Viña del Mar sits on the northern crescent of a large bay on the Pacific Coast about 2 hours from Santiago de Chile. Right next to it on the southern side is the historic port city of Valparaiso. Now this was an interesting place! The city is built up on "cerros" (mountains) that form a massive bowl around the waterfront. There are dozens of these cerros, each a somewhat distinct neighbourhood serviced by ancient lifts called "ascensors". The first ascensor was built in 1883 - Ascensor Concepion - and we rode this one up to Cerro Alegre to explore the hillside.
The ascensor took up about 30 seconds to ascend the vertical slope. Picture a box that can hold about 10 people on a train track that is on an 80-degree angle. A wire cable pulls you straight up this track while another ascensor heads down. They have not changed at all since they were built making it a somewhat frightening experience the first time. Once we ascended we were in the middle of a colourful neighbourhood on winding, steep streets, impecable views of the coast and the other cerros - which looked like they were right there, but seperated by huge gullies filled with homes impossibly perched on cliffsides. It was very cool.
Sandra thought it looked somewhat like San Francisco meets the favelas of Rio de Janeiro - not a shanty-town like the favelas, but definitely far from an American city as well. I should mention, we started the day by traipsing through the market-area of Valpa where the oldest buildings are right next to the port. We met a resident named Christopher who took us up into an old, decrepid building for some panoramic views of the city and issued us a stern warning to watch ourselves on the street. It was a rough part of town, as most port areas are. Luckily, nothing weird happened and heading up onto the cerros changed our intitial impression of the city.
Up on Cerro Alegre, there were artists, street musicians, a full-blown string-band, studios and cafés everywhere. The architecture was very unique and we couldn´t see how some of these buildings were still standing on the sides of the cerros after 120 years. So much colour and creative expression everywhere - a very bohemian feel to this place and when we descended via Ascensor Reina-Victoria it was down into another world again. Bustling trolleys and buses, business-folk on cell phones and an old-time street feel once more. Valparaiso is a place you can explore for days, weeks even and never see enough - so many cerros, all holding their own character. And enough charm to make you forget about the gorgeous beach-front of Viña a mere train stop away.