Rather than spend the whole week in Santiago we took a trip by bus down to Valparaiso, the port for Santiago. We actually started our visit in Viña del Mar, next door to Valparaiso, but didn’t leave ourselves enough time.
We took the bus down to Viña del Mar, about an hour and a half from the mountain plateau that Santiago is on down to the coast. It was cheap and straightforward but once at the bus station in Viña del Mar it took us maybe 30 minutes to find our way to the coast through a rather shabby quarter of town. There was a ‘tourist office’ but they only sold organised tours.
The beach was rather uninspiring and about the only palatable looking place to get a coffee was the Sheraton Hotel. We had come to Valparaiso to do another Walking Tour which started at 3 pm which unfortuneately didn’t give us enough time to try to find the the nice bits of Viña del Mar, so we went straight into Valparaiso, had lunch and caught the tour.
The port started life in 1536 and the Spanish only permitted Spanish vessels to use it. This restricted trade around Cape Horn until Chilean Independence in 1818 when the new government opened the port to all nationalities. Valparaiso flourished as the first re-supply port for vessels coming around Cape Horn into the Pacific.
Valparaiso soon acquired a variety of expatriate communities. The Germans built schools and sponsored a local volunteer fire service which still uses fire tenders sign written in German. The port became the base for the new Chilean Navy and in 1826 the Royal Navy were permitted to establish a Station here.
The port lost its importance following the opening of the Panama Canal and fell into decline although now it is an important export centre and cruise ship destination. Augusto Pinochet was born here in 1915 and it was during the last years of his dictatorship, in 1990 that the Chilean Congress was moved here from Santiago.
The old parts of Valparaiso were built on a series of hills but there was never any sort of plan so it is a bewildering maze of streets, stairs and alleyways. There used to be a large number of funicular lifts but only a few are still working, Queen Victoria’s being one. She was due to visit the city but the visit never materialised although they even built a hotel for her visit.
In 1996 Valparaiso was made a World Heritage site, apparently partly based on the profusion of cultural heritage embodied in the ‘street art’ in town. This makes the streets colourful but the paintings would not look out of place adorning an infant school playground wall, being signed Juan, age 5.
It seldom lasts more than a few years before it is over painted by Elena, age 6, and the very fine line between ‘street art’ and good old fashioned graffiti has been well and truly blurred.
If you wish to paint your own building there are no restrictions, but if you want to paint in the public street you need lots of official permissions. Alternatively you opt for the traditional can of spray paint and be able to run very fast.
The ambiance of the place is rather Bohemian and as we followed our guide through faint whiffs of wacky backy I observed to Valeria that the only thing missing were the actual Hippies; but then we found him, strumming Dock of the Bay on his guitar. The slogan ‘We’re not Hippies, we’re Happies’ is apparently one of the few bits of ‘street art’which doesn’t change. Miguel, aged 4, did over paint it once but the no so Happy Hippies formed a protest committee, man, and, like, ‘restored it’.
There is a suggestion that Street Artists are encouraged, even paid, to live and paint here in which case we must have missed their work.
Once out of the narrow streets of the old town the centre of Valparaiso is quite impressive. Queen Victoria’s Hotel is there and the Chilean Navy HQ over looks the square in the centre of which is a monument to the heroes of the Battle of Iquique, 1879. This was a decisive battle during the War of the Pacific when Chile fought, and won, against Peru and Bolivia for copper rights in what was then Peru and Bolivia but which is now northern Chile. Apparently the statue was facing the sea until Pinochet turned it around so that it faced the Navy HQ.
Valparaiso is a real mixture of styles. The city has been hit with a number of serious earthquakes over the years and apparently the wood and wriggly tin construction is a form of earthquake proofing. So you have imposing 18th century architecture in the centre giving way to the maze of less substantial, grafitti and ‘art-covered’ buildings up on the hills. There is so much paint work that unpainted walls look out of place.
Compared to Santiago, the city is definitely colourful, but appears quite run down and neglected with a lot of apparently derelict buildings and more in need of maintenance; and there is actual graffiti everywhere. But Valparaiso is a port, and as I have observed on numerous occasions before ports are seldom the best of places!
I am glad we visited and strangely, for the Art Critic in me, the experience of the visit grows on me, but not enough to want to go back. It was a shame we didn’t allow enough time to visit Viña del Mar.