On our first visit to Santiago, when we landed in South America in November 2008, we didn’t make it to the nearby town of Valparaiso, though we were told it was a day-trip must. We were too busy watching kids play in fountains and touring nearby wine cellars. But when when we landed back in Santiago in March 2009, we set aside a day and hopped a bus to this seaport town. I’d heard that it was full of character. I’d read that it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’d seen pretty pictures in the front photo section of our guidebook. And then we stepped off the bus.
The smell of piss and rotten fish filled my nose. Scrawny stray dogs sauntered up to us, sniffing at our shoes, baring rotting teeth. What time are the return buses?, I asked our driver, wondering if maybe we ought to just catch the next one back.
We decided to give it a try. We ended up at the port first, which gave off a sketchy vibe. Border crossings and ports—the places where we and the goods we desire, both legal and illegal, enter and leave a country—always seem to have an air of foreboding. Once Valparaiso was Chile’s biggest seaport, and though it’s now been surpassed, it still bustled. Enormous tankers, freight ships, and cruise ships shared the port with fishing boats, dinghies, and tour boats. The stench here was strong, of fish and leaking oil and men who spend their lives adrift.
We wandered about near the port in a downtown area filled with imposing architecture. In the main square, the architecture was well-maintained, proud under the red, white, and blue of the Chilean flag.
Elsewhere what appeared to be impressive buildings were only facades, the walls crumbled, the life once contained within only a memory trapped in the minds of a generation soon to be gone.
We didn’t find much to keep us in the lower reaches of Valparaiso, so we headed to one of the ascensors that connect the various levels of this city built on a hill.
Saying it now I feel stupid, but before I saw them I imagined them to be like the sleek elevators in Monaco that I’d been so amused by. But Valparaiso’s ascensiors are funicular elevators—rickety wooden boxes that rise up a short track to a platform above. Steps rise right next to the ascensiors and the climb isn’t long, so most times we opt to walk, though we do ride the acensior once.
As we rose higher and higher in Valparaiso, we found a city that we liked more and more. Instead of grand but crumbling structures, we found brightly colored homes.
We found green spaces and parks that commemorated Valparaiso’s literary history: It is the home of Chile’s first public library and the oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous circulation, and it is one of a few cities where famed poet Pablo Neruda had a home.
We paid our admission fee and took a tour of La Sebastiana, Neruda’s home. The tall, narrow house pays homage to Valparaiso and its shipping history with porthole windows, marine and nautical decor, and architecture features reminiscent of a boat.
As a literary geek, I loved poking around the home, chock full of stuff Neruda had collected throughout his life, but the best thing about the house was the view. The city of Valparaiso stretched out before us, revealing its charms.
From a distance—removed from the rank smell, and the potholed streets, and the menacing dogs, and the crumbling facades—I could imagine just what this city had been in its heydey, when Neruda looked from his window and wrote poetry that I would one day read at my wedding, and I could hope that the restoration work we saw happening in pockets here and there would eventually restore the grandeur to this city.