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A Walk on the Winding Streets of Valparaíso,Chile

Streets of Valparaiso on a sunny but cold day in June, 2010

Streets of Valparaiso on a sunny but cold day in June, 2010

Click here to launch photo gallery.

A metallic ‘ting ting, ti ting, ti ting, ti ti ti ting’ grows louder as a truck rounds the sharp corner by my ground floor studio suite. Two men in the back of a truck are playing the tops of the gas canisters like set of drums, the universal song of all the gas delivery service trucks in Valparaíso. It temporarily drowns out the laughter and chatter of school children in the school courtyard nearby, and the constant squeal of the buzz saw from the furniture workshop across the street. Time to get up and get outside and start my day.

When I throw open the wooden shutters and open the heavy wooden door, I can see the glint of the steel blue sea from the edge of my balcony/deck, and spot the huge ships docked in the port far below.

I’m only half way up the steepest part of Calle Ferrari, and it still feels like I’m on top of the mountain. Except they don’t call it a mountain, and laugh when you do. It’s simply a ‘cerro’ or foothill. Most people live in the hills, like me, on steep cobblestone streets with crazy blind corners and narrow walkways linking the cerros. Valparaíso is a collection of cerros with distinct ‘barrios ‘ (neighbourhoods). It’s usually easiest to go down, go across and then back up to get between and among the cerros.

People stick to their own neighborhoods and routines here. There are small ‘mom and pop’ stores in every barrio that stocks a few of anything you might need. Or you don’t really need it. It’s not uncommon for people to only know their own barrio and have no clue how to get around the neighboring cerros. Taxi drivers get lost a lot trying to find addresses all the time, and have to stop and ask the locals for directions every few blocks. Some places you can only get to by walking.

There are at least 7 ‘ascensores’ -old fashioned cable cars, like outdoor elevators – on the steepest parts of the cerros. It costs about 300 pesos (75 cents or so) for a one way ride, and a ride on one offer some of the best views of the port. It’s a big scary as the wooden car jolts and starts up the metal ties like a train on a tow rope, but it is really very safe.

I wish there was an ascensor on my street, but there isn’t. It’s only a 6 minute walk straight uphill, but it feels like 20. At least there is a lot to look at along the way, with every building built in a different style and a lot of mural paintings.

My street has more than the usual number of artisan workshops, and on any given day I can walk past new pieces on display. There’s always a piece of heavy wooden furniture, recently stained and drying in a pocket of sunshine, painted canvasses for sale and the ringing and tapping from the jewellers workshop near the bottom of the hill, beside a very tiny, 2 table cafe decorated with murals and clever handicraft pieces.

If walking in the other direction, up the hill, you soon come to La Sebastiana, one of Pablo Neruda’s houses. It’s got a lovely yard with grass and trees (very rare here), and a spectacular view of the port and city core from the top two floors. They have preserved the whole house with all the furniture, art and curios Neruda collected in his lifetime. What a great sense of style, beautifully detailed art and playful creativity he had. The wall mural inside the house along the staircase is a masterpiece of swirling patterns of rocks and shells. It’s an excellent little museum and audio tour.

Art is part of life here, especially on my street, where vibrant graffiti blends into the commissioned murals draping the flat spaces on buildings near the bottom of the hill, and covering the cement street fortifications near the bottom of the hill. There’s also the other kind of graffiti everywhere too – spray painted words and names – not nearly as attractive. I’ll post a gallery showing off the nice graffiti and murals soon.

There’s a nice place to rest on benches in the cozy park at the very bottom of the hill where it levels off. The park is made completely of small tiles, arranged into patterns and figures all along the walkway, lightposts, benches and tiered cement walls . At night the park glitters like a chandelier as cars come around the curve, headlights caught and magnified by all the mirrored tiles embedded everywhere that you don’t even notice are there in the day.

The streets downtown are no less impressive than those winding up into the cerros. The narrow streets are lined with tall buildings, each different from the next, usually with arched, elaborate doorways, heavy wooden doors and trim, and artistically crafted wrought iron coverings over the windows and doorways. Everyday I spot some new detail I hadn’t noticed before, some balcony detail, or an elaborately decorated recessed doorway.

The oldest newspaper in South America, El Mercurio, started here in Valparaíso, and the building is a source of pride for the locals, with its angelic statues, skylight dome, and grandiose presence. The overall impression of Valparaíso is one of faded grandeur, much like Buenos Aires, but in better condition overall.

The attached photo gallery features a lot of pictures taken on St. Peter’s Day in June, a national holiday day here (St. Peter is the saint of fishermen). The streets were deserted as everyone was glued to their TVs hoping Chile would beat Spain (they didn’t). Some walked around waving Chilean Flags in support of their team. The streets were empty of cars and pollution, and it was a nice, sunny day, so it was easy to take pictures that really show the details of the buildings.

I hope you enjoy your virtual walking tour today!

2 comments to A Walk on the Winding Streets of Valparaíso,Chile

  • Roberto

    Artistic, poetic city which sticks into Porteños’
    hearts and makes people stick ’round. Doesn’t it?

    Love it…

  • Roberto

    Buy the way, if you pay attention to the house shape, you will notice it is a ship, going into and facing the endless ocen…

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