Cultural revolution

Cultural revolution
Sotomayor Square,

The Chilean port city of Valparaíso is reclaiming its mantle as a centre of culture and the arts

Shougat Dasgupta
April 01 , 2014
15 Min Read

Valparaíso, its nineteenth-century grandeur long dissipated by the building of the Panama Canal into at best a mangy, snaggle-toothed charm, like a drunk at the start of another long night, is in the midst of a refashioning, its rough edges repackaged as just rakish enough for the discerning tourist who fancies himself too sophisticated, too edgy for the white sand beaches and moneyed smugness of nearby Viña Del Mar. It is a tribute to Valparaíso that glimpses of its antic spirit remain.

Described in its heyday as the ‘jewel of the Pacific’, the impetus for the Chilean city’s latest facelift was Unesco’s conferral, in 2003, of world heritage status on its historic seaport. Around every corner is a mural: a slogan; a poem; paintings; graffiti influenced by manga, hip hop...or allende. everywhere allende.


Valparaíso’s growing appeal as a tourist destination is evident mostly in some chic restaurants, in the boutique hotels and stalls selling tchotchkes, in fresh coats of paint for the historical pastel-coloured houses that lean over a blue swathe of ocean from precipitous hills. This geographical felicity, this perennially pleasing confluence of hills and sea, accounts for only part of Valparaíso’s charm. The glorious views are made more piquant by the city’s culture: the early composite, cosmopolitan culture (and raucous nightlife), typical of port cities, evolved, as Valparaíso slid inexorably towards poverty and neglect, into an equally varied, complex culture of art and radical thought. The raucous nightlife remained constant.

A street mural

The glorious views are made more piquant by the city's culture: the early composite, cosmopolitan culture, typical of port cities, evolved into an equally varied culture of art.

The city’s politics, its desires, its imagination, its subconscious is splashed on its peeling walls. Graffiti is how Valparaíso expresses itself. Around every corner, up another of the endless sets of stairs, on the side of a shop, a house, a restaurant, is a street mural: a political slogan; a poem; paintings that are realistic, surreal, pastoral, urban; graffiti that is influenced by Manga, by hip hop, by video games, by love for Pink Floyd, your girlfriend of three weeks, or Salvador Allende. Everywhere Allende. The beloved socialist ex-president was born in Valparaíso. Then again, so was Augusto Pinochet. The September 11 that matters in Chilean history is that date in 1973 when Allende’s democratically elected government was overthrown in a military coup led by Pinochet.

On the plane to Santiago, I read Clandestine in Chile, Gabriel García Márquez’s account of life under Pinochet. Márquez tells the story of the Chilean filmmaker Miguel Littín, who was among the many thousands exiled by Pinochet. He returned to Chile in 1985, disguised as an Uruguayan businessman, to make a documentary, to see the country he had been forced to leave twelve years earlier and to thumb his nose at the dictator. Márquez, by then already a Nobel laureate, wrote Clandestine in Chile in the first person, adopting Littín’s voice, so the book reads like a diary of subversion. Márquez (well, Littín) observes that “the Allende cult is most visible in Valparaíso.” It was in the city of his birth that Allende developed a passion for chess, where his grandfather founded Chile’s first secular school and where, Márquez writes, “he read his first theoretical works in the home of an anarchist shoemaker.” It is possible still to imagine an anarchist shoemaker in Valparaíso, living in a small apartment on a winding lane high up in the hills, contemptuous perhaps of the gentrified city, of the way even the most iconoclastic graffiti now attracts tourist dollars and by extension official sanction and approval.

Sotomayor Square

I am in Valparaíso with my wife to attend the wedding of our friends. The bride is French but her father is Chilean (a Valparaíso-born intellectual forced, like Littín, into exile in Paris) and, at the reception, on an elegant terrace with an expansive view of the sun setting over the Pacific, he sang his city’s songs, shared its stories and for me a foreign city suddenly seemed familiar, a city I too could love. My wife attributes my mawkishness that night to too many pisco sours, Chile’s addictive national cocktail, but I prefer to think I was moved by a serendipitous glimpse into a city’s soul. Valparaíso, until Pinochet, was the sort of place people escaped to from other, greyer parts of the world.

If Allende had a cult following in Valparaíso, the “cult of Pablo Neruda” wrote Márquez, “also thrives among the new generation, and the poet’s former seaside home at Isla Negra has become its shrine…a mecca for lovers from the world over.” Neruda, who took his pseudonym from a late nineteenth-century Czech poet whom he has eclipsed in the minds of much of the world, was a great friend of Allende. An irrepressible bon vivant, Neruda served around the world as a Chilean diplomat and was already Latin America’s most famous poet. The volume that drew the pilgrims, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, was published when Neruda was barely twenty years old. He died just twelve days after Pinochet’s coup, having already experienced exile when González Videla, in the grip of the Cold War, outlawed communism in Chile in 1948. Untended under Pinochet, Isla Negra is once again a prominent tourist attraction. Neruda had houses in Valparaíso and Santiago too, the latter named ‘La Chascona’, after the tangled red hair of his third wife.

