Mansions and Slums

Trip Start Nov 15, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Chile  ,
Sunday, June 3, 2007

Valparaíso is bigger and more colourful than I imagine, a hotchpotch of old and modern, elegant mansions, tattered houses and shacks, and the rotting wood and rusting corrugated iron of some of Chile's worst slums. The city prospered after Chilean independence as a base in the southern Pacific for European and US trading agents. Its decline was the result of the development of the transcontinental railway in the US and the Panama Canal.

The city is located on 42 hills that fall steeply to the sea. We stay in one of the rejuvenated bohemian areas where houses are painted a multitude of colours and small hotels and hospedajes proliferate. Little of Valparaíso's colonial past has survived thanks to pirate raids, tempests and earthquakes, especially the devastating one in 1906. What has survived are the unique ascensores (or finicular railways) that ferry people for a couple of pesos up and down the steep hills.

We take a long walk through the maze of paths and narrow streets in the slums and at times it's an uncomfortable experience. After the relative prosperity of Santiago, it feels as if we've seen the underbelly of Chile.

Our family-run hospedaje (Casa Liesel - is cute, comfortable and great value for the area, with a very generous European-style breakfast. Ten minutes walk away is the Museo al Cielo Abierto, a collection of 20 street murals on the exteriors of buildings by some of Chile's finest contemprary artists.

To us, the city seems a little schizophrenic with a personality of extremes - extreme wealth and poverty, bohemian artistic flare and people struggling to survive. I enjoy being in Valparaíso because to me the city seems truly unique and memorable stacked up against everything else we have seen in Latin America.
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