Sunday, November 15, 2009

Valparaíso's in Fashion

Finally, it seems, the Southern Cone countries are getting some attention from the North American press and, in the case of Chile’s scenic “cultural capital” of Valparaíso, the profile is rising even more rapidly. A few weeks ago, The New York Times dedicated an entire Sunday travel section to Latin America, with special attention to Santiago and Montevideo, and the latest edition of National Geographic Traveler includes a downloadable walking tour of “Valpo,” which is less than two hours west of Santiago.

Almost immediately, the NYT has followed that up with its own gastronomic tour of the city, concentrating on the adjacent Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción neighborhoods, both reached by ascensores (funiculars) from the downtown financial district. First-time visitors are often struck by the similarities with San Francisco, and not just from the way these little cable cars climb halfway up the hills: the natural landscape greatly resembles to Northern California, and the climate - with its billowing Pacific ocean fogs that often obscure the sun until late in the morning - is virtually identical, When it finally lifts, though, the views of the port city and its neighbor Viña del Mar are truly stunning.

Unlike nearly every other Chilean city founded in colonial times, Valparaíso does not replicate the pattern of a central Plaza de Armas as the center of a grid of perpendicular streets. Rather, it grew spontaneously up the hillsides, with zigzag paths that became streets and, in some cases, alleyways so narrow that you can almost touch houses on both sides. Rather than a New World city, in some ways it more closely resembles a medieval Mediterranean port except that there are few buildings more than a century-plus old.

Through the 19th century, Valparaíso and San Francisco were the most important ports on the Pacific coast of the Americas, with equally cosmopolitan immigrant and commercial communities. With the 1914 completion of the Panama Canal, though, commercial shipping began to avoid the long and arduous route around Cape Horn, and Valpo’s business dried up. Ironically, this preserved much of the city’s historic heritage, including Victorian and Georgian style houses that, in the case of places like Hotel Zero, have become stylish boutique hotels.

That’s reason enough to make Valparaíso an overnighter - preferably several nights - rather than just a daytrip. It has the additional attraction that, midway to Santiago, the Valle de Casablanca is one of Chile’s up-and-coming wine routes. Lining the highway are bodegas such as Viña Veramonte, for tasting and touring, and restaurants such as House of Morandé for fine dining.

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