On a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean and one hundred kilometers from Santiago, Chile is the port town of Valparaiso, famous for its labyrinthine street system, uniquely mismatched architecture, and still-functioning funiculars. A historically favorite stopover for boats rounding South America, it became home to immigrants from all over Europe whose influence, in part, led to the hodgepodge of architectural styles that have drawn photographers and visitors to the town for more than a century.
The economic golden age may have passed with the opening of the Panama Canal, but recent revival efforts have earned this city its official status as the cultural capital of Chile. And the historic quarter was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s a treasure for anyone interested in the arts and a veritable playground for a photographer. The quarter is a maze of alleyways and passages. Getting lost in winding streets with a camera or pen in hand is perhaps the best way to spend an afternoon.
The city carries itself with an attitude, quiet and cool, with a contemplative stare toward the sea. It’s no wonder that it’s been a traditional home to so many artists, musicians, and writers, including the Nobel Prize-winning Pablo Neruda. Yet the beauty of Valparaiso isn’t a traditional one. Things are often run down. The town, from certain angles, seems almost threadbare. The concrete crumbles. The paints have been muted by the salt water air. Trash sometimes gathers conspicuously in the alleys or abandoned lots.
It doesn’t matter. For anyone obsessed with capturing images, these flaws become features. Around every corner is a glimpse of a cityscape as unique and mystifying as the last—trash, dirt, broken concrete and all. And, of course, there’s the ever-present graffiti. Brightly colored graffiti murals are integral to the city, and the artists who painted the murals often did so as part of the revival movement. Like no city I’ve been in, the residents of Valparaiso celebrate the beauty of a graffiti mural on a stone wall as much as they do a 19th-century historic building.
We stayed at the Tricahue, a quaint guesthouse that is one part hotel, and one part crash pad for your wealthy uncle. Quaint and homey, we felt right at home as we were greeted by the kind receptionist, who handed us the keys to the building, and left for the evening around 5pm.
Our few days were spent getting lost in the winding maze of streets. Even a map can’t fully capture Valparaiso. It’s simply too three-dimensional. Streets next to one another on a map may be 50 feet apart in vertical distance. We were told by local residents that if you get lost, just keep going downhill. Everything pours out into the sea eventually. So we made our way down, down, down, poked our heads into local shops of leatherworkers, visual artists, or clothiers, visited Pablo Neruda’s home, found some good ice cream (a staple of the Chilean diet) and drank nice Chilean wines.
For people who love city traveling, like we do, this was not the single most magical, most romantic, or most exciting place we visited. But the photographs speak for themselves. What sets Valparaiso apart is that every angle, every inexplicable turn, every stray dog lapping at a puddle, every broken building and every piece of graffiti look carefully placed, just waiting for the lens.
The romance one finds here is wedged between two narrow rows of old-world inspired buildings covered in the neon dayglow of spray paints staring at the port below where stacks of sea containers await the arrival of vessels from the vast expanse of the Pacific. One leaves the town with the impression that Valparaiso is an old photograph, faded and smudged and scribbled over with a bright crayon, and all the more beautiful for it.
Article by Bradley Geer, photos by Kira Morris.