By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Courtesy ProChile
I traveled to Chile in September 2016, a trip still vividly imprinted on my mind’s eye. I remember the streets of Santiago, where music in the subway, concept stores, and the La Moneda presidential palace were followed by the “End of the World” with the pampas, the Strait of Magellan, and the crags of Torres del Paine. One night I slept cradled in the cold darkness of the southern mountains and the next night, I was enveloped in a different kind of darkness, that of the Atacama desert with its profusion of stars.
This time, I’m not in northern or southern Chile; this time I want to tell you about the coastal city of Valparaíso, where it was also nighttime when I arrived and headed straight to the Hotel Casa Higueras. History tells us that the 1920s brought German and English immigrants who built houses amidst colorful gardens in this zone perched on Cerro Alegre, giving the hill its name: Happy Hill. The hotel is, in fact, an old restored mansion with balconies overlooking ships and cranes in the harbor.
I must admit that the view of ships and cranes is not the most pleasant. Standing on the balcony of my room and gazing at the hundreds of houses crowding another hill, it was disconcerting to see how “development” had filled the night with noise, paved the sea with acres of containers, and rent the horizon with metal booms. I fell asleep thinking about this, mindful that I would be touring the city in the morning.
The Mapache knew Valparaíso as Alimapu and Chango people lived here during pre-Hispanic times. The first Spaniards arrived in 1536, and British and German immigrants began to settle here in the early 19th century. However, it was not until 1920 that the city began to structure its growth. This is why Valparaíso is said to have been built by its residents to serve their own needs as best they could. This is also why the city is not laid out on the typical Spanish square grid (main square surrounded by important buildings), but is instead a patchwork of alleyways, lanes, and houses clinging to those singular hills.
Cerro Alegre and Barrio Puerto, the two oldest areas of Valparaíso, are heritage zones, a distinction that gives special treatment to one of the most recognized manifestations of Chile’s city of culture: the omnipresent graffiti. We see our first examples on the sides of houses, on walls, and alongside windows. They come in grays and in vibrant colors, sometimes covering entire sides of buildings. Some show a New York City influence and some are in the style of politically-tinged Mexican murals. Graffiti was employed as a weapon against the military dictatorship and it survives today as a way of protesting and preserving historic memory.
“Graffiti first appeared in the hills or in lightly-monitored central locations, but many of these graffiti artists began asking the owners of houses for wall space,” explained guide Felipe Muñoz of Ecomapu Travel. Tagging began to give way to full-on graffiti, since permission from the owners gave the artists time for more elaborate work and also created a commitment to do a good job. This permission likewise sparked a competition to be the best.
Street art has such a strong presence in Valparaíso that the city is known as one of the world’s ten best destinations for graffiti, so much so that there are tours specializing in the art. Although it is difficult to pinpoint how many artists work in the city (many come and go, noted Muñoz), the local scene has some outstanding names that not only brighten the streets of Valparaíso with their art, but carry it around the world: Giova, Un Kolor Distinto, MAV, Cuellimangui, Inti, and Daniel Marcelli, among others.
While large works may stand out owing to their size and colors, a stroll around the city uncovers surfaces, staircases, and signs sporting elegant, poetic phrases that highlight the ingenuity of the inhabitants of “Valpo,” as it is sometimes called. For example, an ordinary shop in the city features the message: “Good vibes accepted here.” Some stairs affirm: “We are not hippies. We are happies.” The quote “You can’t bloom without experiencing all the seasons” struck me as revelatory.
Everything in Valparaíso screams creativity, everything shouts color. Walking its hills means climbing stairs and descending steep lanes, but this up and down is constantly rewarded by little surprises in the form of graffiti and sayings, not to mention mobiles, lanterns, and decorations made of glass, fabric, and plants. Ambling down an alleyway flanked by tall houses, you might suddenly find yourself on an overhanging vantage point that gives you a view of the other hills. You might be admiring the panorama when a shout suddenly erupts from a nearby street, indicating that the steep, narrow road has overcome a driver’s ability with a stick shift. Valparaíso is beautiful, but it has its share of problems: the traffic in these streets is insane, and fires driven by the winds are difficult to control because of the terrain.
Down below, in Barrio Puerto, the atmosphere changes subtly. It is obvious that this is an older neighborhood, and here the graffiti is more political and noise from the port is even louder. That day, Plaza Sotomayor —which separates Barrio Puerto from the financial district— was hosting a concert in memory of the great Violeta Parra; in Plaza Echaurren —dating to 1897— men in long coats and berets evoked another time.
A stroll through Valparaíso ends at Cerro Bellavista, the site of La Sebastiana, the Pablo Neruda House Museum. But despite being right on the museum’s doorstep, we weren’t able to squeeze in a visit.