How Valparaiso Got Her Groove Back

With so many urban destinations characterized by gleaming towers, glitzy malls and a fast pace, there’s something refreshing about Valparaiso, Chile, which is two hours … and a world apart … from Santiago. A blanket of Victorian and early 20th-century homes cover the hills and mountainsides, while the city center’s landmark buildings refer to its historic connections with the Germans, the British and other nations.

Perhaps describing the port city as having a “colorful” history may seem cliché on the surface. After all, the preponderance of evocative street art renders it the largest open-air museum in the world. If you’re lucky, you will catch a glimpse of an artist or two perfecting a building-side canvas. After examining enough of these magnificent works, and then going on to learn more about the city’s physical and figurative peaks and valleys, it’s apparent every picture tells a story that springs to life from Chile’s history book. Some traditions continue into the 21st century, as Chile’s legislative Congress and the headquarters of the Chilean navy are still in operation.

Naval galleries at Maritime Museum in Valpo, Chile

© Antonella865 | Dreamstime.com

The vibrant (if touristy) boardwalk, bustling port area and the grandeur of the buildings on the Plaza Sotomayor are testament to the fact Valparaiso, designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, was a buzzing, international gathering place drawing trade from around the world until the construction and opening of the Panama Canal. At sea level, the architecture reflects the presence of British and German government influence and residents. Inside the Maritime Museum, guarded and directed by the Navy of Chile a short distance away, history buffs can take in artifacts and information from the city’s heyday as the “Jewel of the Pacific.”

While Valparaiso endured decades of blight and abandonment, younger generations of artists and entrepreneurs in the later part of the 20th century and start of this century brought it back to life in unpredictable ways. Rather than rely on outright gentrification and government appointed city planners, the city’s remarkable reinvention is the product of different individuals celebrating its past architectural and cultural glories rather than tearing them down or covering them up.

Graffiti street in Valparaiso, Chile

© Neil Denize | Dreamstime.com

Valparaiso wears its reputation as one of South America’s graffiti capitals with pride, evidenced by the 20-odd murals that make up the Museo a Cielo Abierto (Open-Air Museum, created 1969 –1973 by college kids attending the Universidad Católica’s Instituto de Arte) in Cerro Bellavista as well as dozens of other enormous works enlivening the rest of that neighborhood and nearby Cerro Polanco and Cerro Alegre.

At the artfully restored landmark Palacio Baburizza, the Art Nouveau Museo de Bellas Artes recently reopened after a 15-year reworking, with an eclectic fine arts collection of works from European and Chilean artists. The former prison at the Parque Cultural has been repurposed as an arts and performance space. That said, there is also plenty of entertainment that can be happened upon serendipitously, from street performers and bands doing pop-up performances at local cafes to street artists doing their thing within view of rapt audiences and being open to posing for photos.

Up and down the city’s fertile hills, surprises await visitors at every turn and at the top of every funicular ride. The Artilleria Funicular leads to Paseo 21 de Mayo, distinguished by one of the most photographed vistas on the South American continent. The Cordillera Funicular lets off near the region’s first astronomical observatory.

Valpo Fine Art Museum, Chile

© Elyse Glickman

Although neon colors enliven the city’s buildings, the colors of nature abound on the beaches of Vina del Mar (especially the popular Playa Reñaca) as well as some of the verdant parks beyond the city center. The Museo de Historia Natural de Valparaiso (free admission) offers an in-depth glimpse into the region’s biodiversity, archaeological treasures and regional cultural heritage. The elegant Parque Quinta Vergara, the vision of Dolores Pérez de Álvarez (belonging to the founding family of the city), brings together an impressive garden filled with international plants and flowers, and the Vergara Palace housing its own Museum of Fine Arts and outdoor Amphitheater. The Vina Del Mar National Botanical Garden (Jardin Botanico Nacional), meanwhile, marks its 100th anniversary as a bastion of conservation and 87th year as an urban oasis. Today, it also has a zipline and conservation-focused and cultural events, as well as a weekly, all-day Saturday farmers market showcasing local farmers as well as produce unique to the region. Guided tours are also available around the grounds in Spanish.

Given numerous hotels in town are built out of former private mansions, Valparaiso is one of those rare places where anybody can live like a local for a few days. Striking examples of these include the Hotel Boutique Sutherland House, Hotel Casa Thomas Somerscales, Hotel Boutique Acontraluz and Palacio Astoreca, which all capture some element of the city’s past as an international gathering place. Another fine choice is the Hotel Fauna, which also has an excellent restaurant and spectacular views. The Ibis Hotel chain, meanwhile, offers a good, value-priced option in its modern, centrally located Valparaiso property.