On this day April 13, 2014, the Chilean port city of Valparaiso, 74 miles northwest of Santiago, was ablaze.
When the Gran Incendio de Valparaíso had run its course, 2,500 homes were destroyed, 11,000 people were homeless, another 6,000 had been evacuated, 10 were seriously injured and 15 were dead.
I think about this as we traverse some of Valparaiso’s 17 steep hills (cerros) on this gloriously sunny day. It’s hard to imagine this disaster or others that have hit this city of about 285,000 (1 million in the metro area). Certainly still fresh in the minds of many residents is the three-minute, 8.8 earthquake that hit in February 2010, affecting 80 percent of Chile’s population.
“I thought I was going to die,” one woman told me. “I knew it was the end.”
We are on the second day of a 17-day trip with Odysseys Unlimited’s “Patagonian Frontiers” tour. After a couple of days in Santiago and Valparaiso, we’ll leave for Patagonia’s national parks, Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn.
Valparaiso, or Valpo as locals call it, is no stranger to disasters.
Major earthquakes in 1647, 1730, 1822 and 1906 left the city in shambles, and additional fires in 2014 and 2015 caused massive destruction of life and property. Perhaps the city’s stubborn will to survive has earned its Gritty City moniker.
Economic temblors have tested Valparaiso, too.
Before the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, Valpo, known then as Little San Francisco because of its wealth and culture, was an important port city for all the ships sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Valparaiso was the first major port available after navigating the stormy Straits of Magellan and rounding Cape Horn. Many gold-seeking 49ers from the U.S. East Coast traveled on these ships to California rather than crossing the continent via horse and wagon.
Once the canal was operational, though, Valpo’s port traffic fell dramatically. Steady economic decline followed throughout the last half of the 1900s, but, according to our guide, things are improving.
Valparaiso is a port-of-call for cruise ships, and several universities have located here. A cursory glance today leads visitors to think that no one over 30 resides here. A young population also brings with it bars, discotecas, cafes, bakeries and art, galleries, some established in restored historic homes and buildings.
And then there are the murals.
“There used to be a problem here with graffiti, but they solved the problem by calling it street art,” our guide explains. (Read: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.)
These murals have taken street art to a whole new level, though. Both invited artists and locals have blanketed the walls of homes, businesses and churches in colorful, eye-popping designs and portraits depicting the city’s and country’s history, culture, humor and indigenous population.
Even some doors, steps and sidewalks have become canvases. Between the art, uneven walkways and occasional post and pillar, it takes concentration to navigate Valpo’s streets, sidewalks and cobblestone maze of alleys. It’s a happy task, though, and I’m also grateful for our guide who knows where we’re going.
When our street-art tour comes to an end, we board one of the historic wooden funiculars (ascensors) to descend from our hill. There once were about 40 funiculars scattered over the steep hillsides; today, nine are operational.
We off-load at Paseo Yugoslavo and the Palacio Baburizza, which reminds us that Chile was built by immigrants. Now an art museum, this former residence of a wealthy Croatian businessman and philanthropist was built in 1916 by Italian architects. Many other buildings in the flat port area also reflect European origins.
In 2003, the historic quarter of Valparaiso was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.