The eerie feeling I had when I began exploring Valparaiso on foot, increased as I wound my way through the converging old streets that steeply descended towards the port. The city felt oddly familiar. It felt a bit like… Newcastle. That was the first impression I had of Valparaiso; that it was somehow Chilean and British at the same time.
It had been a long time since I was in Newcastle though, or even thought about it. Was I crazy?
- I nearly skipped Chile’s UNESCO Heritage City
- The first British-Chilean clues in Valparaiso
- UNESCO Heritage Site of Valparaiso
- British Funicular Technology in Chilean Valparaiso
- The most important seaport in the world
- Carbon offset information to Valparaiso, Chile
I nearly skipped Chile’s UNESCO Heritage City
I hadn’t actually planned to come to Valparaiso. This is despite the recommendation of my Guatemalan friend Fernando, for its associations with Pablo Neruda, the Chilean Nobel Prize-winning poet. He specifically recommended poetry reading to prepare me for my time in Santiago, and in case I decided to go to Valparaiso. However, considering that I was not literate enough in Spanish to appreciate a Chilean literary figure, it didn’t seem relevant.
The only other thing I knew about Valparaiso, is its profusion of graffiti and mural art. Nearly every travel blog article about Valparaiso featured its vibrant and eclectic street art. However, my next destination was Melbourne, Australia. Supposedly Melbourne is the street art capital of the world. Would Valparaiso be redundant?
Perhaps I could skip Valparaiso. Chile had already given me once-in-a-lifetime experiences in Easter Island and Atacama. I felt full. Surely, my last days in Chile should be focused on its capital. It somehow didn’t register to me that I was skipping a UNESCO Heritage Site!
Spontaneously taking the bus to Valparaiso
But downtown Santiago was too metropolitan for me, after weeks of remoteness and space. It was hard to rest, and hard to move, and I lost interest to explore it.
So I revisited the idea of Valparaiso, even if it meant I’d only have two days to explore it. Surely a UNESCO site would not disappoint. Maybe there’s more to Valparaiso than street art and Pablo Neruda. I could get to the airport directly from there, so this was feasible.
What the hell. Let’s do it.
The first British-Chilean clues in Valparaiso
Valparaiso’s neighbourhoods spread across its many hills (called ‘cerro’), which overlook the downtown harbourside. However, in general the ‘tourist cerros‘ are Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion, where the buildings and streets are nicer. I booked a room in a hostel at the edge of the latter.
Tip: Nearby and uphill, there is a new cultural centre constructed near the abandoned building of the old Valparaiso prison. The prison ruins were somewhat interesting, and the park has a commanding view of the surrounds. The old cemeteries of Valparaiso are adjacent, for those travellers who have a thing for visiting ancient burial grounds.
The old parts of Valparaiso are equipped with ‘funiculars’, a kind of cable car elevator that facilitates movement up and down the steep hills of the port city. In its heyday, it was probably cutting edge technology. Even today, the funiculars are still used by ordinary residents of Valparaiso.
In hindsight, the first clue to Valparaiso’s British Chilean heritage was probably the name of the nearest funicular to my hostel. It was named Ascensor Reine Victoria.
That’s odd. Why would a Spanish-influenced Chilean city name one of its funiculars after the British Queen Victoria? Oh well, maybe she donated one or something. You never know.
Then I began to notice that some of the road names were oddly non-Spanish. Cochrane, Templeman, Mackenna.
The Valparaiso cafes with British names
I noticed even more obvious clues when I joined one of the city’s free walking tours. Along the way, I noticed actual shops with otherwise Spanish signage, but with names like ‘Melbourne’ and ‘Brecon’s’. The latter had the Welsh dragon as pretty much its entire logo and the Welsh flag right over its threshold!
This was more convincing. Welsh is minority culture, globally speaking; so they couldn’t have done it just to appeal to tourists!