My short visit left me no time for a day in Isla Negra but it should be on your itinerary. I did visit his other houses and both are monuments to Neruda’s ludic, eccentric humour. La Sebastiana, the Valparaíso house, is a paean to shipbuilding with portholes for windows, model ships, maps, junk salvaged from wrecks and an uninterrupted view, from the top three floors, where Neruda lived, of the ocean. Neruda, incidentally, was terrified of sailing. Like his friend Jorge Luis Borges, Neruda’s attachment to adventure was intellectual, the ocean a muse to be contemplated, to be celebrated — from a safe distance. La Sebastiana is littered with Neruda’s collections of gewgaws, objects picked up from his wanderings with no value other than the spark they lit in his imagination or their value as topics of dinner table conversation with his many friends. The house, like Valparaíso itself, is a glorious jumble.

 La Sebastiana is one of the stops I make in seven hours walking the city in the company of Michael, a German transplant known throughout the city as the German pirate and under which name he conducts his tours. He was wearing a German pirate T-shirt on the day we met, a nom de guerre that has nothing to do with German politics, his home country’s Pirate Party founded long after he had decamped to Chile. Michael, like the Australian owner of the Yellow House, the bed and breakfast where I stayed, moved to Valparaíso for love. After the tour, sitting on a bus together, Michael told me a little about his extraordinary life as an engineer in the former East Germany, about his botched attempt to defect and his subsequent interrogation and imprisonment. Barely solvent, the East Germans often sold unsuccessful defectors to West Germany, the price higher for educated, employable men, and so Michael made it to the other side of the Wall anyway. He came to Chile on holiday, met a woman and found it easy to leave Germany, by then unified, behind.

His walking tour is a treat because he is a hobbyist, a collector of Valparaíso arcana, of old pictures and odd facts, and blessed with an alert eye. He took me into an old lady’s once fine mansion. She was hobbled over and in the early stages of dementia, though still sharp enough to greet us at the door and show us around her dimly-lit house full of the bric-a-brac of the old Valparaíso bourgeoisie — sepia-tinted photographs; an upright piano, the keys yellow with age; cabinets full of curiosities and crystal; heavy dark wood furniture. Then he took me to the holiday home of a politician, away in Santiago and unaware perhaps that Michael showed tourists around his vast house. As in India, Chilean politicians do well for themselves. Hung in the house were huge hand-woven tapestries purchased at eye-watering expense; in the bathroom was a magnificent clawfoot tub; and then there was the balcony, from which guests at the politician’s annual party (an invitation to which is apparently a sine qua non for entry into the city’s elite) watched Valparaíso’s elaborate New Year’s fireworks.

Michael’s tour also takes in the newly established open-air museum: twenty murals painted on city walls by some of the country’s most acclaimed artists. It’s a particularly effective example of the way Valparaíso plans to market itself to tourists, as a city that embraces its bohemian traditions. The open-air museum, where often there will be groups of picturesque Chilean kids, lank-haired boys and their pale, pretty girlfriends, hanging around with cigarettes and a guitar, or the exquisite Paseo Gervasoni with its handicraft stalls, bijoux cafés and expensive real estate, is the Valparaíso of the tourist brochures. Paseo Gervasoni is at the top of the Ascensor Concepción, the city’s oldest funicular, the cable car system that takes people, nowadays mostly tourists, up the steep hills. The funiculars are a major draw. Concepción is the most popular, taking you up to Paseo Gervasoni and Cerro Alegre and down to the Reloj Turri, the clock tower. For the panoramic views, though, take the Artillería funicular.

A potential problem with my so strongly recommending Michael’s walking tour is that local tour guides must see him as an interloper, stealing their business. And they probably need the money more. It’s unlikely though that they can provide the same service, the same attention to detail and flexibility. From the local guides’ perspectives, the German pirate is less a catchy moniker than it is an accurate description. Bear in mind, you are likely to need a guide. Valparaíso still has a rough reputation and it’s easy to get lost. My own experience was trouble free but the stories told, ruefully by tourists and with gleeful Schadenfreude by taxi drivers, are mostly about pickpockets, scam artists and muggers who prey on the slow-witted.

