We docked in San Antonio, Chile early on January 22. Until recently most cruise ships in this area docked in Valparaiso, an important old port city about an hour and a half away. But labor troubles, or a new port owner who thinks he can make more from container ships, or something else (we have heard several different stories) has resulted in most cruise ships now docking in San Antonio instead. That’s a shame because Valparaiso is a very interesting city with a long and colorful history, while San Antonio has little to offer beyond a working port.
So we spent no time in San Antonio, instead joining a private excursion to Valparaiso. In 2012 we docked in Valparaiso and witnessed sunrise over its beautiful port, but spent the day instead on a trip to Santiago. You can see all that here:
Founded in 1536 by an associate of Diego de Almagro, Francisco Pizarro’s partner/rival, Valparaiso remained a small village until the early 19th century. In 1810 the first pier in Chile was built there and after Chilean independence in 1818 it became the primary stop for ships sailing between the Atlantic and Pacific, most of which had to sail through the Strait of Magellan. Its importance grew as miners flocked to California from the Atlantic coast in the 1850’s and it developed into a cosmopolitan city containing communities of German, English and Italian immigrants. This lucrative sea trade mostly dried up when the Panama Canal opened in 1914. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
After the long drive from San Antonio our van dropped us up near the top of one of the hills surrounding Valparaiso’s large harbor in what (if memory serves) was once the German community. There were splendid views of the bay.
As you can see from the pictures above, Valparaiso is a very colorful city with buildings painted a variety of bright colors. It is also known for its amazing graffiti. There is more graffiti here than anywhere we have been. It is not the stuff of midnight taggers, but publicly approved works of art. Part of what pulled Valparaiso out of its long decline after the opening of the canal was its emergence as a center for the arts and artists, with many having studios in this city. Our guide told us that one way for young artists to become known & successful is by painting public walls and staircases. They seek permission from the landowner, many of whom are glad to have them because of public approval of these works. We saw many of these during our visit, most of which were quite interesting and well done.
As we continued walking down the hill we came upon a children’s library . . . pure serendipity. And, of course, a lot more wall art.
We came to the end of a street that continued down with wide stairs. It provided a nice view of the bay. But our guide borrowed one of our cameras and ran down to a lower level and took a picture of the group standing on the top. The steps looked entirely different from below, of course (although it’s a lie; we really are aging hippies).
On our way down we passed two impressive old mansions built in 1916, the tail end of Valparaiso’s golden age. First was an impressive yellow mansion and then the Art Nouveau style Palacio Baburizza, which became an art museum 1971. After passing the Palacio we came to a viewing point over the harbor.
We had a nice walk down one of the hills, but walking up would be an entirely different matter! To alleviate this the city has a number of “ascensores,” or funiculars, that will take you up or down the hills on rails (for a small fee). They were built between 1883 and 1916. At one time there were 30 of them but today 16 remain and only 7 are in operation (the others are being restored). We rode down a funicular (not sure which one) to Plaza Sotomayor.
We walked through the Plaza Sotomayor, the central square of the city built entirely on reclaimed land. It is a large and impressive plaza, with the headquarters of the Chilean navy spanning one side & a monument to the heroes of Iquique in the center. The remains of Arturo Prat and some of his men are in a crypt below the monument. The navy headquarters used to be the legislative building or the presidential palace (we can’t remember which), but now the navy refuses to give it up for any other use.
Valparaiso (and really all of Chile) relies on volunteer fire departments to protect the city from fires. The city’s tradition of cohesive ethnic communities led to fire brigades being organized by each community, beginning in the early 1850’s. Today there are still American, British, French and Italian fire brigades, among others. To join a brigade you have to provide proof of your ethnic descent. The overall headquarters of the fire departments is in Plaza Sotomayor, and the building houses two brigades on its first floor; if memory serves, the garage on the left is the English and the one on the right American. Plaza Sotomayor has a lot of typical vendors’ kiosks in its central area, and we visited a modern building that has what appears to be the most expensive restroom in the world (actually 300 Chilean pesos amounts to a little less than 50 cents American).
Refreshed after the pit stop, we walked over to the lower station of another funicular, the Ascensor Artillería. We rode it up to a plaza overlooking the harbor.
We walked from there to where our van was waiting. Nearby was an awning with a Coke ad that looked like it was from the 1950’s or earlier; we had seen a number of these old fashioned Coke ads in Peru & Chile. Then we drove up one of the hills through what was the English district. We had to reverse course several times because of traffic jams (we were glad we weren’t driving), but we passed several old buildings representative of this neighborhood and, inevitably, some more wall art.
We stopped at a cul de sac overlooking a beautiful bay with surf breaking on volcanic rocks. Several dogs were sleeping there, looking like they were having a lazy afternoon. Our guide pointed out to us a shrine on the rocks below, which was dedicated to a girl who died there. We can’t remember the story about her, but got the impression it was well known in these parts. Small shrines for dead friends or relatives can be seen all over this part of South America, particularly along roads and highways.
We drove to Vina del Mar, a nearby resort town. But it is a large one: Valparaiso has about 280,000 people within the city but Vina del Mar has about 325,000, Chile’s fourth largest city. It was founded in 1878. There is a large river running through the town with many bridges and high rise residential buildings lining the banks.
We exited the van by the Palacio Carrasco. It was built in 1912 and is now the site of the municipal library as well as hosting art exhibitions. In front is a sculpture by Auguste Rodin called “la Defensa.”
We walked down to the Fonck Museum, but didn’t go in. We were there to see a moai statue from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the only one in mainland Chile (Easter Island is actually owned by Chile).
The last item on our brief visit to Vina del Mar was the floral clock, an obvious tourist attraction but pretty nonetheless. What we hadn’t expected to see there was Groot!
After this we started the long drive back to San Antonio. When we scheduled this excursion we were a little concerned that the long drive in both directions would leave insufficient time to see the city. But in fact we had a very enriching visit to Valparaiso, mostly thanks to our guide, Juan. About half way between the two cities we passed a church that Juan told us is the site of pilgrimages in which the roads are blocked off and many thousands of people walk, and even crawl, to the church to express their devotion. Here is a picture taken from a moving vehicle, so it isn’t a very good portrait of the church.
Despite the distance from Valparaiso we reached the port in ample time for “all aboard” and set sail west across the Pacific to our next port. As we say good night we will leave you here with a carved watermelon and a towel animal for your enjoyment. Some of the crew on this ship are very talented!