If my blog posts have been somewhat erratic over the past three weeks, it is because my husband and I have been traveling in South America, a continent we had never before visited. We began in Buenos Aires—an absolutely delightful city—and proceeded via ship through the Chilean fjords, around Cape Horn and Ushuaia (the southern-most city in the world—self-proclaimed “City at the End of the World”) and along the Pacific Coast to Valparaiso, Chile.
Very few Hoosiers know that Valparaiso, Indiana, was named for Valparaiso, Chile—an intriguing bit of history shared with us by a very cheerful Assistant Pastor of the Lutheran Church in Valparaiso, Chile, when we wandered in off the street. Admiral Porter—for whom Indiana’s Porter County was named—changed the name of Porter County’s town, formerly Porterville, to Valparaiso in recognition of the only naval battle he ever lost—in Valparaiso, in the War of 1812. It was a classy gesture.
Our cruise concluded at Valparaiso, and most of those who disembarked went straight to Santiago and its international airport, approximately a two hour drive. We elected to stay a few days to explore the quirky, art-filled city that is now a World Heritage Site.
It was well worth the exploration. Valparaiso is unlike any city we’ve visited anywhere. Santiago, which we briefly toured on our last day, is a vibrant and beautiful metropolis, and Vina Del Mar (virtually next door) reminded us of Miami, with its high-rise condominiums and beachfront cafes, but Valparaiso didn’t remind us of anywhere else; it’s one of a kind.
Only 3% of Valparaiso is on flat ground; the rest is built, haphazardly, on thirty-plus hills. Very, very steep hills that overlook the sparkling bay and ocean.
Virtually all of the structures in the city look like flimsy shacks. Most of the siding used is painted corrugated metal, of the kind commonly seen on shipping containers. When we saw our hotel (this is the upscale part of the city? It looks like a slum!), we wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into, but the ramshackle exterior was a shocking contrast with the sleek, modern interior. We soon found that this contrast between interior and exterior was common—that preservation of the original architecture is strictly enforced, and any “rebuilding” or modernization occurs inside.
Art and art galleries are everywhere, as are museums—far more than might be expected in a city of 300,000. There are murals on the retaining walls, flowers painted on the light fixture poles. Restaurants showcase art.
Everywhere, too, are impossibly long and steep staircases built into the hills–stairs that allow people to reach the homes and shops scattered willy-nilly on the steep slopes—many of which are accessible only by those stairs and through neighboring properties. (I can’t imagine what aged or disabled folks do…)
While we were there, the city was rebuilding the streets in two of the “Cerros”—neighborhoods, or hills. They completely dug up the original streets, poured concrete, then laid granite blocks in sand/mortar on top of the concrete. The rebuilt streets will last a century or more. (Not exactly the way we do it here in Hoosier-land….)
Everyone we met was helpful and friendly (few spoke much English, and of course, being the Ugly Americans we are, we spoke no Spanish. Why didn’t I pay attention in my college Spanish class!?) The weather reminded me of San Francisco’s micro-climates. We were told that the city is generally temperate—they get very little snow and ice, and summer highs rarely reach 80.
Politically, the current issue appears to be a debate between members of the City Council who want to allow construction of a shopping center on the waterfront and those who are—as we were told—philosophically opposed to the notion of shopping as entertainment (we saw no malls or shopping centers—just small shops, galleries, cafes and street markets).
Europe is closer to the U.S., both culturally and geographically, than South America, and that’s probably the major reason we had never previously traveled to our own Southern Hemisphere. This trip was a revelation, and well worth the ten-hour flight from Dallas-Ft. Worth. Admiral Porter was onto something.
Enough travelogue; tomorrow, I’ll return to our originally-scheduled programming.