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Valparaíso: Chile’s Oceanside Gem

Marilyn Jones 

The city is a kaleidoscope of color; brightly painted houses clinging to the hillsides like the sides of a trowel with the city’s busy port at its tip. Valparaíso is Chile’s second largest metropolitan area after Santiago and one of the South Pacific’s most important seaports.

Upscape tour guide Manuel Garcia wants me to have this view before we start to explore neighborhoods and the historic quarter designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. As I take in the breathtaking view, Manuel explains that during the second half of the 19th century, the city served as a major stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by crossing the Straits of Magellan. European immigrants arrived with the hope of work on the docks. The city became known as “Little San Francisco” and “The Jewel of the Pacific” by international sailors.

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“The second half of the 20th century wasn’t as kind to the city,” he explains. “Wealthy families abandoned the city when the Panama Canal opened and ship traffic and port-based businesses suffered.”

Fortunately, the new century has been kinder to the port city. Today, in addition to the port and the artists and cultural entrepreneurs who set up businesses in the city, tourists have discovered the city’s many charms. The city’s labyrinth of cobbled streets, colorful buildings, and the UNESCO designation have all worked as a successful formula for attracting guests to the city. Because it’s catering more to tourism, cruise ships are adding Valparaíso to their South American itineraries as well.

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The port continues to be a major distribution center for container traffic, copper, and fruit exports. Home to Chile's naval headquarters and the National Congress, Valparaíso also transformed itself into a major educational center with four large universities and several large vocational colleges.

After his excellent description of the city, we head for the historic heart of the city.

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We walk through Plaza Sotomayor, past grand public buildings, Iglesia La Matriz del Salvador church (originally built in 1559), Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, and monuments to the city and Chilean heroes.  

From the center of the city we take one of the funiculars — known as "ascensores" throughout Valparaíso — for a closer overview of the port and beautiful neighborhoods with Victorian houses and narrow, winding alleyways lined with restaurants and shops. Some of the ascensores where built as early as 1883.

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It's also possible to visit one of Pabla Neruda’s three houses (his other two houses are in Santiago and Isla Negra). Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971.

After several hours of touring this interesting and colorful city, we enjoy a late lunch with views of the city.

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When our tour ends, I thank Manuel for his excellent knowledge of the city. After only a few hours of exploring, I have a new appreciation for Valparaíso with its noteworthy history and extraordinary beauty.