Valparaíso – general introduction

Valparaíso is Chile’s second largest metropolitan area and is the cultural and political capital of the country. It’s a fascinating city for a few reasons; the geography, the history and in more recent times, for the street art. I’ve been twice, in 2011 and 2018.

Geographically speaking, the city is located in a wide curved bay with steep hills rising up from the shoreline, which has given rise to the city’s nickname, ‘Little San Francisco’. There are forty two hills in all and together they form a natural amphitheatre looking out to sea. Excellent views are to be had everywhere you go.

In terms of history, Valpo has over 450 years of it. Before the Panama Canal was built, it was one of the most important ports for ships moving between the Pacific and Atlantic through the Magellan Straits.

It’s still now the second most important port in the country and a vital base for the Chilean navy.

During its golden era Valpo attracted immigrants from all over Europe, particularly Britain and Germany. The architecture of the old town reflects the cultural influences that they brought with them and nowadays the historic quarter is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Although Santiago is the official capital, Valparaiso is home to the Chilean parliament and is a major university town. The left-leaning students were on strike demanding free education when I was the there in 2011. In the evenings there were often clashes with the riot police who were defending the congress building, not that I saw any of it as I was staying in posh and peaceful Vina del Mar, the city next door (see previous posts).

In 2003, the Chilean Congress declared Valparaíso to be “Chile’s Cultural Capital” and art and artists seem to be everywhere you go. Many tourists flock to La Sebastiana, one of the former homes of national poet, Pablo Neruda. Street performers seem to be at every traffic light performing acrobatics, juggling or breathing fire for the entertainment of the waiting drivers (video here). In 2011 my visit coincided with the annual Container Festival where shows were in put on in shipping containers in various places around town.

The most noticable cultural feature of the city however is the street art which seems to be gradually taking over the whole city. This is no doubt a good thing for this slowly decaying grimy old port as it brings a bit of colour to what would otherwise seem quite a run down place.

I’ve taken over two hundred photos of street murals and other artworks but rather than present them all at once, I’ve shared them between posts, hill by hill.

Unfortunately street crime is a big problem although I’m not sure if it’s getting better or worse. I’ve never been affected by it myself but then I have eyes in the back of my head and a fair helping of street smarts. My advice is the obvious; avoid carrying too much with you in the way of bags and cameras and avoid backstreets, particularly at night but also in the day (rules I regularlybreak in these posts). My small shoulder bag actually functions as a decoy and I have my cash and cards secreted elsewhere.

Getting taxis to and from your destinations will also improve security but agree a price with the driver before you get in as some of them will certainly try to cheat you. Personally I favour getting an app like Uber or Ola which means no cash changes hands. Uber had dubious legal status when I was there on my last visit in 2018 but I was still able to get them quite easily, especially outside Santiago.

So I hope you enjoy my posts on Valpo, a city I like very much and which has grown on me more and more the better I get to know it. You can access the index for all ten posts by clicking on the Valparaíso link below, or if your time is limited, just click on the Historic Quarter link. You’ll find everywhere I mention on my map. Now lets get up those hills…

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