Postcard from Valparaiso

The Chilean port town is best by funicular

By / February 2015

Where the Pacific touches the central Chilean coast, a host of rocky cliffs plummets downward as if rushing into the sea. It would seem as though life would search out flatter, more amiable locations to carry out its existence. However, on one of these spectacularly steep cliffs sprawls the Chilean port city of Valparaiso.

The port is what fueled Valparaiso’s glory days in the 1800s and it is still busy, still full. Dockworkers scurry about unloading huge freighters full of colored steel storage containers. I can hear engines whine and groan and the slam of metal as other cargo gets stacked aboard more ships. My glance shifts to the harbor, where tankers are offloading their goods. A line stretches beyond them, ships in cue that have taken a number and wait.

Another mechanical sound, more of a wheeze and the clanging of cables, rings out from behind me. I slowly turn and peer up the hill. The view is astonishing. The angular hillside is a miniature city. My eyes are filled with blues, oranges, yellows, and hues of pink. Houses litter the hill. A tiny web of stairways and narrow alleys zigzag across the landscape. I cannot see a way up to this city. It looks like stacks of dominoes teetering on the edge of a table, unstable, ready to come crashing down.

Then I hear the sound. A funicular rail splits the hillside in two. There is a single car, almost gondola like in its compartment, filled with women loaded down with groceries. Three kids with their bicycles. People with cameras. I climb aboard and the car slides up the track. The houses grow larger. The colorful maze from below morphs into a bustling neighborhood.

As I exit the funicular, I walk to the edge of the hilltop. From the terrace, I can see the tiny harbor below, beyond the ships, all the way to the horizon. I smile to myself, perhaps these Chileans knew exactly where to build a city after all.


This is Debbie Porter’s first piece for EthnoTraveler.