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valparaiso, chile, pablo neruda, south america, unesco

The panoramic kaleidoscope

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This is the website of travel writer, Michael Turtle. After working in broadcast journalism for a decade in Australia, Michael left Sydney to travel the world indefinitely and write about his discoveries.

Valparaiso’s buildings

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.

valparaiso, chile, pablo neruda, south america, unesco

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.

valparaiso, chile, pablo neruda, south america, unesco

valparaiso, chile, pablo neruda, south america, unesco

valparaiso, chile, pablo neruda, south america, unesco

As the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, once said in his ode to the city:

What nonsense
You are
What a crazy
Insane Port.
Your mounded head
Dishevelled
You never finish combing your hair
Life has always surprised you

valparaiso, chile, pablo neruda, south america, unesco

valparaiso, chile, pablo neruda, south america, unesco

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.

valparaiso, chile, pablo neruda, south america, unesco

valparaiso, chile, pablo neruda, south america, unesco

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.

valparaiso, chile, pablo neruda, south america, unesco

valparaiso, chile, pablo neruda, south america, unesco

valparaiso, chile, pablo neruda, south america, unesco

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.

valparaiso, chile, pablo neruda, south america, unesco

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.

UNESCO world heritage site
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more info click here.
You can see all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited here.

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19 Comments
  • Bodlagz | Mar 2, 2012 at 8:40 pm

    What a wonderfully picturesque place, shame about the glass tower, guess it belongs with it’s own kind. Definitely not the best place for showing off corporate wealth.

    Love the 4th photo down, it’s enticing and just makes you want to go and explore the place.
    Bodlagz recently posted..Extreme Pattaya Massage MessageMy Profile

    • Turtle | Mar 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm

      Yeah, the glass tower is unfortunate because it’s the only building in the historic part of town that doesn’t really fit in. Still, there’s plenty to explore regardless.

  • Nina F | Mar 3, 2012 at 10:45 am

    Makes me want to run trills up and down a piano stairway.
    Nina F recently posted..Oldest & Best – Yellowstone National ParkMy Profile

    • Turtle | Mar 3, 2012 at 12:41 pm

      If only it played music when you walked on it. Now that would be cool!! :)

  • Stephanie - The Travel Chica | Mar 7, 2012 at 1:33 am

    I loved Valparaiso! I stayed a week and could have stayed so much longer.
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..Celebrating Summer in ValdiviaMy Profile

    • Turtle | Mar 7, 2012 at 6:11 am

      I know! It’s not that there’s much to do there. But it’s just such a lovely place to hang and soak up the atmosphere!

  • Stephen | Mar 7, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Wow, great photos and story, I’ve always wanted to go here, especially since I am an Neruda fan, now I really want to go after this cheers.
    Stephen recently posted..The Street Poetry Of San Francisco Homeless Writer Ricky TeagueMy Profile

    • Turtle | Mar 7, 2012 at 10:40 pm

      They talk a lot about Neruda in Valparaiso and in Chile. I actually didn’t get a chance to visit any of his houses, which I now regret, but I hear they’re amazing. Perhaps it would be worth a trip for you one day?

  • Laura | Mar 21, 2012 at 5:42 am

    Wow, I love those piano stairs!
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    • Turtle | Mar 22, 2012 at 1:38 am

      Aren’t they awesome? Sadly no music as I walked down them :)

  • Sade | Mar 25, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    i’m so jealous you walked the piano steps! do you know the story behind those stairs? i have a picture of them posted on my website, and finally the other day someone was able to tell me where in the world these stairs are…i need to know the story!
    Sade recently posted..a lovely affair…My Profile

    • Turtle | Mar 27, 2012 at 2:47 am

      I’m actually not sure of the story behind them. I didn’t look into it because, in some ways, I thought you could enjoy them better without knowing anything about them. They are in a rather nondescript part of Valparaiso and really take you by surprise when you find them.

  • Andrew | Mar 29, 2012 at 5:48 am

    Seems a little sleepy, but very colorful. The character of the buildings reminds me both of Spain and of San Francisco in places, though somehow with more creativity.
    Andrew recently posted..Seeing Kiwis in New ZealandMy Profile

    • Turtle | Apr 2, 2012 at 1:08 am

      Yeah, I think it’s definitely got a lot of Spanish influence there. And I think the sleepiness adds to its charm.

  • Steven Taylor | May 8, 2012 at 11:18 am

    I’ve been living here in Valpo for the past 4 years and i love it. Shame some of the comments seem to have concluded its a sleepy city, when it’s far from it. Great blog name by the way!
    Steven Taylor recently posted..San Pedro de AtacamaMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | May 10, 2012 at 5:59 pm

      I suppose it’s ‘sleepy’ in the sense that there are parts of the town that are quite relaxed and the joy is just to wander the streets and take your time looking at the views and the houses. But you’re completely right that there’s a real buzz in the busy areas of the city that just add to the fun of the place!

  • Fabian Puentes | Oct 24, 2012 at 3:45 am

    Been there, done that! Just loved Valparaiso, though stayed there just a few days. Great pace to meet people as well.

    Regards!
    Fabian Puentes recently posted..Kawasan FallsMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Oct 24, 2012 at 10:40 am

      I feel like you can see most of the highlights in a few days. But the longer you stay, the more you discover. There are so many beautiful little hidden gems in the city – including the people! :)

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