Colourful murals and charming houses in the hills are a highlight
17.03.2012 - 21.03.2012 23 °C
I arrived in Valparaiso (about 2h north of Santiago) last weekend. This picturesqe city by the sea has 2 faces. In the hills there are brightly coloured houses flanking a maze of ascending and descending cobblestone streets ending in blind alleys and lookout points of the sea. These windy, climbing streets are also connected by shortcuts and staired passages decorated with colourful murals. It was a delight to wander, though you had to be careful. Some of those staircases were just a little too faded and quiet, even in the sunshine. El plano (the flat part of the city between the sea and the hills) and the port is more run down and grittier. The buildings are more classic with late 19th century and an art deco feel. But this is not enough to save el plano... every street and public square smells like pee, and in addition to the business men in suits and naval officers (Valparaiso is a major naval centre), are the beggars asking for money and other shady people who seem to be watching to see how tightly you are holding onto your bag. The people in nearby Viña del Mar hate Valparaiso calling it dirty and dangerous. Viña was definitely cleaner and more upscale, but it lacked Valparaiso's faded charm and I was glad to get back to my lovely sunwashed hostel in the hills.
In the mid-19th century Valparaiso was a strategically placed port servicing ships moving goods from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans around the southern tip of South America. In its heyday, Valparaiso was a major banking centre and the site of Chile's first stock exchange. It was also a key service centre for the northern nitrate mines (a key ingredient in gun powder). Unfortunately for Valparaiso, the world changed post-1914. The opening of the Panama canal eliminated the trade route up the Chilean coast and the invention of artificial nitrates undermined the market for the natural product. Valparaiso went into a nasty decline. Since Valparaiso has reinvented itself a centre for the arts. I heard this and saw all kinds of galleries and workshops in the hills, but I was disappointed with the crude and overpriced jewelry and paintings on display. I don't know, maybe they send the nice stuff in Santiago.
I sadly said farewell to Valparaiso yesterday and headed north in La Serena. It is a little chilly for the beach, so I have ducked into the hills of the Elqui Valley. It's harvest time! I am currently in Vicuña.