Valparaíso was once known as the Jewel of the Pacific. Families from all over Europe emigrated to make a fortune here in the 19th century, enriching themselves with California gold shipments and building mansions from whose sidewalks they could see cargo ships floating in the sea. The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 suddenly left Valparaíso useless as a port, and since then the city has been in a state of graceful decline.
Nowadays, weeds and street cats occupy the large terraced houses where prosperous merchants lived, and windows without glass overlook the empty docks. The melancholic aura of the city has inspired painters, musicians and poets. No resident was more famous than the best writer in Chile, Pablo Neruda, who called Valparaiso ‘a wonderful mess’, adding:’ How absurd you are … You did not comb your hair, you never had time to dress, you live. It has always surprised you. ‘
Once it was a symbol of modernity and progress, the funiculars of Valparaíso also fell on hard times. Of the approximately 40 that were built (no one seems to know exactly how many), only nine are operational today. Fortunately, a slow restoration process is underway. The funicular that operates Segovia, the Baron elevator, was completely renovated five years ago, restored its century-old German machinery and went back to work.
“Each neighborhood is identified with its own funicular”, explains Segovia while another car becomes visible. ‘Funicular operators also know all their customers. Many romantic encounters have taken place here. Couples sometimes meet in a funicular and go their separate ways. I even met my wife in a funicular.
During a tour of Barón’s elevator, the view quickly expands from the chaotic streets of the city to serene heights where the sea breeze enters through the open windows. The frigates of the Chilean Navy appear in the distance; Closer to home, the view encompasses palaces in the hills with towers, church towers and thousands of pastel-colored houses that cascade down the slopes of the hills.
Other funiculars offer a more intimate view of the city: you can rattle between the laundry lines and the chimneys, and take a look at the living rooms where families watch television. There is no better place than a funicular to reflect on the fortunes of Valparaíso, a city with vertiginous heights, but also prone to sudden ups and downs.
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