every major Chilean city (even including connections through to Punta Arenas), and it makes an interesting change to most travellers' itineraries to get a bus to Valparaíso instead of Santiago. Valparaíso also has international connections to Mendoza, Córdoba, Buenos Aires and as far as Rio de Janeiro. Valparaíso can also be reached relatively easy by public transport from Santiago's airport.
You should never have to wait more than 30 seconds to travel anywhere within El Plan (between Plaza Aduana and Avenida Argentina): buses along Pedro Montt are cheap but slow; Errázuriz buses are faster. Valparaíso is the only city in Chile still to have trolleybuses; they are mostly Swiss and from the 1950s. They ply the length of El Plan and cost the same as a local bus fare. Buses to Cerro Alegre and the top of Cerro Concepción leave from calle Chacabuco, behind the bus terminal (No 607) or Avenida Argentina (No 514). Bus 612, popularly known as the 'O', links the hills of Valparaíso from Avenida Argentina all along the Avenida Alemania, down to the port and around the coast to Playa Ancha. Catching it is a sightseeing tour in itself. Taxis and
usually wait around at the bottom of each
; otherwise, you can use the
(funicular railways). If you are going to Viña or one of the nearby towns to the north, catch a
from Errázuriz or Brasil;
to Viña leave from the same place. Taxis serving a particular
do not use their meters but are generally reasonable and, if there are three or four of you, sharing a taxi can be cheaper than taking a
. Taxis from the bus terminal are metered and can be quite expensive.
Robbery is an occasional problem in El Puerto and around the
on Avenida Argentina. The upper outskirts of town, as well as Cerro Cordillera, while offering amazing views, are not the safest of places. The poorer and rougher districts tend to be those furthest from the centre. Also be aware that Calle Chacabuco (on which some hotels are located) is the pickup point for local rent boys. Keep your personal items secure keep your camera in a bag or rucksack, only taking it out when you want to take a photo. Beware of the mustard trick .
Offices are located in the
, but are not keen on attending to the public. Your best bet are the kiosks by the Plaza Sotomayor and the Plaza Aníbal Pinto, although these are also a bit of a mixed bag. There are also two information offices in the bus terminal, but these are privately run on a commission basis and hence do not give impartial advice. Don't be fooled by the old municipal tourist office sign.
Founded in 1542, Valparaíso became, in the colonial period, a small port used for trade with Peru. It was raided at least seven times during the colonial era by pirates and corsairs, including Drake. The city prospered from Independence more than any other Chilean town. It was used in the 19th century by commercial
agents from Europe and the US as their trading base in the southern Pacific and became a major international banking centre as well as the key port for shipping between the northern Pacific and Cape Horn. Until the 1840s, the journey from the port to El Almendral (site of the congress and the old road to Santiago) took several hours and passed over wild hills but, as the city's wealth and importance grew, part of the original bay was filled in, creating the modern day El Plan. Fine buildings were erected here, including several banks, South America's first stock exchange and offices of
, the world's oldest newspaper in the Spanish language, first printed in 1827 and still in publication. (The impressive
building, built in 1900, stands on the site of a famous pirates' cave.) Wealthy European merchants began to populate Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre in this period, building churches and fine mansions in every conceivable architectural style.
The city's decline was the result of two factors: the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 and the breakdown in world trade during the depression in the 1930s. Further decline followed the development of a container port in San Antonio, the shift of banks to Santiago and the move of the middle classes to nearby Viña del Mar. Recently money has been pumped in through UNESCO, the Inter-American Development bank and to some extent tourism, and the city is slowly being restored to its former splendour.
Little of the city's colonial past survived the pirates, tempests, fires and earthquakes, but a remnant of the old colonial city can be found in the hollow known as El Puerto, grouped round the low-built stucco church of La Matriz. Very few wooden buildings predate the devastating earthquake of 1906, which was followed by a series of fires.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF