Valparaiso's rich and varied history, along with its unique blend of international seaport atmosphere and chaotic topography and architecture, make the city an ideal place to start the exploration of Chile’s many urban and natural attractions.
The Changos, a tribe of now extinct nomadic aborigines that collected seafood along its beaches, referred to the harbour as Quintil. When the Spanish conquistadores led by Juan de Saavedra arrived in the region in 1536, they claimed the bay as “discovered” and named it Valparaíso in memory of Saavedra’s hometown, Valparaíso de Arriba, in Castilla-La Mancha, Spain.
For many years Valparaiso remained a quiet fishermen's wharf with a few houses and a church. By the middle of the 19th century, during the time of the California and British Columbia gold rushes, maritime traffic around the tip of South America greatly expanded bringing gold-seekers from the east coast of the United States and Europe to western North America. Valparaiso soon grew as an important supply, commercial and banking center. Many European countries opened their first Latin American consulates in the thriving port.
It was also the time when many fortune-seeking immigrants, mostly from Britain, Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy, made Valparaiso their home. They started families and business; they built churches and published their native language newspapers. The locals enthusiastically worked hand-in hand with the enterprising European immigrants and together contributed to the city’s prosperity.
The hills surrounding the Bay of Valparaíso are now populated to the very top, and beyond.
Soon the city overgrew its boundaries. Large areas of Valparaiso Bay were land filled to create space for the financial district, port facilities and merchandise warehouses. As population increased the residents slowly went up and built houses on the 43 hills that surround the bay creating a huge natural amphitheatre. Ingenious structural solutions allowed construction over steep slopes and along deep ravines. Thirty funicular-type elevators were constructed to help people reach their homes beyond the long and dangerous stairways.
Building of the Santiago Severín library. This was one of the first public libraries in Chile and South America. The funds to build the library were donated by philanthropist don Santiago Severin Espina. The building was declared a National Monument in 1998. It was severely damaged by the 2010 earthquake and is still under repairs.
Valparaiso became the place for the oldest still circulating newspaper in Chile and in the Spanish language (El Mercurio, 1827). The first voluntary fire department in Chile and South America was founded in 1851 by immigrant communities. In 1880, the first Stock Exchange in South America (Bovalpo) started operation. Other milestones included Chile's first commercial banks, public library and soccer team (Santiago Wanderers, 1892).
Palacio Polanco: The building dates from 1898. It was the residence of millionaire Benigno Polanco Hueres. The luxurious mansion is located in the downtown area of Valparaiso. In 1942 the building became the property of the Chilean National Police.
A section of the downtown area of Valparaíso and some of the many hills that surround the city. At the left center of the picture can be seen the bell-tower of Valparaíso Cathedral.
Then, tragedy struck: the 1906 earthquake (8.2 Richter), one of the most devastating the world had ever seen, nearly flattened the city. Domestic solidarity and international relief assisted the local authorities with a significant reconstruction effort. Within 3 years the city was virtually rebuilt. The port of Valparaíso seemed to be heading for a promising future.
However, when the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, it was like a death sentence for the dynamic old port. International ship traffic through the Strait of Magellan nearly came to a halt. Further, the discovery of synthetic nitrates crippled the saltpeter industry of the Atacama Desert. Sodium nitrate (salitre, caliche) was used extensively worldwide as a fertilizer and a raw material for the manufacture of gunpowder in the late 19th century. This was one of Chile’s principal exports through the port of Valparaiso. The city lost hundreds of companies and a good portion of the economic power relocated to Santiago, the Chilean capital.
The British Arch. The monument covered in Italian marble, was donated in 1910 by the British colony living in Valparaiso on the occasion of the Centennial of the Independence of Chile.
The first half of 20th Century was a wretched period for Valparaíso. Many neighbourhoods were abandoned and important historic infrastructure suffered of severe neglect. The city underwent serious social and economic problems. In 1990, after 17 years of the Pinochet military dictatorship, the Chilean National Congress was moved to Valparaíso. By the same time arose the idea of seeking international recognition of the old buildings, the funiculars and the historic value of the old port. By 1998, the steps to nominate the city in the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites were completed. In 2003, UNESCO inscribed the historic quarter of Valparaíso as a World Heritage Site under the following criteria: “Valparaíso is an exceptional testimony to the early phase of globalisation in the late 19th century, when it became the leading merchant port on the sea routes of the Pacific coast of South America.” For long time international sailors have called the port "Pancho", a Spanish nickname for Francisco, suggesting a resemblance with the port of San Francisco, California. Folk musicians created poems and songs calling the city “The Jewel of the Pacific". The history of the city includes memorable visits. These include British scientist Charles Darwin, French actress Sarah Bernhardt and Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario, deemed the highest representative of literary modernism in the Spanish language. Poet Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1945) and Pablo Neruda (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1971), the internationally known poet who Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez once called "the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language”, also lived in Valparaíso, contributing to the city's reputation as a poet’s magnet.
The old port of Valparaíso has become fashionable again, says the NYTimes. Many new hotels and fine restaurants have found a niche in some of the traditional promenades overlooking the bay. Recent changes to zoning regulations are allowing the development of new residential areas in the outskirts of the city.
The building of the Chilean National Congress in Valparaíso. In the foreground is one of the old trolleybuses purchased second-hand from France. There are many of them still in operation in the city and are mostly used by anyone who is not in a hurry.
"La Esmeralda", training ship for the Chilean Navy at her Valparaiso base. Unfortunately, the beautiful four-masted tall ship has now a bad reputation. From 1973 to 1980, it was used as a floating jail and torture chamber for political prisoners during the Pinochet years.
A partial view of the Valparaíso modern port facilities. In the center-right of the picture is the downtown section of the city.
Valparaiso's rich and varied history, along with its unique combination of international seaport atmosphere and urban architecture, make the city an ideal place to start or end the exploration of Chile’s wine-producing central region, the greatness of the northern Atacama Desert or the magnificent beauty of the Patagonia and Antarctic wildernesses.
For international visitors arriving in Santiago de Chile by air, Valparaíso is as close as a one-hour car ride (1.5 hour by bus) to the coast through Route 68, a modern four-lane highway.
The video above shows views of the historic port city. The background music is a charango interpretation of “La Joya del Pacífico” (The jewel of the Pacific), a song that has become the popular anthem of the porteños (port of Valparaíso residents).