The 57-Cent Battle and a World of Stairs: Valparaíso, Chile, Jan. 2007

The city of Valparaíso rises almost vertically from its wide smiling mouth of a port. The few blocks closest to the water are flat. They seem like the city’s version of customary formalities, offered without much sincerity.

Once these are dispensed with, the city gets down to its business. It leaps up and up, to better show off its broad bay. To climb all of the stairs of Valparaíso would be to make a trip around the world, observed
the city’s most famous one-time resident, the late poet Pablo Neruda.

Century-Old Box Cars

For more than a century, a kind of boxy cable car has offered short cut up Valparaíso’s sharp incline. More than a dozen of these two-car-on-one-track
operations climb the city’s slope. One car rises, while the other descends. Then, the first car descends as the other rises.
You could jump on most of these for 200 Chilean pesos, about 38 U.S. cents at the time of our visit. The cable car in the heart of the tourist district ratcheted its price to 500 Chilean pesos, adding the equivalent of 57 cents to the price.

57-Cent War

The residents of that neighborhood responded Chilean style –with a boycott, some art and a sense of humor. They posted signs on the Victorian buildings, telling tourists of a bus route they could use as an alternative. Signs also suggested that people take this as a time to enjoy a walk.
Most of the signs were playful, and perhaps all the more effective for that reason.

The signs mixed in well with the murals that cover walls in the city’s neighborhoods. I didn’t see anyone use that ascensor on our visit.


“Do You Know Him?”

We did use the reasonably priced ascensors. A dog, seen to the left, walked into one ascensor with us. The woman who collected our fares asked if we knew him. It struck David and me as fitting that she didn’t ask us, “Is he
yours?”
Chile is a big dog party, at least in the
cities we visited. Dogs of all sizes and conditions run about the
streets. We saw a few who were a little beat-up, like a dog had a bump
on the nose and seemed quite shy about it.

The surprise was how good many of the dogs looked.

Most had glossy coats and good muscle tone. We saw people pat some of the friendliest ones on their heads as
they passed.



It made sense that our dog ascensor companion would take a lift to get a better view of the port, where Blue cranes moved red and orange containers from ship from dock to ship. It was hypnotic to watch them


The port’s heyday came with the the California gold rush of 1849. It seems
it was at least as cheap and easy to send wheat from Chile by sea than
from the U.S. Midwest before there were such things as a national
highway system or trucks to carry rectangular containers.

Valparaíso drew German immigrants in its boom years, which the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal helped end. Some of the German immigrants prospered enough to build grand homes.

One built a castle here at the port city at what
some of its inhabitants consider the end of the world. Mountains
form Chile’s eastern border, cutting it off from its neighbors and creating a narrow slice of a country. To the west stretches the blue Pacific for miles and miles.
Another immigrant built a mansion shaped like a boat in nearby Vina del Mar. It’s a restaurant now. David and I had a dinner, watching sunset fall over the beach and sea.

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