Chile’s seaport of Valparaíso emerges from the fog as a bright patchwork city born of trade, immigration and a fierce sense of independence, writes Catherine Marshall.
The hills of Valparaíso are dripping with colour. They’re streaked in lurid shades of crimson and jade, amber and mauve, and pink so hot it’s positively phosphorescent. Houses spill higgledy-piggledy down the steep hillsides, each competing with its neighbour for attention: this one’s roof glows butter-yellow, that one’s gables pop beneath lashings of aquamarine.
Alleys are speckled and sprayed in the Day-Glo palette of street artists and graffiti writers; stairways connecting one cerro (hill) with another rise and fall in the rainbow stripes of a child’s xylophone. Not even the lush green of the trees or the bright blue of the ocean and sky can compete with this man-made, chromatic joie de vivre.
“In Valparaíso, everyone gets into the creative mood,” says my guide, Maria Soledad Bahamondes. “Here, we have such a buffet of houses. Everything is mixed.”
This mishmash of styles and sensibilities reflects Valparaíso’s origins as a hardworking port city built on the back of immigrant labour (German, English, Italian, Spanish). Located around 120 kilometres north-west of Chile’s capital, Santiago, it was an important stopover for cargo ships sailing between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans via the Strait of Magellan in the 19th century. It was also the country’s first financial and political capital.
Valparaíso’s jagged topography – not to mention its flamboyant artistic delights – necessitates exploration by foot. Comfy shoes are essential, for this is a series of steep hills knitted together with zigzagging stairways and the restored funiculars that secured it a UNESCO listing. (Public trolley buses offer regular services along the narrow coastal plain abutting the port, connecting some of the funiculars when the hills get too steep for comfort.)
The Historic Quarter takes in both Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción. Once segregated along class lines – dock workers lived on this hillside, the wealthy on that – the cerros’ boundaries were blurred when earthquakes and fires forced the residents to reconfigure their city. Though each cerro retains some of its original flair, you’ll find a smorgasbord of architectural styles quilting the hillsides – from Gothic Revival mansions to Swiss chalets and rusting shanties that appear to be sliding inexorably into the ravines. Be sure to stop and peer down into the crumbling ruins reimagined as galleries by street artists then up to the houses built like towering cruise ships on the narrowest of footprints.
The labyrinthine streets that draw together Valparaíso’s neighbourhoods are stuffed with eateries – hole-in-the-wall picadas offering set menus; carts selling churros, nuts, empanadas and steaming coffee; fine-dining establishments whose stiff white tablecloths aren’t sullied by the city’s riotous colour scheme.
Duck off the alleyways winding through the lower reaches of Cerro Concepción into Café Pe (Gálvez 213; +56 9 9877 9335), a Peruvian-inspired cafeteria specialising in organic coffee, smoothies and vegan-diabetic-coeliac-friendly breakfast eats. If you’re between meals and fancy a sweet treat, head down the road to Porteña de Corazón (Pasaje Galvez 213; + 56 9 8253 6660) and choose from a range of traditional ice-cream flavours: lùcuma (an Andean fruit that resembles a mango), cherimoya (custard apple), harina tostada (toasted flour, a Chilean specialty usually taken as a hot milk drink) and the irresistible manjar (dulce de leche or caramelised condensed milk).
For lunch, grab a table on the ocean-facing terrace at Café Turri and order a bowl of Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda’s favourite dish, conger eel soup. Slow things down at dinnertime with pisco sours on the balcony of the famous Restaurant Maralegre, located in the boutique Hotel Casa Higueras and overlooking the port from its perch on Cerro Alegre. Then head inside for the tasting menu featuring ocean-fresh ceviche, mussels, conger eel and abalone, slow-cooked lamb, chocolate mousse doused in eucalyptus smoke and a selection of superb Chilean wines.
It’s a hop, skip and a climb from Valparaíso’s Historic Quarter to the grittier district of Cerro Mariposa, where you’ll find the candy-coloured WineBox (763 Avenida Baquedano; +56 9 9424 5331), a hotel and wine venue built from recycled shipping containers by expatriate Kiwi winemaker Grant Phelps. The long-time Chile resident and former chief vintner at Casas del Bosque in the Casablanca Valley was inspired by the use of the containers in the post-earthquake rebuild of his home town, Christchurch.
WineBox’s rooftop bar – with its expansive views of the bay, recycled wine barrels for chairs and a bathtub repurposed as a sofa – is the perfect spot for sundowners; choose from a list that includes wines bottled by Phelps himself in his onsite cellar. For a closer look at the venue’s architectural and sustainability ethos, take a two-hour tour, finishing with a guided tasting of its wines.
For a bohemian atmosphere, head down to El Puerto district and pull up a stool at Bar La Playa, once famed for its ballroom and billiards table and a favoured haunt of writers, artists and intellectuals since it opened in 1908. You’ll still find an eclectic crowd here – locals, visitors, young, old and in between – enjoying a vibrant mélange of live music, poetry readings and tango.
The bones of the Victorian-style Hotel Palacio Astoreca are old – it was built as a private home during the saltpetre (potassium nitrate) boom in 1923 – but the interiors are modern: white spaces flecked with colour (gilded wallpaper, velvet cushions) in deference to the kaleidoscopic spectacle unfolding outside. This is the ideal place to catch the sea breeze: bay windows and an outdoor terrace overlook the port from the hotel’s lofty position in a natural amphitheatre on Cerro Alegre. When the fog rolls in, head indoors to the piano bar, library or spa, where you can sink into a tub heated with a wood fire, the traditional Chilean way.
Valparaíso’s enthusiastic artistic demeanour is reflected in the many galleries, boutiques and jewellers crammed along its streets. Look for contemporary jewellery made with Chilean copper and lapis lazuli or wraps woven from Patagonian wool in the Lautaro Rosas precinct on Cerro Alegre. And rummage around for original artwork, quirky fashion and bric-a-brac on the streets around Paseo Atkinson on Cerro Concepción.
Pablo Neruda had strict criteria for his Valparaíso home, now La Sebastiana Museo de Pablo Neruda: it should withstand the leers of its jostling neighbours yet embrace the chaos of this close-knit, blue-collar city. And indeed, the windows of this rambling confection on Cerro Florida seem to hold in their frames all of the city’s contradictions: shacks cobbled together from random materials and tumbling down hillsides; the bay stretching out in a beatific arc of blue; and the sun-struck windows of Cerro Alegre’s mansions winking back across the hills at the poet’s abode.
The ocean looks appealing from afar but Valparaíso Bay is a working port churning with tankers, cruise ships and pleasure boats. Even on hot days, the Humboldt Current chills the water. Keen swimmers should instead jump on a bus or hire a car and head to the seaside towns of Concón and Viña del Mar, north of Valparaíso. At Playa Reñaca, a popular beach on the southern end of Concón, swimmers and windsurfers throng the surf. From here, Valparaíso takes on a veneer of innocence, its colours subdued by the haze and the ragged hills woven in gentle undulations.
Valparaíso’s not short on vistas: the funicular system and endless stairways stitching the hills together all lead, it seems, directly to heaven. For a panorama of the city, take the funicular up to Cerro Artillería at the western end of El Puerto. This hill was once home to naval personnel; today, the Museo Marítimo Nacional, with displays about Chile’s naval history, is located here. From the lookout on Paseo 21 de Mayo you can take in Valparaíso’s architectural frenzy, its geographical ebb and flow and the many hills that combine to form this singular, colour-splashed city.
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