Walks in Valparaiso

To sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries, Valparaiso, Chile, shone as one of South America’s beacons of light. The central city, embraced by steep hills and a beautiful bay, bustled with prosperity. Above, elegant wooded neighborhoods housed the merchants and bankers and fleet owners. Sailors’ sea chanteys celebrate this port’s magnificence, remember its sexy women and raucous waterfront bars, and express a yearning to return.

Today, 100-year-old cable cars continue to carry pedestrians from the central city to elevated neighborhoods, and markets that have thrived “forever” continue to draw residents and visitors alike.

Orientation is easy — the central city as a “half moon” with the bay to the north, and hills to the east, south and west. My wife and I took six walks there in 2003 (and before submitting this article in late 2005, I made sure that all of the information is current).

All of our walks began and ended in the central city, and all made use of the old cable cars. Called ascensores, these 14 funicular railways and one elevator were built between 1883 and 1917. They remain safe, well maintained, expertly operated and cheap, providing rare delights to the visitor.

Walk No. 1: Baron Hill & market

Our first walk began at the central city’s eastern edge. From Baron Station, where trains to the nearby resort city of Playa del Mar arrive, we walked across the intersection to the Feria Persa Baron, a market full of cheap goods and with great opportunities to observe local people unimpressed by visitors.

We already had noticed the cable cars moving up and down the hill, so finding the tiny station was easy. The sign reads “Ascensor Baron.” As we ascended, the view of the city and bay waxed magnificent.

Leaving the upper station, we paused to consider the vista, then we walked toward the steeple that we had first glimpsed from below, that of the historic Iglesia San Francisco, built in 1845. The church was a landmark for sailors. Indeed, they called the city “Pancho,” a common nickname for Francisco.

We continued eight blocks from the ascensor to the church, easily keeping the steeple in our sights. We returned by walking 10 blocks down Blancoveil Street, back in the direction of the city. Where the street ended, a very quick right and left brought us to the station for our next cable car, called Ascensor Lecheros. Leaving the lower station, we found the grand boulevard, Argentina Avenue.

Walk No. 2: Argentina Ave., Ascensor Polanco & antique market

Along Argentina Avenue, a weekend market offers produce and crafts, fragrance and color. Especially color. Where the market ended, we walked up Simpson Street to the imposing orange tower. This is Ascensor Polanco, not a cable car at all but an elevator.

We entered through a tunnel that drives deep into the hill to find the elevator’s lowest level. The middle stop is ground level, halfway up the hill. The upper stop is the top of the tower. After savoring the view, especially the tangle of crooked streets below, we walked across a footbridge to the upper neighborhood. We explored the adjacent blocks and then walked down. Halfway down the hill, we reached the base of the tower. Before us lay the tunnel entrance and Argentina Avenue.

Two blocks across the Avenue, we found Plaza O’Higgins, between the modern National Congress building and the graceful Municipal Theater. Here, the city’s famous antique market takes place on weekends. On weekdays, the adjacent antique shops will satisfy an urge.

Walk No. 3: artisans market & home of Pablo Neruda

This hike began and ended at the imposing cathedral, the city’s true center. The artisans market lies one block behind the cathedral. Called Mercado Artesanal Permanente, it is compact, affordable and rich in treasures.

We walked four blocks up Las Heras (south) and turned right onto Lastra. Two blocks later we found the lower station for Ascensor Florida. From the upper station, we walked four blocks up Mena Avenue to Plaza Mena. Along the way, brightly colored small wooden houses hypnotized us. This peacock of a neighborhood provides a suitable setting for the eclectic home of Chile’s favorite poet, Pablo Neruda, a famous eccentric who died in 1973. Called La Sebastiana, the home’s entrance is across Plaza Mena.

After touring the home, having a coffee in the writer’s own garden and visiting the shop, we walked down Ricardo Ferrari to a different cable car, Ascensor Espiritu Santo. To reach the cable car, we walked through the heart of the colorful Cerro Bellavista neighborhood. We found colorful restorations, new businesses and an art gallery.

Exiting from the lower station, Palacio Lyon lay before us. Built in 1881 as a private mansion, it now houses two museums: the National History Museum and the Municipal Art Gallery. The cathedral where we began lies across the plaza.

Walks Nos. 4-6 — because we had time

Ascensor Concepcion, also known as Ascensor Turri, leads to Café Turri, one of the continent’s most elegant and famous restaurants.

Both Ascensor El Peral and Ascensor Cordillera open into opulent wooded neighborhoods of mansions and museums.

From Valpo’s Central Market, Ascensor Artilleria leads to another museum and a lovely coffee shop with an amazing view.

How will walking in Valparaiso change?

The Chileans seem to know what they have and every day are developing the city as a destination for walkers. Lovers of Valpo were not surprised to see it become a ­UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. And why not? It qualifies by anyone’s standards.

Because of the UNESCO designation, I imagine that in another 10 years these walks will be signposted. Perhaps shortcuts will be made. A little of the adventure will be drained from the experience. Walkers will “discover” less on their own. There will be fewer whispered “aha’s.”

If you stay, know that two very nice hotels have opened which take advantage of views, colorful neighborhoods and ascensores. They are, along walk No. 3, the Robinson Crusoe Inn (www.chile-hotels.com/valrobin.htm), at $132 double or $180 suite, and, on walk No. 4, the Brighton Inn (www.brighton.cl), from $49 double and $65 bay-view double.

Budget hotels can be found online at www.chilehotels.com/valparai.htm. My wife and I stayed in the city center at Hotel Puerta de Alcala, which was affordable ($52-$62 double), adequate and noisy.

Dallas, TX