Valparaíso, Chile: The Pearl of the Pacific
Nicknamed “the pearl of the Pacific,” the city of Valparaíso (or just Valpo to locals and repeat visitors) is one of South America’s most distinctive cities thanks to its steep hillsides, cobblestone passageways, and rich history. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is considered Chile’s cultural capital and the site of many firsts: South America’s first volunteer fire department, the first public library in Chile, the oldest stock exchange, and more.
Founded in 1536 by Juan de Saavedra as a port city for Santiago, the city remained quiet for centuries, years the Spanish instead invested far more heavily in other trade and shipping centers. The city did not receive a Spanish town council until the late 18th century and legal township status only in 1802.
After Chilean independence, however, foreign participation in Chile grew and Valparaíso thrived; the population boomed from 5,000 at independence to 55,000 just three decades later. Europeans brought with them their native languages and the multi-lingual city published newspapers in many languages. The new immigrants also brought with them the building styles of their native countries and many of these European-style homes remain in the city today. The population doubled again in the next three decades with the completion of a rail line to Santiago and the status as a major port of call for ships rounding Cape Horn. It was a role the city would enjoy until the opening of the Panama Canal.
Today tourism plays a growing role in Valparaíso although port activities remain important, with many industries exporting wine, copper, and fresh fruit. In 2003, tourism got a boost when UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage Site, noting that “Valparaíso is an exceptional testimony to the early phase of globalisation in the late 19th century, when it became the leading merchant port on the sea routes of the Pacific coast of South America.”
One attraction that UNESCO drew special attention to were the city’s ascensores, over a dozen wooden funiculars built in the late 1800s and early 1900s that climb the steep hills. The oldest funicular is the Ascensor Concepcion, originally steam powered; it and others provide visitors with spectacular city and bay views.
One of the most spectacular views of the city is seen from La Sebastiana, the home of Nobel prize winning poet Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The uniquely decorated home of this man who called the city “novia del océano” or “ocean’s sweetheart,” La Sebastiana is open to the public.
Neruda always made it a practice to spend New Year’s holidays at his home in Valparaíso (he also owned home in Santiago and in nearby Isla Negra). The reason? To watch the fireworks. The hills which provide the home with incredible views of the bay are filled with visitors and residents alike during the last three days of every year when over a million visitors pack the city for the largest fireworks show in South America, a celebration of the city that continues to live up to its nickname as a true pearl.
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