The Bed & Breakfast up Cerro Alegre sounds promising. Everything in Valparaiso is up a mountain. A gentle breeze, cooling this gritty port city at sea level, turns into a full gale as we climb. Construction sand. Ice cream wrappers. Poorly anchored hats. Anything loose becomes a flying missile to dodge as I hammer on the door. The decision to change plans is easy. The place is closed!

My taxi driver gives me a quizzical look. I shrug. He gets it and starts heading back downhill until we spot a quaint looking place: “The Hostal Casa Patrimonio.”

Gladys Soto Martinez is a widow whose German husband’s penchant for cigars and copious cups of Espresso coffee has driven him to an early grave. She takes my passport and breaks into a mischievous grin.

“We are the same age Andrew – Are you married?”

The concept of a room half way up one of Valparaiso’s 42 near-vertical hills without a view is incomprehensible. I look directly down at Chile’s navy anchored in the bay below. My room hangs over a cliff, perhaps tacked onto the main structure as an after-thought. I shudder at the consequences of an earth tremor or worse still a quake.

Valparaiso – Valpo to the locals, began as a base for Spanish ships to move South American goods from the colonies back to the homeland. (Sir Francis Drake and other piratical rascals were drawn to the place, knowing there would always be good booty to score).

It was ideally positioned to supply ships heading around Cape Horn and provided a welcome break for sailors returning from some of the world’s nastiest waters. The California “Gold rush” in the mid 1800’s created a bonanza for shipping Chilean wheat.

It was all good news until 1906 when an earthquake struck, damaging many buildings around the port. When The Panama Canal opened in 1914 the economy tanked. The party was over. Valaparaiso became a backwater.

Ah, but every cloud has a silver lining. Artists flocked to the place attracted by cheap rents, cosy neighbourhoods and a stunning setting. Ramshackle little houses covering the hillsides were taken over and painted in every conceivable colour.

Imagine a comfortably “worn around the edges” San Francisco and you will start to nail this fascinating city.

Instead of leaping on a cable car after a day at the office, Portenos (locals) ride the 15 ascensores (funiculars), built between 1883 and 1916, to their hillside homes. Masochistic keeners can be seen running up hundreds of stairs to build an appetite for dinner! Some tradesman still prefer to deliver goods along the narrow steep roads by horse.

Valpo is a walking city. Just discovering and absorbing some of the creative graffiti is a glorious reward for nosing up tiny alleys around Cerro Alegre and it’s arty neighbour, Cerro Bellavista.

National hero (and mine too!) poet Pablo Neruda owned homes in Santiago and Isla Negra, but his aerie in Valparaiso, La Sebastiana, at the top of Cerro Bellavista, is really worth the trek. The view from every room is enough to stir even the most turgid mind into a creative frenzy!

Neruda’s history should warm the cockles of every aspiring poet’s heart. An average looking man with a Hitchcock face, always photographed with a cheese cutter cap, Neruda spun poetry into a life of luxury and passion. A friend of leftist President Allende, he won The Nobel prize for Literature in 1971 before dying of cancer when General Pinochet came to power in 1973. Was it coincidence or murder? Rumours are still rife.

The high point of a day spent climbing hills, riding up mountainsides in creaking ascensores, “wowing” at the interminable views of the city, is deciding where to have dinner.

Cerro Alegre is peppered with tiny bistros serving scrumptious meals at sensible prices. Locals, and foreigners who have just never managed to leave, pop by for a glass of wine and a lively chat.

An easy 1 1/2 hours bus ride from landlocked Santiago, the capital, Valpo is starting to hum again. In 1990 the city became the country’s legislative capital. A UNESCO “World Heritage” award followed in 2003. Cruise ships are turning up. Streets are being repaved. Long abandoned downtown buildings are being renovated.

Got a novel to write? A picture to paint? A lover to woo? Valparaiso has no trouble setting the scene. The rest is up to you!

“So first I lose my Gustav and now I lose my Andrew” groans Gladys with the same mischievous twinkle in her eye. Phew! Seems I escaped just in time!




Copyright © 2012 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.