The Bay of Valparaíso draws a magnificent arc embracing the Pacific Ocean, punctuated by the great port to the south and the giant sand dunes of Con Con to the north. Both rise above the sea, facing each other in obstinate survival against nature and urban sprawl. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its beautiful historic houses built during the Golden Age of the second half of the 19th Century, when mostly British, German and French immigrants vied with North American investors cashing in on the booming shipping trade between the Atlantic and Pacific.
The great earthquake of 1906 and the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914 put an end to all that, however, and the city has been a faded beauty ever since – desperately romantic and somewhat melancholy – the perfect home of poets and musicians, the country’s finest artists and excellent bars and restaurants.
Cobbled streets and cast iron street lamps snake over many steep hills and ravines packed with colourful houses clad in painted corrugated iron. Washing lines and rubbish flutter in the wind, and packs of street dogs and tourists roam the city looking for the best spots. Take your camera, enjoy the views, but pay attention. Valparaíso may be the cultural capital of Chile, but it is also a dying port, whose authorities have so far failed miserably to address its many social-economic problems.
The resort city of Viña del Mar merges seamlessly with its grimy neighbour, an altogether glitzier and respectable holiday mecca, where horse-drawn carriages offer a charming way to enjoy the views stretching along the lovely seafront promenade. ‘God’s waiting room’, for those retired Chileans who can afford it, Viña del Mar is self-consciously modern, but if you like shopping or casinos, this is the place to go.