Little did I know that we had saved the best for last!
Valparaiso is a quirky, charming city built on hills (Cerro is the Spanish word for hills), 42 hills to be precise. The historic centre and two of the hills (Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepion) have been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO. Our hotel is on Cerro Alegre which is right next to Cerro Concepcion, so we spent a whole day wandering through this historic area. You may be wondering why it earned world heritage site listing. Valparaiso was first settled in 1542 and the historic areas comprise a mix of ramshackle timber and corrugated iron houses painted in a violent explosion of colours. Add to this some stunning murals or street art, plus century old vertical elevators/funiculars that ride on rails with a system of pulleys and cables (called ascensors in Spanish), and you begin to understand its heritage listing.
While Valparaiso is definitely unique, it has some elements of other cities we have visited. The hills and bay/ocean setting are somewhat like San Francisco; the colourful rooftops reminiscent of Lisbon; and the 4-5 storey timber buildings and gaily coloured timber boats in the harbour remind me of Istanbul. But this is definitely a chaotic and higgedly piggedly town.
The ascensors were built in response to the very steep hills on which Valparaiso sprawls. We have had two taxi rides and the steepness is mind boggling, particularly given that many of the streets are cobble stoned. One of the ascensors in which we rode had a gradient of 52 degrees, so that it rises more steeply vertically than the horizontal distance it covers. They actually cover quite short distances, between 50 to 175 metres. The ascensors were declared at risk of extinction in the mid 1990s, as there was not sufficient money to maintain them and keep them running safely. Apparently some of the ascensors were also damaged by fire, earthquakes or landslides (which I did not know when we were riding in them!). Sadly for the local population, many of the ascensors are no longer running. The very poor people who live at the top of the hills must climb 100s of steps instead.
The brightly coloured houses and street art made me very thankful for the age of digital cameras. I calculated that I took the equivalent of five rolls of 36 film yesterday!
We were also lucky to stumble upon street theatre. Valparaiso has been designated the Cultural Capital of Chile and we are here coincidentally during their annual festival of the arts. There were bands playing on the back of trucks, children performing gymnastic dances, giant marionettes parading the street, rubber tyres in which children could climb or roll. Valparaiso also has many home grown arts and crafts. Among other things, we bought a beautiful framed painting of brightly coloured houses near where we are staying for only about $10 Australian. Today, we think we stumbled upon the actual location or vista from which the painting was made ( I will include a photo of our painting and the location for you to judge).
Valparaiso is still a very important port and home of the Chilean navy. However it is a town that has faded in its glory. Its decline occurred when the Panama Canal was opened, reducing the importance of the Chilean seafaring route. Most investment has gone into the neighbouring beachside town of Vina del Mar that we visited today. Vina is apparently very popular with Argentines, although the water is really too cold to swim at any time of the year and the waves and undertows we saw were huge and definitely not safe for swimming.
My last blog, as tomorrow we fly back from Santiago to Melbourne. See (some of you) soon!