Before the opening of Panama Canal, Valparaíso was one of the richest cities in the Americas, profiting from ships bound for the California Gold Rush putting in to refit after the treacherous rounding of Cape Horn.
Those riches built a now-faded downtown of imposing banks and government buildings, while houses sprawled up the steep slopes around the harbor, built fast and with no proper town planning. The result, once the outside world moved on, was to leave cheap housing that attracted the usual response: artists and young people.
Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, however, beat them all to it. La Sebastiana, named for the Spaniard he bought it from in 1959, is preserved as a museum to the poet’s life and built like a ship stranded by the Pacific. Brass portholes look out on the view, while every nook is filled with nautical references, from model ships and well-worn sea charts, to brightly painted fish and storm-tossed rope. A portrait of Walt Whitman, his poetic hero, occupies a prominent place, but so does one of Lord Cochrane. At the home’s heart is a pink ship’s galley-style that conjures up memories of the parties he and Matilde hosted here.
The party carries on still in Valparaíso, now famed for its alternative culture and nightlife, while next door Viña del Mar is a more upmarket place of golf courses and “sporting clubs”. “Viña has less soul but great beaches and a better range of restaurants and hotels,” says musician Caro Perez, who lives there. Her hometown is now a popular playground for wealthy Santiaguinos and visiting Argentines. Chilean society is still a stratified one and it is possible to identify class and political leanings by people’s preference for Viña or 'Valpo', as Valparaíso is known. However, the wealthy Santiaguinos have a point. The seafood restaurants around Viña are some of the best in the country – and the Pacific Coast beaches are beautiful. “That’s one thing Santiago has over Buenos Aires,” she says. “The porteños have no great beaches within an hour of the city.”
Many travelers join tours to see Neruda’s third house, just over 40km south, at Isla Negra. It is not an island, as its name might imply, but a small community of artists and holiday homes. Neruda built a home here in the 1940s that is just as quirky as La Sebastiana but with an even better view of the ocean, standing as it does on the beach. “The Pacific Ocean overflowed the map,” he wrote. “There was no place to put it. That’s why they left it in front of my window.”
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