The Chilean city of Valparaíso, the so-called Valley of Paradise, was founded in 1543 and once known as the Pearl of the Pacific. Ninety minutes from Santiago, today this port is famed for its hilly, cobbled streets and colourful, corrugated iron houses, covered in graffiti.
Built on wealth gleaned in the Californian Gold Rush, and by the 19th-century ‘nitrate barons’, who profited from the mineral-rich north, the city of cerros (hills — of which there are 42) was once a playground for gilded Europeans.
As the money drained away, the city faded in the sun. However, the past few years have seen a change of fortune: refurbishments are beginning to take place and this UNESCO World Heritage Site is emerging from the hole.
We walk along Paseo Yugoslavo, my eyes skimming from the fairytale green copper turrets of Palacio Baburizza to the red and white stucco-and-brick of Palacio Astoreca.
The former belonged to a Croatian nitrate baron, and the latter was a gift from a Croatian merchant to his English wife — to make her feel more at home, the story goes. Both buildings date back to the early 1900s and reopened last year after lengthy restorations: Baburizza as an art gallery, and Astoreca as a five-star hotel.
From Cerro Alegre’s Yugoslavian Quarter, we head to the British Quarter in Cerro Concepción, passing Atkinson Street and taking the 100-year-old Ascensor Reina Victoria funicular down the steep hill.
Leaving behind the idyllic coffee shops, boutiques and seafood restaurants, the bus delivers us at Plaza O’Higgins. Our plan is to catch a glimpse of the other side of Chile’s cultural capital, exploring a side of the city yet to be cleaned up.
Unsticking legs from the faux leather seats, we alight among old men propping up backgammon tables. Across the other side of the square sit the women, selling old books, old photos and old bits and bobs in the Valparaíso Antique Mall.
We next cross the vast flea market that stretches up Avenida Argentina. The phrase ‘one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure’ comes to mind as we pass piles of old mobile phones, dolls with matted hair, and sun-bleached records.
The entrance to Ascensor Polanco (built in 1915 but restored in 2012 — a sign that change is slowly coming) takes the form of a dank tunnel stretching 500ft underneath Cerro Polanco. This is quite literally a lift — in fact, it’s one of only three city lifts in the world with a completely vertical ascent — and it delivers us atop a yellow wooden tower.
A panorama worthy of Rapunzel awaits; the view stretches over the cerros to the port and out to the sea. Down below, the streets are still cobbled, the houses still colourful, but on closer inspection many homes are deserted, burnt out, or occupied by dogs.
“Fires are common due to poor electrics,” says Stefanie, “but people are moving back here and the houses are slowly being repaired.”
We walk back down the hill, instead of taking the lift. Here the graffiti comes into its own, with scale, detail and colours in a different league.
“Landlords let artists paint their walls,” Stefanie explains. “It’s illegal to paint over a mural.”
This part of town is more akin to a shanty town. It’s clear that life’s bare necessities are in short supply. Yet a slither of a silver lining lurks in the shadows: it seems that in the face of hardship, art is flourishing. And that life all over Valparaíso is slowly being improved.