Valparaíso, Chile: Alleyways, Animals, and 100-year-old Funiculars on an Ocean Hillside.

Posted by on Jan 28, 2013 in Chile, South America, Travel Blog and Destinations | 0 comments

Valparaíso, Chile: Alleyways, Animals, and 100-year-old Funiculars on an Ocean Hillside.

The first city in Chile I fell for was Valparaiso. Just a two hour bus trip away from Santiago you can trade a desert of buildings and a sandstorm city bustle for a vertical jungle of art and culture. The city is built on a very steep hill, so very unlike Santiago, the women are mostly in flats.




A one minute funicular can cut a 20 minute uphill or 10 minute downhill stair climb out of your day, but I still recommend the stairs in most cases.

A one minute funicular can cut a 20 minute uphill or 10 minute downhill stair climb out of your day, but I still recommend the stairs in most cases.

The landscape here is intricate; the towers of neighbourhoods are painted in cherry, lavender, sunshine yellow, and lines of tangled black wires. Even the view from far above the colour can tease you as you find a set of impossibly steep steps to reach a new discovery.  I found myself smiling at every unexpected turn as Valparaisio invited me to dance. The city is playful and feline, and the felines rule the streets. The human residents celebrate the cats on stone walls city-wide, winking and sleeping, and watching as you traverse clumsily on only two feet from one foot to the other with a back full of water, books, and a map.

Alexis Baran getting along with the locals.

Getting along with the locals.

The cats are the heart and the dogs are the guards. The dogs roam in packs and they escorted us from one part of the city to the next. As we sat on the red and rainbow mosaic at Plazuela Descanso, a sturdy Boxer and a small brown dog lounged nearby. On two occasions someone walked past the square across the street, and all the dogs were on alert; barking and in some cases charging after him to make sure he passed without incident. We could hear other barks follow the unwanted intruder across the city.


Valapraiso Boxer Guard

The guard of the square alerted the other dogs to shady characters, and the smaller dogs would carry out orders.

The cats are careful and quiet. They trapeze along columns and through fences. I greeted all I met with a friendly “hola, gato!” and if they seemed thin, a hand full of the cat food I had purchased in Santiago.

Cat in Valaparaiso with mural

This little guy tried to crawl into my backpack where the food was, so I gave him a bit even though he had a collar to show that he has a family.

To be surrounded in Latin American Spanish and be so far from fluent is something I admittedly enjoy. I would love to learn but just landing in the middle of it is magic. Each word slowly learned is like unlocking a piece of a code; a notch in a lock, chipping away at my decades of lightly attended English. The simplicity of ordering a strawberry juice (juice in South America is amazing, by the way) or a cafe con leche, or even some agua, sin gas, helps me feel a little more stitched in, at least on the inside. The small amounts I picked up on a previous trip to Peru come tumbling back after not too long..

Ascensor Espiritu Santo

The Ascensor Espiritu Santo was closed, so we walked up some stairs alongside instead.

An important part of getting around in Valparaiso is the funiculars, or ascensores. Instead of weaving your way through alleyways slowly up the hillside across the curvacious streets, the ascensores cut through and can deliver you near vertically up to another neighborhood. By themselves, the ascensores are a very industrial revolution experience. The oldest in the city, and the first one I went on, the Ascensor Concepción was opened in 1883. I found this in the guide book and was so excited to see it I didn’t even realize it was still in regular use until I was in it and it suddenly started descending. (If you get on at the top, you pay your 200 or so Chilean Pesos at the bottom to a bored looking teen who looks entirely out of place from their turn of the century setting.)

Valparaiso is a place of art, humour, and kindness. It seemed every time we stopped to look at a map someone would eagerly assist. We were warned several times by different strangers to keep our bags and cameras close in certain areas of town, though the threat seemed minimal.

Cat mural in Polanco, Valaparaiso, Chile

In the Polanco area, where all the best stairs and murals are.

In the days I was there, the cobblestones of the street poked directly through my well-worn flats. I am grateful for it. At the end of a day of walking, climbing stairs, petting cats, dodging piles of dog poop and stubbing my toe, my feet hurt. But I felt every pebble the city had to offer and enjoyed it. I was there, I was present in body and mind. The sweat that gathered on my back behind my backpack and the dirt that lingered on my fingertips from between all of the cat fur, and the pieces of Whiskas under my nails, it all felt perfect.

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