And then, as we continued to make our way down to the pier, there was a metal arch leading down to the al fresco dining area of a restaurant. Overhead was its name in stencil – BRIGHTON.
UNESCO Heritage Site of Valparaiso
I actually took the street art tour for reasons I’ll explain in my next story, but it also took us through the key landmarks of the Historic Quarter of Valparaiso. I lucked out with an awesome tour guide, Daniel, whose rambling anecdotes somehow tied together old and new Valparaiso, conservative and counter-culture.
A part of Valparaiso is designated the ‘Historic Quarter of the Seaport City of Valparaiso’. At one point during the tour, Daniel shared a piece of Valparaiso heritage that explained the things I had randomly noticed.
Once upon a time, Valparaiso was among the most powerful and wealthy harbour cities of the world. It was the major seaport for the Pacific oceanic trading route passing through the Straits of Magellan, and as a result she became very rich.
European culture in Valparaiso
The European sailors – many of them British – settled among the Chilean natives, generally around Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion. Yep – those very hills that form the tourist zones today.
The new immigrants built differently. They built fancier buildings, rather than the utilitarian styles preferred by locals previously. And they had gardens, recreational ones with flowers and other non-practical plants. Unsurprisingly, this last one was the contribution of the avid gardening culture, the English.
Some of the buildings seem a bit French, as well. Just as unsurprisingly, the present-day vineyards of the wider Valparaiso region was the contribution of the French immigrants.
Seaport City of Valparaiso: The subtle signs
There were traces of this seafaring history in the architecture of the Historical Quarter, aside from the Europeanness of the buildings. More subtle, or perhaps I should say practical signs.
As we walked from one street art site to another, Daniel challenged us to tell him if we spotted a boat-shaped building block, and how many. Whoever could spot the most, ‘wins’. He told us that terrace blocks in Valparaiso occasionally taper at one end, generally when roads converge as traffic funnels down to the coast. From above, they look like ships, which is quite appropriate for a seaport city!
But an even more interesting trace lay in plain sight, and was much more humble. I had noticed it on my first evening wandering about. Some of the buildings in the Historic Quarter, despite being otherwise nicely-built, had walls of corrugated metal.
To be sure, they’re brightly painted and not falling apart. But still, as an Asian, it is a building material that I associate with poverty and temporary shack-style housing. Yet here, I found them incorporated into buildings built for permanence. It was a strange juxtaposition.
I learned during the walking tour that the corrugated sheets had once been shipping containers of cargo carried to Valparaiso long ago. Dismantled during cargo unloading, the sheets were simply abandoned at the seaport. The residents decided to put them to use!
It does give the old quarter that slight ‘dockyard vibe’, don’t you think?
The Jewel of the Pacific
Closer to the harbourside, you could see the former might of Valparaiso in the massive buildings along the European-style avenues. The grand plazas of Sotomayor and Justicia were an even more blatant statement of Valparaiso’s past glory. At one end of the connected plazas was an imposing building painted in blue. It was the Chilean navy headquarters. (I later learned that the Chilean navy was founded by the British. Why am I not surprised?)
Only an extremely rich city could have built the magnificent downtown strip. Indeed, the first stock exchange in Latin America was in Valparaiso. In its capitalist shadow, Daniel (somewhat ironically) told us about Chile’s socialist history and its links to Valparaiso.
Yet, it was kind of appropriate after all. As far as I can summarise from Daniel’s lecture, it seems like Chile is a socialist country where nothing is apparently public-owned!
Chile’s volunteer firefighters
As we strolled down the plaza towards the sea, I spied a German contribution to Valparaiso. Daniel then told us about the unique Chilean firefighting tradition, which was first organised by the immigrants. To this day, Chilean firefighters are not employed by the government, but entirely voluntary. And yet, they are a highly professional force!
It blew my mind. It never occurred to me that a modern country could have a professional fundamental civil force on a completely voluntary basis.
