Published on April 14th, 2010 | by Mark Chesnut

Glimpsing a Glorious Past in Valparaiso, Chile

Nobel-prize-winning writer Pablo Neruda called Valparaiso “mi ciudad desordenada,” or “my disorganized city,” according to my guide from Chilean tour company Ruta Chile. But don’t think that’s an insult; after all, this city’s wonderful informality — most noticeable in the seemingly random array of fascinating historic architecture on its winding hills — is what makes this Chilean city worth visiting.
Neighboring Viña del Mar may attract vacationers with an array of modern luxuries and upscale offerings. But Valparaiso, which was once Chile’s biggest port, is a place to soak in the ambiance of
days gone by. The city’s importance on 19th-century world trade routes is strikingly apparent, with streets, squares and architecture evoking a distinctly pan-European influence. Don’t come here looking for Spanish colonial landmarks. Expect ornate neoclassical works and stunning but worn Victorian mansions perched on the side of streets so hilly you might think you’re in San Francisco.
To get up the steepest of those inclines, you’ll want to hop aboard one of the city’s historic acensores — literally, elevators, but more like tiny funicular railways. Additional, historically interesting transportation is provided by a beautiful vintage fleet of trolebuses, electric buses from the 1950s, connected to overhead cables (for more on the history of the city’s trolebus service, visit
Valparaiso’s narrow, steep streets and dramatic hillside geography set a wonderful stage for the great wealth that arrived here during the city’s golden era in the late 19th century. People came from around the world, and the rich ones who stayed built impressive mansions and businesses in a variety of European styles.
The high life was not to last forever here. Once the Panama Canal opened — providing a new, more efficient shipping route —Valparaíso was, economically speaking, screwed. As the riches faded, so did the buildings. But the city’s ambiance has never failed to spark the imagination of visitors and residents alike —including that of Neruda, whose former home is open to the public. And in recent years, there’s been renewed interest in this fascinating hillside city by the sea. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, and a growing number of bed & breakfasts, hostels and small restaurants and shops have been opening, especially in the neighborhoods called Cerro Concepción (where German immigrants settled during the citys’ heyday) and Cerro Alegre (where the British arrivals settled). Public works projects aim to fix up the place even more (and, in case you were wondering, that horrible earthquake had little to no effect on Valparaiso — as in Santiago and Viña del Mar, you would never guess there had been a tremor if you hadn’t read the headlines). 
With ambiance unlike anywhere else I’ve visited in Latin America, and a rich and storied history that sparks the imagination, it seems like this powerhouse of the past might just have a very promising future. I have to admit I’m a sucker for a city with a past, and Valparaíso has me hooked. 
For more information about Chile, visit Turismo Chile

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About the Author

The founder and editor of, Mark has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and manager. He's worked with some of the biggest consumer, in-flight and travel trade publishers that cover Latin America.

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