Valparaiso – it gets knocked down, it gets up again!

Walking through the main streets of the port area of #Valparaiso #Chile early one morning, it was eerily quiet and deserted, with very little traffic. This though was not the 11 September 1973, the day the military coup against the Allende government started, although perhaps it was a little like that then. This was in fact 20 April 2017, census day, when everyone was required to remain home and be counted. In 1973 they’d been required to remain home or be shot by the military & police in their streets, or bombed by the Chilean navy situated in the port & bay, with their naval guns facing the city. To this day the Chilean navy remains based in Valparaiso, with ships in the port harbour, just a warning perhaps?

The 1973 military coup was one of many knocks taken by Valparaiso over the years – another was the fact that General Augusto Pinochet, the coup leader & soon-to-be dictator, was a son of Valparaiso, born there in 1915. But as ever Valparaiso bounces back, and today is home to the Chilean Congress (since 1990 when Pinochet stepped down), a greatly recovering local economy, and maintains a strong alternative/bohemian culture alongside it’s working class & international roots.

In fact Valparaiso’s history is quite short, if very eventful – earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, naval battles, strikes, booms & busts. Under Spanish colonialism from the 1540’s onwards, it remained a small seaside village until the early 19th century, continuing a way of life dating back thousands of years – a reliance on fishing and some agriculture (see the Picunche and Chango indigenous cultures), and surviving the odd earthquake (such as 1730 at 8.7) and tsunami. Then in the early 19th century a businessman built Valparaiso’s first pier and began to develop a port, that would eventually reclaim close to 1km from the sea. This port soon became a major stopping point for shipping sailing around the bottom of south America from the Atlantic to Pacific, and gave Chile more importance to European traders. It was therefore ideally situated for the Californian goldrush (1848-60), and throughout the rest of the 19th century many from Europe & north America settled in Valparaiso, having a major impact on its culture & development – as the place expanded rapidly up the hills around it, and its population jumped from under 10,000 to nearly 200,000 in less than a century. It was also a key place for the development of organised workers along the Pacific coast.

The early 20th century saw Valparaiso hit its highs and lows. The 1903 Maritime strike was a major struggle in south American labour history. In 1906 Valparaiso was almost destroyed by a huge earthquake, from which it took many decades to recover. It’s port then had a massive rebuild, but the opening of the Panama canal in 1914, and the start of WW1 in Europe, had an enomously negative impact on its economy, from which has arguably only recovered in the last 25 years. Ironically todays container ships are too big for the Panama canal, so Valparaiso has benefitted, although the profit drive from big business has forced workers into a series of strikes.

Today Valparaiso is a large bustling city of 250,000+ people. The climate is pretty mediterranean, which adds to the liveliness of its bars & nightlife! It has a large student population, a lot of alternative & bohemian culture & art, and lies in close proximity to the capital Santiago (120kms away), and the resort city of Vina del Mar is right next door. It’s unique, if crazy geography, located on a series of hills overlooking the port area & bay, contributes to both its charm and the sense of ‘edge’ it has, perhaps because it does quite literally exist on the edge (of the ‘Chile trench‘). More recent earthquakes (2010, 2015 & 2017) and wildfires (2017) merely continue this edginess, but whatever happens one senses it will always bounce back.


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