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Valparaiso, once the most important port in the whole of South America, has now all but replaced the colourful merchant fleets carrying wonders from afar with the uniform grey of battleships and destroyers. Even walking though the city’s main thoroughfares there seems little to attract one to modern Valparaiso. Crowded streets are lined with shops selling sturdy bras and eighties fashion, while restaurants proudly promote Chile’s national dish – the hotdog. But it is not the port or the town centre that Valparaiso is now famous for.

Valparaiso is encircled by the sea and a crescent of steep hills and it is here, high above the hustle of the streets, that the rich merchants and traders of the past built their homes. Cobbled streets, bay windowed villas and terraced mansions turreted with glass viewing rooms overlook the city. The colonial architecture and the air of past glory makes Valparaiso all but irresistible for the tourist.

We were staying in an airy room in a large terraced house high on the surrounding hills and it was kept cool by gentle sea breezes. It was the type of house where three people could pass comfortably on the stairs and where the pipes would rattle in a familiar friendly sort of way. Every morning sunlight would stream into our room, slowly rousing us from our slumber. The light wasn’t a harsh, unwelcome visitor but rather a lively friend enthusing us into the day. After a comfortable hour entertaining the morning we would make our way to the kitchen and potter around making fresh espressos. This felt more like a romantic weekend away than part of an around the world epic. The only home comfort we lacked was four inches of Sunday paper.

While living life on a hill has it advantages it does normally imply a long hard slog uphill and my broken ankle rendered me unable. Luckily the portly traders of the past had the same problem and had the good sense to install a series of short tramlines to elevate one above street level. These ascensors are little more than a wooden box roughly hammered together, but now age has added respectability to the original shoddy workmanship. Old ladies, parents with small children, tourists wanting to experience the charm of old and business men wishing to avoid the sweat stains of ten flights of stairs now crowd these reminders of yesteryear.

The lady who took the 15 cents for the ride was a soulless bag. Pushing into her later years her face was lined and cracked but with no trace of those friendly crinkles around her eyes or the corners of her mouth. Every day she wordlessly took our money with all the personal appeal of a Soviet prison warden. Once the ascensor was loaded she closed the door and after a moment the carriage would jolt forward and begin juddering its way up the implausibly steep slope. Two warped rails kept it on track and an old cable creaked in opposition to gravity. Inch by inch we were towed uphill with all the suspense of a roller coaster ride. The old carriage had made this journey thousands if not millions of times. I wondered how many times it had to be rebuilt from tinder wood.

One night, almost by accident, we ended up far away from typical tourist eateries in a very typical Chilean restaurant. It was the type of restaurant that had old men with hunched backs and walking sticks enjoying a glass of vina de mesa and where the menu is painted onto the walls. The tables were bare wood and the chairs only vaguely looked liked they would bear our weight, yet the place had the charm and romance of something alive and real and not at all manufactured.

The waiter moved in a restrained dance to the background of tango, every move a reserved flourish. He may have been working but that wasn’t going to stop him from enjoying life. With a smile, half a wink and a flurry of incomprehensible Spanish he had us ordering the house special. While Chilean food may not be a gastronome’s dream, the six different types of pig we were subsequently served perfectly matched the ambience of the restaurant and we were charmed.

The following night, taking pleasure in the romance of the city while we sat in yet another restaurant sipping wine it was easy to forget that Valparaiso is still a city like any other city with all the problems that that entails. A sharp rapping at the window where we sat dragged our gaze to the reality of the street. A man stood there, with pained expression and grubby clothes. He put his hands to his chest, giving notice to his plight, and then dramatically mimed drinking a bottle of wine with the staggered ham acting of a puppeteer’s show.

Our expression hardened and when he realised that we weren’t going to help him he released an animal howl of sheer frustration – not at us, but at his own uncontrollable desire. Long after he left we were upset not only by the stark contrast between his captivity and our freedom, but also at our unwillingness to help.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of Caelen on his crutches Valparaiso - Chile Travelogues
Photograph of an ascensor in Valparaiso - Chile Travelogues
Caelen on his crutches

View from an ascensor
Photograph of a socialist mural Valparaiso - Chile Travelogues
Picture of Valparaiso - Chile Travelogues
A socialist mural
Valparaiso streets

Picture of Valparaiso - Chile Travelogues
Picture of Valparaiso - Chile Travelogues
Valparaiso streets
Valparaiso streets