Many people mistakenly believe that the best highlights of history are the stories of great conquest, when in reality the best moments in history are those times when men are freest and liberty from state intervention is greatest. Valparaíso is probably the most historic city in Chile. In 1544, the Spanish conquistadors declared it to be “the port of Santiago,” and in 1820 (just after Chilean independence) it was designated an “open international harbor,” backed by the newly relocated customs service–under the law of free commerce of 1811, that also freed ports of Coquimbo, Talcahuano and Valdivia.
“Many people mistakenly believe that the best highlights of history are the stories of great conquest, when in reality the best moments in history are those times when men are freest and liberty from state intervention is greatest.”
Yes, the free market works wonders! Subsequently, it became the most important Pacific port in the world during the 19th and early 20th centuries (until the Panamá Canal was built), and has a rich history of vibrant trade.
By 1870, the city was known as “The Pearl of the Pacific,” right in the middle of Chile’s successful free banking episode (1862-1879), when Chile had no central bank. If you had thought that the history of liberty was confined to the British and American traditions you were mistaken. Chile was the champion of liberty and classical liberal ideas in Latin America, and Valparaíso was the Hong Kong of its era. Chile’s first stock exchange opened here in 1850, and the national newspaper El Mercurio’s (followed by its elaborate building) opened in 1827, the oldest ongoing Spanish language newspaper in the world.
Valparaíso also received important American, Italian (mainly Ligurian or Genoan), British and Scottish, German, French, Swiss and Spanish immigrations, and thus the city grew in national significance. The French opened what were considered the finest shops in South America (on modern-day Calle Condell, then called Calle San Juan de Dios, which runs from Plaza Victoria to the port downtown).
Plaza (de la) Victoria, incidentally, which was so-named after Chile’s victory in the War of the Pacific (1883), was the first place in Valparaíso to receive electric illumination in 1904, although there was already an electric tramway running since 1900. There were also minor immigrations of Danish, Croatian and other ethnic groups to the city, adding to its colorful history.
Indeed, for the first one-half of Chile’s history, there was no more important city than Valparaíso. Even important historic smaller cities like Iquique and Punta Arenas cannot compare with it. And its importance still remains today, even though greatly diminished, as Santiago has clearly been Chile’s most important city for the last century. As part of the modern Viña del Mar/Valpo metro area of over 930,000 people, Valparaíso lies within Chile’s second most important urban center, and is still home to the Chilean navy (although the naval shipyard is located on the better harbor in Talcahuano, near Concepción).
Valaparíso is a “killed” city in my estimation. Panamá simply did it in (1914) and the city has not been the same for the last 100 years. The saltpeter (salitre) crisis in 1918 and the 1906 earthquake (8.3 Richter) and the ensuing gas leak and fire that leveled most of the city, did not help matters either. Why did saltpeter end up being synthesized and thus further collapse the Chilean economy in 1918? On March 14, 1915, there was a naval battle between British and German forces a little over seven months after World War I broke out–also seven months after the Panamá Canal opened. The German ship Dresden was scuttled in Cumberland Bay (Isla Juan Fernández) by its crew, sunk under fire by the British warships Kent and Glasgow. The naval battling had begun between Britain and Germany on November 1, 1914 in the Battle of Coronel (just south of Concepción), which the British lost. The British responded by sending larger ships with reinforcements and pounded the Germans to the point that the Germans gave up trying to control the Chilean coast. The Dresden was the last ship to escape and, with the help of Chilean Germans in Valparaíso, it was kept hidden in Chilean islands, fueled with coal and supplied with food.
Note that both of the warring countries’ ethnic groups were thriving on Cerro Concepción in Valparaíso, as the pictures of churches below show, and were often sending merchant ships plus warships to the port of Valparaíso until 1914. Both British and German settlers living in Cerro Concepción sent troops to fight on their respective sides. One can imagine that Valparaíso was a very tense place in the 1914-1918 period on account of the war, saltpeter and the economic downturn caused by the Panamá Canal. The Germans needed the saltpeter for munitions for their war effort and the British beat them in a naval battle off the coast of Talcahuano and subsequently successfully blockaded all Chilean ports. Thus the Germans started studying how to synthesize saltpeter and did so in 1918. That was bad luck for Chile. Saltpeter was its most important economic resource, even more important than copper in relative terms. Once that happened, the Chilean natural resource had much less value and the mining industry and the economy in general took a hit. Therefore, a byproduct of World War I also helped finish off Valparaíso. Remember that the 1906 earthquake leveled much of the city. So it was already reeling. Then came 1914 and 1918. The city was left in shambles.
The structural deterioration that begin a century ago has hardly stopped and the level of poverty has only slowly been diminishing over the last three decades. Yet there are still remnants of the city’s rich past, even though some imagination is often required to experience it. Valparaíso has a significant amount of European architecture, although it has been smudged by graffiti. My wife and I saw some people scrubbing it off one building yesterday and inquired how often they have to do this task. They responded: “About every three months.” The nasty painting never stops. The city is, frankly, ugly on account of the graffiti. Also, most of the buildings are dilapidated and run down. Especially ugly are the ones with rusty tin siding.
Nevertheless, Valparaíso (the name might be derived from the words va al paraíso, or “go to paradise”), has been (deservedly) declared a World Heritage Site, but the shame is that the cadaver’s decay (naturally) has not stopped since the point of death. The Chilean government has been trying to boost its historic image on the web, but the internet visit will be, by and large, much better than the disappointing real life one.
