Lonely Planet Magazine (US) - - Great Escape -

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...

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