An Urban Hiking and Art Experience in Valparaiso, Chile

By Molly Fernow

Photos by Molly Fernow & Maura Mitchell

A must-see in central Chile is the colorful city of Valparaiso.  The second largest city in Chile after Santiago, it consists of more than 40 rolling hills by the sea in a range of colors that includes incredible street art on the sides of homes and businesses.  In 2003, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization declared it a World Heritage site.

On my recent visit to this eclectic city, the tour company dropped us at the top of one of the hills to spend two hours walking down the colorful streets.  As we wandered through the narrow roads and hidden stairways, we were enchanted by the art around every corner.  It was like being in an outdoor museum. What was the most interesting to me was how the funky little port town came about.

Before the Panama Canal was built in 1914, Valparaiso was the port where ships stopped after going around the tip of South America.  Ships would make repairs and prepare to continue their voyages.  Residents would use the discarded parts from the ships to build their homes and would paint their houses with leftover paint resulting in every house being a different color.

In 1940, Chilean poet and politician, Pablo Neruda, was posted as the Chilean Consul General in Mexico City.  At that time Mexican, muralism was flourishing. Inspired by this, Neruda commissioned Mexican artists to create murals in one of his favorite places, Valparaiso.

The coup in Chile in 1973 led to a military dictatorship under General Pinochet until 1990. He banned all political art. During this dark time, people expressed their beliefs through art, and Valparaiso’s concealed narrow streets and stairways made it the perfect place to do this. Artists were able to work unseen by authorities.

When Chile returned to a democracy in 1990 after the fall of the Pinochet regime, commissioned street art became legal throughout the country … giving us the modern-day Valparaiso with its incredible art.

Other things to do in Valparaiso:

  • La Sabastiana – The home of Pablo Neruda, now a museum
  • Palacio Baburizza Art Museum – Classical art museum
  • Take a boat tour to admire the colorful hills
  • Go up and down on the funiculars
  • Enjoy a glass of local wine with delicious seafood at one of the many wonderful restaurants