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Color abounds in Chile's cultural capital, Valparaíso. (Photograph by Ben Long)

Out of the Ashes: Valparaíso

Port cities are among the planet’s most interesting destinations. The exchange of cultures, customs, and cuisine that happens there is real-time living history that anyone can witness. Valparaíso presents a great example of this.

For instance, what do the California gold rush and the Panama Canal have to do with a port city in Chile?

When fortune seekers boarded ships on America’s East Coast to make the long journey to California (aren’t interstates grand?), they had to sail the whole way around South America to get there. After navigating the rough waters around Tierra del Fuego, they were happy to pause for a spell in Valparaíso, ushering in a boom time for this city by the sea. But soon enough, a shortcut better known as the Panama Canal, which opened for business a century ago in 1914, put an end to Valparaíso’s golden age.

Valparaíso’s economy may not be what it was, but the vibrant culture you’ll find there remains, despite a flagging maritime trade and earthquakes that have shaken it to its core. The city, and the resourceful people who make it such a dynamic place, have proven they can overcome hurdles with characteristically colorful élan.

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A small sampling of Valparaíso’s famous street art (Photograph by Ben Long)

I’d heard about Valparaíso’s undulating urban landscape, but was blown away once I arrived. Navigating the narrow streets, you feel as though you are walking through some kind of Willy Wonka theme park. The hills are literally covered with world-class artwork. Alleyways slink through the hills like a network of streams in a river delta, with each waterway serving different areas in need.

The paths have elevated pedestrian sidewalks on each side with a lowered middle aisle for donkey traffic, so that the beasts of burden can deposit their droppings out of the way of pedestrians. Sadly, no one has trained the hoards of street dogs to do the same, which creates a problem when you’re gawking at the colors surrounding you only to find your foot planted in a fresh pile—true story.

Artists from across Chile and around the world make the pilgrimage to Valparaíso to put their mark on the city. A walk through even the most unassuming parts of town provides a striking display of human creativity in the form of intricate graffiti, some of which spans several buildings, requiring a higher vantage for full appreciation. Needless to say, you won’t be bored ambling around the place.

Though just 70 miles south of Chile’s capital, Santiago, Valparaíso is a destination in its own right. (Make sure to dedicate a few days to exploring the street art, dive bars, coffee shops, and world-class restaurants it has to offer.) And while Valparaíso’s street art is its principal draw, it would be dishonest to say that it’s the only thing that lures people here. There is another attraction, and one common to many port cities, that came long before the colorful buildings—booze!

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Valparaíso was known as “Little San Francisco” because of its similarly steep hills. (Photograph by Ben Long)

Valparaíso’s seafaring drinking culture has remained in spite of its waning role as a temporary refuge for circumnavigators (it continues to be one of the most vital seaports in the South Pacific), with the party stretching into the early hours of the morning. In fact, the no-frills bars scattered throughout the city offer yet another portal through time; it’s clear many haven’t changed in decades, maybe even centuries.

The oldest bar in town, Liberty, serves the famous Valparaíso drink, chichón—a combination of chicha and vino pipeño that packs a heavy punch. After my second round, I was sporting the happy glaze permeating the crowd. This is what I call blending in!

Sadly, Valparaíso is going through another chapter in its history, rebuilding and healing in the wake of a catastrophic fire that claimed 2,500 homes and more than a dozen lives in the spring of 2014. But having spent considerable time in the city prior to the blaze, I have faith that it will bounce back, as it always has.

When a place and a people are going through a trying time, sometimes travelers have an instinct to pull back, to give room. But in reality the best way to help is to keep visiting, to show, with the benefit of your tourism dollars, that the bounty and beauty of Chile’s cultural capital are something the world wants to experience firsthand.

Ben Long is a writer and photographer from Lewisburg, West Virginia, who spent more than a year living in Argentina and exploring South America. See more of Ben’s photos on Flickr and follow his story on Twitter @benlongtales.

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