by Tim Dawe
I’m exploring Chile’s capital Santiago on foot, wandering its straight streets, observing its clean orderliness and modern prosperity. The sun slices through high altitude air sparkling on the snow-capped Andes. I absorb the city’s culture and reflect on its recent history. In thin air I’m weary and footsore. I need more restful tourism; I book a coach daytrip to the coast – to Valparaíso.
Valparaíso, Valpo to the cognoscenti, is a UNESCO world heritage site, clinging to the coast and surrounded by 45 terrifyingly steep hills. It also has history. This tiny port was founded in the early 16th century with the Spanish conquest and survived as a supply link for later settlers. But the 19th century saw it come to prominence servicing ships rounding the Horn. During the California gold rush in the 1840s and ‘50s it was boom time for “the jewel of the Pacific’, at one time becoming the wealthiest city in Chile.
It all ended in tears when the Panama Canal opened in 1914 and the ships stopped overnight. Valpo descended into dereliction and depression. Even today it has Chile’s highest unemployment rate. Nearby San Antonio is now Chile’s more important seaport; however Valpo’s economy gets a boost with 50 cruise ships berthing each year. Valparaíso has the legacy of Chile’s first public library, Latin America’s oldest stock exchange and the world’s oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous publication.
Notably, it is the city of Nobel Laureate for literature, Pablo Neruda. And demonstrating remarkable political bipartisanship, it is the birthplace of both Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet. Even more remarkably, it’s the birthplace of John Watson, Australia’s third prime minister.
At 11am our coach finally stops high on a hill overlooking a jumbled spread of limpet-like houses before the wide blue Pacific. Suddenly we divert north towards Viña del Mar, the glitzy beach-and-casino resort 15km away. While a pleasant place, its main attraction (for the driver) seems to be the tacky tourist shop. It’s 1.30pm, with half the day gone, when we reach our lunch restaurant set on “El Plano”, a plain of reclaimed land overlooking Valpo’s picturesque little fishing harbour. Beyond the restaurant balcony standing seamen are ferried to ships, fishermen row or work on rusty boats, and others yarn. It’s busy and colourful. The sun reflects many shades of blue. Picture perfect.
At 3.15pm I leave the never-ending lunch, berating myself for not doing so earlier. I escape to see sights – anything interesting. There are buskers juggling, singing and tightrope walking, even a 1950s shop selling sensible clothing and industrial strength bras. At Sotomayor Square heroic sculptures celebrate naval victories and uniformed sailors walk into the ornate Amada de Chile building. The Queen Victoria hotel reminded me that many British immigrants started a new life here. Valparaíso has some green shoots too. Boutique hotels and top restaurants are emerging, crumbling mansions are being renovated, and the Fine Art Museum is completely refurbished.
I sense movement high on a rocky hilltop. It’s an ascensore, a necessary form of transport for occupants of brightly painted homes on top of Concepción Hill. We know it as a funicular railway, and we would ban this dilapidated one. The cars appear to be coloured, corrugated iron boxes on wooden frames that inch along. There are about 10 ascensores around Valpo but with little time, and even less, er, inclination, I don’t try this one, although I’m glad to see it in operation, as I am the trolley buses. Back to the parked coach, running to catch the long-lunchers for the third and final stop: Pablo Neruda’s family home, Sebastiana.
Neruda, the celebrated poet, is Valparaíso’s favourite son, its claim to fame, and its cultural heart. He loved Valpo for its gritty, blowsy dishevelment, its twisted topsy turvy-ness and its faded grandeur, writing: “Valparaíso, how absurd you are. You haven’t combed your hair.” Valpo loved him back, even though he was not a local and never lived here, visiting intermittently. His windswept house with commanding views is how he last left it. For the adoring people he is a secular saint and Sebastiana is more a shrine than museum.
As the coach grinds up the impossible road I want to capture a mental image of this place. Hilltop mansions, weatherboard houses lower down and precariously sited corrugated iron box homes, all riotously painted in panels, and linked by twisting, cobblestone alleys seem to freeze from tumbling down the hillside into the sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Valpo is a bohemian place that attracts romantics. It’s down-at-heel yet sprawling with creative energy like the extraordinary graffiti-laden walls that spiral along steep staircases.
Lights twinkle as we leave for Santiago. An hour later, still heading up the straight motorway, I witness the moon, low, large and silvery, glistening above the snow-tops of Los Andes. It’s breathtakingly memorable.
In Santiago de Chile ask any citizen about Valparaíso and there’s a long sigh: “Ah, the soul of our nation,” they’ll say.