This is really scary. I can see through cracks in the floor boards to the steeply pitched rails beneath the little car in which I am riding. What if it should cut loose, plunge off the side or hurtle me to the bottom?
The harbor looks busy, but its heyday was long ago. The opening of the Panama Canal put an end to the long voyage around the tip of South America, diverting ships far north of Valparaiso.
Although named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this historic and picturesque city plays second fiddle to glamorous Vina del Mar next door. Tour groups go there for lunch after catching a few highlights of Valpo.
In order to see more, I have avoided the tours and taken an early morning bus from Santiago. My goal is to ride the historic ascensores (funiculars) that climb the dramatic hills upon which the city is built.
Constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the ascensores are lovingly tended and, I presume, safe. More than a dozen still operate. The one I’ve just ridden goes up Cerro Artilleria (cerro means hill).
At the top, stalls sell tourist trinkets. A single restaurant has posted its lunch menu. And history buffs hike further to the Museo Naval y Maritimo (naval and maritime museum).
Another 250 pesos takes me down, and I board a bus to Ascensor Concepcion. “Tell the driver you want to go to Turri,” advises a woman at the bus stop, because that is the local name. This hill seems even steeper, but the trip is mercifully short.
Cerro Concepcion offers a cluster of inns, restaurants and cafes and a long walkway with benches where one can relax and enjoy the view. Still, I have been warned not to wander heedlessly, and I avoid an empty street where I see an individual I don’t trust.
Other tourists tell me that residents have directed them away from questionable areas and advised them to keep cameras hidden. Down below, I skirted two drunks as I headed toward a bus stop.
For lunch, I go to Café Turri on Cerro Concepcion, near the funicular terminal. This restaurant is in another world from what I have seen. Modern, airy and upscale, it could well be on a hill in San Francisco or in an exclusive part of Santa Barbara.
Lunch is elegant. Fish (reineta) has a creamy seafood sauce that incorporates oysters, shrimp, mussels and razor clams. The potato gratin that the waiter suggests is just right with this.
Dessert is a Chilean classic, mote con huesillo, or cooked wheat with whole preserved peaches. In this upscale rendition, it becomes Vanidad Porteno (portenos are inhabitants of this port city) and is paired with a glass of late harvest wine, Casa Silva Semillon Gewurztraminer 2006 from the Colchagua Valley.
Another 250 pesos, and I am back down, map in hand, walking to an ascensor nearby. But I get lost in the warren of twisting streets and never find it. Instead, I come across an artisanal fair and buy a jar of merquen, a spicy red pepper seasoning that originated with the indigenous Mapuches of the south.
Another booth has chumbeque, a traditional sweet from Iquique made of flaky cookies blended with lime juice and cane syrup. And another has fancy handmade chocolates.
Continuing on, I see grand, faded, European style buildings from Valparaiso’s glory days. A market street is congested—produce stalls, bakeries, empanada shops and a woman nodding in a chair beside a table of goods for sale.
Farther on is a line of stalls aimed at local trade, piled with alpaca scarves and caps for the cold weather to come, cheap jewelry, snacks and, although it is May (autumn in Chile), nativity scenes from Peru.
A bus takes me on a swirling ride around the hills, passing a sign for La Sebastiana, the house of the poet Pablo Neruda, which is now a museum.
I visited the house on a previous trip, so I don’t get off. On that trip, I stopped only long enough to see La Sebastiana and to have a quick coffee at a famous café of the past, Café Riquet (now closed). One of its customers was the Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet, or so a taxi driver told me. Pinochet was born in Valparaiso.
This time, instead of rushing in and out, I have wandered for many hours. Walking to the bus stop, I pass a pet food shop with hungry mutts clustered outside, modest lunch rooms and a bakery where frosting flows over cakes like folds of fabric.
Near the Parque Italia, a tree-lined square, I see a lively stall that sells obleas colombianas, and I buy one for the trip home. The tissue-thin wafers (obleas) are put together with arequipa, which is luscious, soft, Colombian style milk caramel. It is a sweet finish to an interesting day, and in only an hour and a half, I am back in Santiago.
Tur-Bus goes every 15 minutes from Santiago to Valparaiso. Buses are comfortable and seats are reserved. The ticket office in Santiago is inside the Universidad de Santiago Metro terminal. A round trip ticket costs about $8.
The O microbus will take you around the hills of Valparaiso, affording good views of the harbor if you sit on the right. Board this bus on Francia just past Colon, above Parque Italia.
Ascensor rides are 250 pesos each way. Go armed with a map, a guidebook and enough Spanish to ask directions.