In response the fires that have just swept through the unplanned hill-districts of Valparaíso, Chile, here is an old essay of mine on this magnificent city, from a visit in December 2003.
After two hours of freeway through scrubbish, hot plains, the bus from Santiago seems almost to plunge off a cliff, dropping 600m of altitude on a steep, curvy road that finally runs down a narrow canyon to emerge, bang, in the city. I catch quick glimpses of the celebrated hillsides, but soon the bus deposits me at the roiling central terminal on Avenida Manuel Montt, a raging, asphyxiating, deafening gash that would fit most stereotypes of "Third World Prosperity."
Looming above it is the Arch, or rather El Congreso, an overpowering Modernist 20-storey slab with a great square hole in the center. Surrounded by high fences and guarded by the ever-stern Chilean police, it is utterly wrong for its site. The prosperity of storefronts declines noticeably as you approach it.
I know the Arch is wrong even before I know of its fascist provenance. But indeed, this monstrous cube is the last architectural gasp of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, perhaps the last of his many atrocities. Pinochet conceived this imposing box/monument/prison for an irrelevant Congress that he wanted to get out of Santiago so that he could dictate in peace. Today, the talk is all of abandoning this building, though it is hard to imagine how it could be re-used except as a monument to the horrors of the Pinochet regime. Perhaps it has enough rooms that one could be devoted to each of the 3000 or so people who "disappeared" under his rule.
Fortunately, I can look away. Though I´m still not sure where the ocean is, I can see beyond The Arch to the thickly warrened slopes of countless hills. Homes, shops, parks, cemeteries and churches cling to these hills on all sides, somehow glued to even the steepest slopes. And as they have done for a century, doddering funiculars dot the hillside, their tracks suggesting numerous ladders carelessly left lying about.
The old funiculars should be as much of a tourist attraction as San Francisco´s cable cars, and are certainly more useful. The cabins that climb and descend these steep tracks are lovingly maintained inside, and the small terminal stations, too, look like the real Victorian thing. The tracks aren´t exactly parallel anymore, but somehow they get you there; as with the making of sausage, you'll enjoy the product more if you don't ask too many questions about how it's done.
Though the Arch casts a heavy shadow, city life is lively once you are a block or two away, and once you get into the hills you will rarely see it. The Arch is in the "new center" of town, where the highway from Santiago comes out, but the old center, sited for convenience to the port, is 20 blocks to the south, and a far more inviting place to start a visit.
The working port consumes most of the waterfront, so you'll have to go to neighboring Viña del Mar if you want a beach. The narrow flat area between hills and beach is packed with overcrowded, polluted streets, since these are the only way in and out of the hills. But it is in the hills that Valparaíso sings. This is a city for views, from hill to ocean, from one hill to the next. And it is city of details: children adapting their ball games to the narrow, steep, curving streets; facades ranging from lovingly restored Victorians to boxes of corrugated steel; narrow stairways that are the only access to many homes.
Now and then a visitor compares Valparaíso to San Francisco, a revealing comparison for how much it leaves out, and for the questions it raises. I would compare it more to any of several Italian hill towns, though the sheer scale of this city-in-the-hills is larger than any European city can offer. Still, like San Francisco, one would expect this place to be not just awash in tourists, but also to have a very high cost of living. Surely plenty of Chileans would want to live here, especially compared to the vast smoggy metropolis of Santiago just up the hill.
Not so. This is one of the poorest cities in Chile. Its role as a port remains, but it´s been eclipsed by newer, more efficient ports on other parts of the long coast. One might expect that, like San Francisco or the harbour-face of Sydney, Valparaíso would give up on being a port and open its arms to industries that would value the beauty of the place, such as tourism and retirement. It might even grow its own healthy commercial center in the process. But none of this has happened yet. The port still hobbles along, largely blocking the city´s access the Pacific, so that one must go to the ends of the city to find a beach or even a pleasant walk near the water.
The poverty itself is no barrier to tourism. Poverty here is not in-your-face in the way that it can be in some Santiago suburbs, mainly because all the classes in Valparaíso are jumbled together: that polished Victorian may be literally holding up the corrugated-steel shack next to it (or perhaps vice versa). The "separation of classes" that Americans are used to at home is unknown in Valparaíso, and this, of course, is part of what makes it a real city.
If you enjoy seeing great cities that have not yet been overrun by tourism, and you don´t mind the grittiness of cities that are actually lived in, you´ll love Valparaíso. Like the ideal lover, this city doesn´t really know how beautiful it is. Its manifest inefficiencies, blockages, and Pinochetista wounds can all help you imagine that you are the first to discover it, and that nobody has seen the city as you do.
Well, nobody but some local poets, such as Pablo Neruda. But who listens to poets? The Chilean tourism authorities encourage pilgrimages to the various Neruda shrines, including one here, but there´s not much sign that they´ve read him. Certainly they haven´t seen what he saw here, and what is still there for anyone to see.