The city sits upon 42 hills (interactive map) above a narrow, flat central area, and is divided into sectors, many of which had an ethnic beginning. The Italian immigrants were mainly poorer people from the region in and around Genova that worked menial jobs, but the American, English, Scottish, Swiss, French, German and most of the Spanish merchants and profesionals were quite wealthy. Perhaps that disparity is one reason why only the Italians chose to stay en masse after the city was killed, while most of the others left.
The Italians mainly moved into the Almendral sector, but also settled on adjacent hill sectors (cerros) El Litre and Las Cañas. Obviously, there are still remnants of the other ethnic groups as well, but the trend was to leave. There is still an Anglican church in neighboring Viña del Mar, providing English language services that cater to aging offspring of the British remnant. The British left a lasting impact on the city in other ares too: in its sports (soccer, horse track racing and rugby), its trains, its funicular elevators and its modern escalators that often run on the “wrong side.”
Each ethnic group had its own fire department, too, and the language of the station (and its written records) was English, German, French, Italian or Spanish (from Spain) up until 1973. Only those who could prove their ethnicity could join one of these companies but, other than the Italians, no one retains this stringent standard in modern times.
Note that Plaza Italia (not to be confused with its more famous Santiago counterpart) has buildings on it that look like they could have been transplanted from Genova, and the neighborhood school (with instruction in the Italian language), Scuola Italiana (1942), is located just down the road. British and American efforts were realized through the Mackay School (1905), presently located in the Reñaca sector of Viña del Mar, which had roots going back to the Valparaíso Artizan School (1857) started by Scottish profesor Peter Mackay from Glasgow.
Similarly, the Germans opened their school, La Corporación Colegio Alemán de Valparaíso (1857), which is now the Deutsch Schule in Viña del Mar. The locals were hardly left in the dust in this flurry of activity, with a number of now famous Chilean universities being founded, such as the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María (1926). There were also Chilean fire companies as well, some starting in the early 1850s. In Latin America, only the Guayaquil, Ecuador fire department is older than Valparaíso’s. Nowadays, all Valparaíso fire departments fall under a single commander, but the rivalry and competition of yesteryear still lingers on.
Perhaps the best parts of Valparaíso, and the only places really worthy of tourism, are parts of sector Almendral, Sotomayor Plaza (pictured below, looking from above next to the naval building) and the decks or terraces of homes, walkways, churches and shops above it in Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre.
These areas can be reached by the funicular elevators called El Peral (built in 1901), which goes up to Cerro Alegre–featuring Paseo Yugoslavo and Baburizza Palace (now a museum, pictured below at dusk), and La Concepción (built in 1883) which goes up to Cerro Concepción. Both of these funicular elevators are close to Sotomayor Plaza and in the midst of some interesting European architecture. Even though they have apparently not been upgraded much since the time they were built, they are cheap to ride (under one Dollar) and are used by locals regularly to climb the steep hillsides. Below are a few images from Cerro Alegre and the El Peral funicular elevator entrance at rush hour. The mansion up top and the other houses in the area were owed by Croatian immigrants and thus the charming walkway is called Paseo Yugoslavo.
There are a couple of lovely, inexpensive cafés on the walkway with great views and atmosphere. Perfect for a romantic lunch or dessert.
The walkway itself is great to do at sunset and take in the harbor views, imagining what life there must have been like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Each ethnic group had their own church, where Protestant services by law had to be conducted in their own language. It was easy for Roman Catholic Italians and Spaniards to meld into already-Catholic Chilean religious culture. The same was evidently true for French Catholics, which opened their religious order in sector Almendral (1840) on Calle Independencia. However, the immigration of clasical liberal Evangelicals to Valparaíso is quite interesting (Anglicans, Lutherans and Presbyterians in the mid 1800s). The La Santa Cruz German Lutheran church on Cerro Concepción (1897, reconstructed in 2011) is pictured below.
The clock even works! The neighborhood near the church has also been cleaned up.
St. Paul’s Anglican church (1858) is located just a few blocks away, and also dons an intriguing neighborhood that stirs the imagination.
The decks above the business district all have great views, pleasant walkways and, along with the wonderful weather, must have been very attractive for settlers in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is no surprise that so many immigrants stayed. The nearby Gervasoni walk freatures similar views and the El Mercurio regular cartoonist’s Lukas museum and café.
Lukas was the pen name for Italian immigrant to Valparaíso Renzo Pecchenino that became one of the most important Chilean cartoonists of the 20th Century. Lukas was noted for his pungent political wittiness and telling the history of Chile through his art. He had a special love for Valparaíso, too. Some of his work is captured int he images below.
And the business district down below where much European architecture can be seen (the customs building, Turri clock tower and other important buildings are in the area), including samples of graffiti and those hired to remove it.
The Avenida Argentina open air market (open on Wednesdays and Saturdays), located on the border of the Almendral sector (closer to where the Italian, Spanish and French colonies settled), offers probably the lowest priced seafood, fruits and vegetables in the country.
Cops (carabineros) in the area of the open air market enjoy making sure all people parked at the market have their vehicle papers up-to-date and in order.
The Chilean Congress is seen across the street from the maret in sector Almendral.
The first Presbyterian church pictured below, called Union Church (1869), is also located in sector Almendral on the formerly wealthy French shopping lane (now called Avenida Condell).
I do not recommend that newcomers live in Valparaíso. It is dingy and depressing in many ways. However, it is a great town to visit once one reads its colorful history and knows where to go to see the museums, churches, walkways, plazas and funicular elevators. Indeed, a long day trip is in order for anyone serious about living in Chile.
Valparaíso is about as important to Chileans as Paris is to Frenchmen or Boston is to Americans. So be sure to visit and be ready to see beyond the dilapidation and graffiti. Also plan to do a little open air market shopping while in the city, and pick up some history books at the Lukas museum.