Eccentric architecture and authoritarian sympathizers in Chile's capital and biggest port
Augusto Pinochet, I’ve been told, was a ruthless dictator. Yet fans of his can still be found among the Chilean people. As we sped down the interstate that dissects the vineyards of the wine country between Santiago, the capital, and Valparaíso, its biggest port, we were surprised to find one in our guide. She was a short, eccentrically dressed woman who seemed liberal enough on sight, but when she spoke of the inefficiency of the democratically elected government that Pinochet’s junta replaced, we began to grow suspicious. She went on to rail against the influx of immigrants (mostly Haitian) that were stealing jobs from citizens, and praise the police as “the only uncorrupt police force in South America,” mere minutes after we watched half dozen of Santiago’s Finest, in an effort to clear the Plaza de Armas of undesirables, subdue a screaming homeless man and throw him in the back of their van.
She ran her tour with an autonomy that would make Augusto proud, stopping at various points on the tour for no discernible reason except her own personal whim, stopping the bus in the middle of a crowded street, ushering us in and out like we were being deployed. She ran the tour company alone, which is to say that she was the source of authority. The man behind the wheel of the bus was merely a puppet, installed by her. No checks or balances were in place, the result being that when we discovered that she hadn’t made a lunch reservation for us even though she said she had, she was the only one to whom we could file a complaint.
She exercised her power by making us walk. Though, in truth, Valparaíso’s beauty must be seen from its streets. Promenades are built to look over that which a city is most proud. Brooklyn Bridge Park, for example, has a walk that overlooks the towering skyline of lower Manhattan, financial capital of the world. In Valapraiso, the promenade overlooks the shipyard, and while eating ice cream under a gazebo you can watch the enormous T-cranes pick up bright, multi-colored rectangular containers and move them into place. There is something soothing and beautiful about it, as if you are watching the Chilean economic engine itself reassure you of its stability with a perpetual mechanical motion.
Turn your gaze towards land and you can witness all the colors of the docks reflected back at you in the form of murals. The city is famous for its street art, which imbues each block with its own distinct style, even ones that would otherwise be considered ravaged by blight. The houses, too, are painted in the yellows and pinks of salt water taffy, and cascade down the rolling hills of the city as if a celestial piñata had been smashed open at the top of the Andes.
Other eccentric touches elevate this post-industrial dockyard town from “rusty” to “quaint.” Nearby Viña del Mar boasts one the largest flower clocks in the world, a gift from Switzerland. An original Moai from Easter Island, taken before anyone cared that the Islanders might miss them, sits in front of the Museo Fonck. There is a memorial to Pablo Neruda, who had a house in Valparaíso, and famously said of it:
“Valparaíso, what an absurdity you are, how crazy: a crazy port. What a head of disheveled hills, that you never finished combing. Never did you have time to dress yourself, and always you were surprised by life.”
It is a city of cracks painted over beautifully, cracks that we might have seen had our handler, sorry, our guide, not rushed us from spot to spot as if we were inspecting missile sites for the United Nations. I was beginning to warm to her, once she finally did secure a lunch reservation, until she stated, quite bluntly, that democracy’s return to Chile happened immediately and seamlessly, once it occurred to the people to ask for it. Once they did, Pinochet obliged. This oversimplification ignores, of course, years of international pressure, vast increases in poverty, and perhaps most importantly to the Catholic dictator, a condemnation from the Pope. But in Valparaíso, it seems, to whitewash, or color wash, is a way of life.