My wife and I did wander Valparaíso’s grand squares by ourselves, with their monuments to Chilean heroes like Arturo Prat and their signature buildings. The squares and port are full of tourists but also drunks flinching from the sun and stray dogs, much friendlier than the kind you come across in Delhi. When we were in Valparaíso, in October, walking past the ornate buildings which house the city’s banks, we suddenly felt our eyes fill and our throats burn. My nose stung. I thought it might have been pollutants from the construction site nearby but it turned out to be traces of the tear gas used by the police to quell students demonstrating for their right to affordable public education. The tear gas had stayed in the air for two full days. The experience instantly strengthened my admiration for the protesters. These demonstrations, ongoing since June, have already made an icon of the personable student leader Camila Vallejo, voted person of the year by readers of the British newspaper The Guardian. It felt fitting to be in Valparaíso as Chilean students fought to remake their society, to see the city’s radical heart still beating.

 The information

Getting there

You’ll have to fly to Santiago airport, 85km from Valparaíso. Air France offers connections via Paris. The Delhi-Santiago fare is approx. Rs 100,000.


You’ll need to apply for a Chilean visa in person at the Embassy of Chile (146, Jor Bagh, Delhi 110003; 011-24617123). A single-entry visa costs US$20. See for more information.


The currency is the Chilean peso. Rs 1 = approx. CLP 10.

Where to stay

Find a bed & breakfast. The Yellow House (from CLP 18,000/sgl;, where I stayed, is excellent with particularly splendid views. It’s run by a jovial Australian, only too keen to talk cricket, and his Chilean wife. But you may prefer to stay where the action is in Concepción or Cerro Alegre. The Brighton (from CLP 28,571;, a bright yellow Victorian house in Concepción, attracts a young crowd. It has a restaurant that offers live music on Fridays and Saturdays; its elegant patio is full on summer mornings with the beautiful people. The surest sign of the fading of Valparaíso’s once rough and ready reputation is the explosion of expensive boutique hotels. Two of the best are the Gran Hotel Gervasoni (US$179, including breakfast;, with its glorious terrace and location at the heart of Concepción and Casa Higueras (from US$285;, in nearby Cerro Alegre, arguably the finest, most elegant hotel in town.

Where to eat & drink

Valparaíso, increasingly attractive to tourists, now has a number of fashionable restaurants. Its street food is so cheap and tasty—empanadas stuffed with cheese and shrimp, or the chorrilana, a hodgepodge of French fries, grilled beef and fried egg—that I didn’t sample too many of the city’s restaurants. I did have one fine meal in Gervasoni, at the boutique hotel, and another at Pasta e Vino (Tuesday to Saturday: 1pm to 3.30pm and 8pm to midnight;, by common consent the city’s finest restaurant. Valparaíso was famous at various times in its history for its rowdy nightlife. Sailors’ towns rarely lack for brothels and bars. You may struggle to find too many of the former now but there are still plenty of the latter. Bar la Playa (Serrano 568, 32-259-4262), just off the grand Plaza Sotomayor, is particularly atmospheric. The bar is a century old and perfectly reflects Valparaíso’s rakish, scruffy appeal. It’s also a visual delight, full of memorabilia and enticing junk.

What to see & do

The bus trip, cheap and comfortable, from Santiago takes about 90 minutes. Three days in Valparaíso, including a day trip to Isla Negra, is plenty. Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda’s house is in Isla Negra, his favourite of his three Chilean houses and a paean to his love of the sea and ships. You must hire a guide here. The English tour costs CLP 3,500. La Sebastiana, his house in Valparaíso, is also amusing and worth a visit. General entry with a guide is CLP 3,000.

The Naval and Maritime Museum is particularly fascinating if, like me, you were ever entranced by stories of pirates and privateers. The museum hearkens back to Valparaíso’s golden age, a port famous enough to merit mention in Moby Dick. The main purpose of the museum, of course, is to display the history of the Chilean navy, its battles and its heroes. The Artillería funicular you take up to the museum has the most spectacular views. There is a CLP 500 entrance charge. See for basic information about the city’s museums.

Only a few of the funiculars, a cable and pulley system that transports people up Valparaíso’s steep hills, are preserved. Concepción is the oldest, taking you to the charming Paseo Gervasoni and Cerro Alegre, while Artillería is the prettiest. Fares are cheap, CLP 300. At the Cemeterio de Disidentes you can find the assorted tombs and grand mausoleums of British and German seamen who made their way to Valparaíso, called dissidents and buried separately because they weren’t Catholics. You will find the earliest Lutheran churches in the city too.

Walking tours are essential to enjoy Valparaíso, through the city’s squares and historic port area and up into the hills. Valparaíso had Latin America’s first stock exchange, and other grand buildings from its heyday. As you walk you will find once grand buildings in various states of decay, with sweeping marble staircases and ornate doors. I recommend the German Pirate (see for prices) but there are several walking tours, many self-guided, to be found online. The Open Air museum, Museo a Cielo Abierto, the city’s murals and street art are its greatest pleasure. If you can go to bring in the New Year, Valparaíso, where it’s summer, has a three-day party.

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