The panoramic kaleidoscope
Rumour is that it was a building that led to the Chilean city of Valparaiso being protected by UNESCO. Not a grand, beautiful, historic building. Rather, it was a modern edifice that, in some people’s eyes, scarred the skyline of the port city.
When a shipping company wanted to build a huge glass box of a building on top of its original sandstone offices, the local council said no, worried it would ruin the beauty of the city. When the shipping company threatened to move all its business further down the coast to another location, the council changed its mind, worried it would ruin the economy of the city. The glass box was built and when the outcry came, not unexpectedly, the United Nations was asked to step in. Local residents campaigned for the area to be protected and in 2003 UNESCO put a heritage listing over the entire historic part of the city to prevent such an act of corporate vandalism again.
In some ways the campaign by the locals was probably unnecessary, because the feeling is that the city would eventually have been added to the register anyway. It speaks for itself.
Getting lost in Valparaiso
Valparaiso is a place to get lost in. And to do so is to find yourself in a wonderland of colours and architecture. The streets are a maze, suddenly turning into footpaths or staircases. They wind up and down the hills with no apparent forethought, following the contours of the terrain or the needs of the residents.
As the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, once said in his ode to the city:
What a crazy
Your mounded head
You never finish combing your hair
Life has always surprised you
Neruda’s house sits atop one of the hills of Valparaiso, watching the mess of buildings below. Communities fill every bit of land stretching from the sea to the ragged skyline. Each house is painted a different colour; no two adjacent buildings the same; a panoramic kaleidoscope. I’m told by a local guide that this is because the owners used leftover paint from ships at the dock, whatever colour was available, not necessarily a preferred one.
The history of Chile’s cultural capital
Once upon a time the residents would get up the steep hills on funiculars – cable cars that ran up the mountains. Some of them still run but they seem more for the tourists than the locals. I had been told to just walk the city, to soak up the vibe. What I found was a community that had become by accident, with a love of life and a sense of humour.
It was once one of the richest metropolises in South America. Its port connected the United States and, to a certain extent, Europe to the natural resources of the southern continent. But an economic crisis with the sale of saltpetre, political changes in the country and, most importantly, the opening of the Panama Canal all took its toll on the financial side of the city.
From those economic ashes, Valparaiso has risen over the decades to become the cultural capital of Chile. The only government department to be based here is the Ministry for Culture, which says something.
Come for the views, stay for the culture. Something like that. Either way, it’s a magical city to get lost in and one you hope you never find your way out of.