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Santiago, Chile

A Vibrant City Under the Summits of South America

Day 3
The Artilleria funicular
The Artilleria funicular

An easy two-hour drive (120 kilometres) on an excellent freeway across the Coastal Cordillera will bring to you Valparaiso—a must-see. This slowly decaying city was in the dreams of all the sailors of the world until the construction of the Panama Canal, for Valparaiso was an unavoidable stop-over for the tall ships and their steam successors sailing around the Cape Horn to and from the West Coast of the U.S. The bay was crowded with masts, sails and funnels, and the town buzzed with the money of merchants, sailors and adventurers. The bourse, the first to open in Chile, is surrounded by impressive mansions influenced by the British, an indication of the past opulence. The lengthy and perilous route became at once obsolete upon the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. All the more, the Europeans had found the way to make a cheap synthetic nitrate which brought to an end the Chilean nitrate exportation. Because there were no more ships and no more activity, the economy dried up. Valparaiso dozes, but it is still on the mind of adventure lovers and sailors-to-be. By the way, Valparaiso means “Valley of the Paradise.” Paradise lost, some may murmur—those who see only a natural amphitheatre covered with a colorful confusion of rusty-roofed shacks, among which are lost luxurious residences that once belonged to the British aristocrats who ran the city’s economy in the 19th century. But beyond its depleted décor, Valparaiso exudes a harrowing nostalgia, where the ghosts of these brave men who dared to confront the mighty Cape Horn emerge and force us to reconsider the vanity and fragility of all situations.

Colorful houses in Valparaiso
Colorful houses in Valparaiso

A nice way to visit Valparaiso is to take one of the 15 old-fashioned funiculars to escalate the steep hills, and from one of the belvederes, discover a superb panoramic view of the bay, the harbor and the city. One of the most curious sights is the Artilleria funicular built in 1893 and still operating. It reaches the Paseo 21 de Mayo which offers the most spectacular view. Then, walk down the narrow, winding streets bordered with colorful houses all the way to the Plaza Sotomayor, the resting place of the hero of the Chilean navy, Arturo Prat, and to the muelle—the dock. Driving up the hills is easier than it seems. A minibus service is also available, stopping at the principal belvederes and at the house of Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda.

Facing Valparaiso, on the opposite side of the bay, thrives Vina del Mar, the helm of the Chilean Riviera. Once a reserved summer destination of the wealthy, thanks to its sandy beaches, it has expanded into a full fledged resort with a casino, hotels for all budgets, restaurants, boutiques and night clubs. The success of Vina del Mar has lured developers and further north—regrettably, the sea side is retreating behind too much concrete.

If you want to spend the night before returning to Santiago, the Miramar Sheraton (located on a promontory) has comfortable and quiet rooms with an incredible view of Valparaiso.

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(Updated: 06/09/08)

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