The Valparaiso walking tour is worth it
Daniel left us by the harbourside, and we tipped him there before saying our goodbyes. I usually dislike guided tours because usually it’s very scripted and boring. But Daniel spent longer with us than the tour period strictly required him to.
We were a curious group, and he was passionate about his city and country, peppering his talk with inside stories and interesting local anecdotes from a mildly personal perspective. The only kind of tour guide worth following, if you ask me.
None of us left early; we all followed him to the end, even though it took longer than we expected.
British Funicular Technology in Chilean Valparaiso
I discovered this after the walking tour was over.
As a parting suggestion, Daniel had suggested we take the Ascensor Artilleria up the next hill. On the hilltop were cafes and souvenirs, and a great view overlooking the entire harbourside. This funicular was privately owned, he told us, so it would cost 300 pesos. More expensive than the other funiculars.
On the waiting platform, there was the reassuring smell of grease. It made me think of maintenance.
It was a small thing. But you see, after a day or so wandering about the city, I was beginning to wonder if perhaps some of the many artists of present-day Valparaiso could be swapped for engineers and municipal planners.
As I boarded, I saw an opportunity to go right to the front, where I could see the cables moving. At the end of the cable run, I could see the large red wheel running the system.
The car stopped. Everyone disembarked, and as I approached the turnstile, I saw a grey-painted emblem. Something moved me to pause, stoop down, and look at the writing. I thought it might mark who the original engineers were who constructed these convenient systems.
MANCHESTER, it said. Just as I suspected – British engineers!
Ok, so the particular emblem I read only provided the maker of the turnstile. But it reminded me of the British-built funicular in Penang that goes up to Bukit Bendera, and the British penchant for building railways everywhere they went during those times. I could totally believe that British engineers were responsible for the funiculars of a Chilean seaport. It seemed just the thing they would do!
The most important seaport in the world
Valparaiso’s heyday was in the latter half of the 19th century. With the Age of Exploration at an end, and the European colonisation project secure, riches passed around the world through ports controlled by one or another of the European powers.
Much of this wealth passed through Valparaiso, the only major port after the Straits of Magellan, before continuing north to pick up the riches from the California gold rush, or making the Pacific crossing to the East. It was the wealthiest port in the world then.
And yet I had never heard of its name. Never learned about it in history class, and never even encountered its references in other literature.
I thought of another port of old, also among the most important ports in the world during its heyday. No ship passed through the crucial shipping strait that bore its name, without trading in its city. Like Valparaiso, immigrant traders settled within its city, forming different enclaves and modifying its original culture, turning it more cosmopolitan than its monocultural vassal states.
Extremely wealthy, it declined when it was lost to Portugal. Like Valparaiso, today it is also a UNESCO Heritage City. But most of the tourists who visit it would leave without understanding its eminence, when it was once a great seaport of the 15th century.
Its name is Malacca, in present-day Malaysia.
The decline and renewal of Valparaiso
Unlike Malacca, Valparaiso’s decline was not due to capture. Instead, it was because of obsolescence.
The Panama Canal was completed in 1914, providing a more convenient route to the east than the difficult Straits of Magellan. Anybody who has seen pictures of friends headed to Ushuaia, the ‘end of the world’, would have seen the incredible winds there. It gives an idea of what sailing ships could expect when rounding Cape Horn.
But the Panama Canal meant that the West-East shipping routes could bypass those treacherous waters – but also Valparaiso. So Valparaiso declined, eventually re-imagining itself as a city of academia and the arts.
Carbon offset information to Valparaiso, Chile
I went to Valparaiso as part of a longer journey around the world. Visiting Valparaiso specifically, assuming return flights from Kuala Lumpur to Santiago via Sydney, produces carbon emissions of approximately 14,400 lbs CO2e. It costs about $72 to offset this.
Did it surprise you to learn of Valparaiso’s British Chilean elements? Pin this article or share to British friends!