Scale the hills and wander the waterfront of Valparaiso, Chile’s poetically disheveled port town.
Luis Segovia yanks a lever, and a commotion begins beneath his feet. It starts with a gentle shuttering, before growing to a symphony of rattling cogs, creaking wheels and spluttering engines – the soundtrack to Valparaiso life, in one form or another, since the mid-19th century.
“It is a joy doing my job,” says Segovia as he watches a car full of beaming passengers inch down the hillside before him. “My life belongs to these funiculars; they are the spirit of our city.”
For four decades, Segovia has been a funicular operator in Valparaiso, a city that claims the peculiar distinction of having the highest concentration of these contraptions anywhere in the world. Their existence is partly owing to the city’s location – straddling a range of steep hills in central Chile’s Pacific coast. But in many ways they mirror the character of the city they serve: unorthodox, scruffy, full of legends.
The port of Valparaiso was once known as the Jewel of the Pacific. Families from across Europe emigrated to make their fortune here in the 19th century, growing rich on shipments of California gold and building mansions from whose verandas they could watch cargo ships bobbing out at sea. The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 suddenly rendered Valparaiso useless as a port, and ever since then the city has been in a state of graceful decay.
Today, weeds and stray cats occupy grand townhouses where prosperous merchants once lived, and glassless windows look out over empty wharves. The town’s aura of melancholy has inspired painters, musicians and poets. No resident was more famous than Chile’s greatest writer, Pablo Neruda, who called Valparaiso “a wonderful mess,” adding, “How absurd you are . . . You haven’t combed your hair, you’ve never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you.”
Once a symbol of modernity and progress, Valparaiso’s funiculars also fell on hard times. Of around 40 that were built (no one seems to know exactly how many), only nine are operational today. Fortunately, a slow process of restoration is underway. The funicular that Segovia is operating, the Ascensor Barón, underwent a full refurbishment five years ago that restored its century-old German machinery back to full working order.
“Every neighborhood identifies with its own funicular,” Segovia explains as another car hauls into view. “Funicular operators know all their customers too. Many romantic encounters have taken place here. Couples sometimes rendezvous in a funicular car and go their separate ways. I even met my wife on a funicular.”
During a ride on the Ascensor Barón, the view quickly expands from chaotic city streets to serene heights where the sea breeze wafts through open windows. The frigates of the Chilean Navy appear in the distance; closer, the view encompasses hilltop palaces with turrets, church spires and thousands of pastel-colored houses cascading down the hillsides.
Other funiculars offer a more intimate view of the city: you can rattle in among laundry lines and chimney tops, sneaking a glimpse into living rooms where families watch TV.
There is nowhere better than a funicular to ponder the fortunes of Valparaiso, a city capable of giddy heights, but also prone to sudden rises and falls.
From Torres del Paine, it’s a 90-minute drive to Puerto Natales airport, a three-hour flight to Santiago and another 90-minute drive to Valparaiso. Alternatively, pack some snacks for the nonstop 40-hour road trip northward through Chilean and...