Home South AmericaChile Valparaíso, the city that dazzles

Valparaíso, the city that dazzles

by Bernard O'Shea

Busy seaports don’t come more picturesque than Valparaíso, Chile’s hilly, World Heritage-listed commercial hub. 


When the people of Chile’s capital, Santiago, want a quick getaway to the coast, they head to Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, a mere 110 kilometres away. Viña del Mar has the beaches, the plush resorts and all the mod cons, Valparaíso has the colour and character.

Set in a steep natural amphitheatre offering many vantage points over the ocean, Valparaíso is a busy seaport that somehow manages in places to exude the peace and charm of a laidback fishing village. It’s a gritty, grafitti- adorned mish-mash and a maze of roads and alleyways that clamber up hillsides, but it has a bohemian confidence and flair. If you know the right places – cafes, bars, nightclubs – to go to, you can have a great time.

Where to get the best views

Chile’s most famous poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), was among its many admirers. He had a house, La Sebastiana, high up on the Florida hill at Ferrari 692. It is now a museum and is well worth visiting, even if you are not familiar with his works. I I mean, how often to you get to peep out the windows of a writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, from a house that has one of the best views of the bay?

Pablo Neruda's bedroom in Valapariso.

The view from Pablo Neruda’s bedroom at La Sebastiana.

The house has five stories, plus garden terraces, as well as a shop and cafe, so allocate plenty of time for your visit.

Neruda thought the building too big – so he bought and lived in the top half of the building; the two lower floors were owned by a friend, the sculptor Marie Martner, and her husband, Francisco Velasco. By today’s standards, though, it could be considered cramped and awkward to get around in,

Pablo Neruda's house in Valparaiso, Chile

La Sebastiana viewed from its lower terrace. Neruda occupied the upper floors.

The house was looted after the military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power in 1973 (the year Neruda died), but was restored in the early 1990s.

Many companies offer day tours from Santiago to both Valparaíso and Viña del Mar which usually include a visit to La Sebastiana and the nearby Plaza de los Poetas, a square with statues of Neruda and other famous Chilean poets such as Gabriela Mistral (the first Latin American to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature) and Vicente Huidobro.

Museo Marítimo Nacional

The grounds of the National Maritime Musuem at Veintiuno de Mayo 45, Playa Ancha, are a great vantage point. (Whether you go into the museum or not depends on your interest in maritime history. I did – I like maritime museums – but it helps if you know something about Chile’s history, particularly its victory in the War of the Pacific. It was all new to me.)

It costs nothing to walk on the museum’s well-kept lawns, and bring your camera!

Canons on display in the grounds of Chile's National Maritime Museum.

The lawns of the National Maritime Museum.

Many of the colourful buildings below the museum in the picture above are cafes and restaurants which have great views from their back balconies, and great food too!

In the vicinity, beyond the trees behind the mounted canon bathed in shadow in the above picture, is a bandstand-type viewing platform that give’s a bird’s eye view of the busy port area.

A viewing platform on the hills overlooking Valparaisoin Chile

Valparaíso is Chile’s second-largest city and one of the South Pacific’s major seaports, although its importance declined with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. But like many other cities in such situations, it has had to reinvent itself, attracting artists and people in other creative fields, and capitalising on the boom in international tourism.  Its historic quarter was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003.

Edificio de la Comandancia en Jefe de la Armada de Chile

Edificio Armada de Chile, now in the hands of the navy.

A beautifully decorated home.

A beautifully decorated home.

Still, it’s the imagination of the suburban graffiti artists and the daring decorating of domestic exterior walls that give the city much of its vibrancy. Here we pay homage to the people with the paintbrushes. TTW

Bernard O’Shea travelled to Valparaíso at his own expense. Photos © Bernard O’Shea.

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