The ups and downs of Valparaíso, Chile

by Clare Kirwan

It's described as the Jewel of the Pacific, but you will need strong shoes, a head for heights and help from an unusual means of transport – the 'ascensores' – to get up Valparaíso's 42 hills

Valparaíso (Spanish for Paradise Valley) is spectacularly perched on a natural amphitheatre of hills where fine 19th-century buildings jostle with the brightly painted houses for which the Chilean city is famous. Despite being badly damaged several times by earthquakes, it is so prized for its unique architecture that it was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003.

With its labyrinths of cobbled streets, "Valpo" – as its known locally – is a fantastic city for walking. For walking, though, read climbing. What looks like a short distance on a map can actually be a steep flight of steps. Thank goodness for one of the city’s most unique features – the ascensores (funicular elevators) that help you avoid the more tortuous climbs.

A bit like vertical cable cars, these elderly contraptions are an adventure in themselves as you board the wooden cabins to creak and clang up impossible gradients. Built mainly around the turn of the last century, only 15 remain and are classed as one of the world’s 100 most endangered historical treasures. The ascensores usually cost only the equivalent of 10p per trip, though some are boycotted by locals for charging 30p.

Ascensor Artillería

We stayed in The Yellow House (see Where to stay, below) which is perched at a superb vantage point in the Artillería district. At the top, Plaza 21 de Mayo provides the classic view of Valparaiso – the docks directly below, the sweep of the bay and the hills rising up from it – which is particularly spectacular at sunset. The naval museum is here too – but closed on Mondays.

Ascensor Espiritu Santo

This takes you to the Bella Vista area, where the streets are like outdoor art galleries. Not only are the houses painted in the traditional vivid colours, but there is a visual extravaganza of lively murals. This is the fascinating Museo a Cielo Abierto – the open sky museum. It’s perfect for wandering around, though it's sometimes difficult to tell the official murals from the unofficial ones.

This area was beloved of South America’s best-known poets. Pablo Neruda built one of his homes here: the delightfully quirky five-storey La Sebastiana. It is full of exotic ephemera collected by the great man, ranging from a fairground horse to a wall-sized map of Tierra del Fuego made out of pebbles. There are reportedly incredible views form his famous "cloud" chair – but it was very misty when I was there, so my top tip is to check the forecast carefully!

Ascensor Concepción

The oldest ascensor takes you to the historic Concepción neighbourhood. Turn right as you get out of the ascensor into Paseo Gervasoni; Café Turri on the Paseo has posh pastries and incredible views.

It’s worth a climb (we didn’t find an ascensor) to the Cemetario on the hill south of Cerro Concepción. Here, the Catholics get the best views and anyone else is buried in the "Dissidents' Cemetery" behind it. Time your visit well – they both close for lunch.

Ascensor Polanco

The only true "lift", this one takes you vertically up through a rock exit via a suspended walkway – not for the faint-hearted! Valparaíso occupies a fine natural harbour on the Chile’s long Pacific coast. It was an important stopping-off point en route to Cape Horn in the 19th century The building of the Panama canal in 1914 signalled a downturn in its fortunes – but since its historic quarter was awarded Unesco World Heritage status, cruise ships have been returning at the rate of 52 a year.

Where to stay

The Yellow House (Capitán Muñoz Gamero 91), which is tricky to find, is run by the very personable Martin, a native Australian, and his Chilean wife Lysette. They will provide masses of local information, history and recommendations – and they'll even find you a personal guide if you want to go further afield. We enjoyed the communal breakfast with other guests and it was nice to have use of the kitchen and library.

Gran Hotel Gervasoni ( is a popular choice for those wanting to splash out. A heritage building on Paseo Gervasoni in Cerro Concepción, it has a terrace with fantastic views.

Where to eat

There are numerous restaurants and cafés – and, being on a budget, we headed for the very reasonable Menu del Dias around the fish market towards the wharf. There is also a tempting array of bakeries; don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Valparaíso has always received large numbers of European immigrants – especially German, Italian and English. Perhaps this explains the Chilean habit of "onces" – literally "elevenses", but here meaning afternoon tea and cakes at about 5pm.

Tired of the ups and downs?

Get on the water with a fascinating boat trip around the harbour from the wharf area. Alternatively, follow the coast north on the new metro to the cosmopolitan up-market resort of Viña del Mar for lovely beaches and fine dining.

Getting there

Numerous buses from Santiago take less than two hours from Pajaritos bus station (north side). These connect to the frequent blue airport buses which drop you at the south side of Pajaritos.