One of the most colourful cities in the world, Valparaíso is a technicolour collection of rainbow houses scattered over the rocky coastal hills that overlook the vast Pacific Ocean. Characterised by its impressive street art, laid-back vibes and population of artists, writers, painters, poets, and philosophers, the vibrant city is a melting pot of bohemian culture and stunning vistas.
While it might seem somewhat dusty and ragtag on first glance, it’s not hard to find the vivid colours and artistic brilliance that the city has become so famous for. Poetry and art decorate almost every wall, pulling your gaze in several different directions at once. Though it is only a short two-hour journey from Santiago, Valparaíso feels a whole world away from the bustling capital. So, how did street art become such a fixture in this colourful conurbation?
History of Valparaíso
Once one of the richest cities in South America, Valparaíso was a regular stop-off point for shipping vessels en route to the USA. It wasn’t long before Spanish and French architecture began to pop up all over the city, earning it the nickname “Little San Francisco”. However, everything changed when the Panama Canal opened in 1914, enabling trade ships to take a much faster route to the States.
Following the collapse of the port, Valparaíso suffered an extremely hard economic decline which would last for many years. With all of the wealthier residents relocating elsewhere, the city needed to move in a different direction if it were to survive. Then along came the 1940s and everything changed forever.
The rise of Pablo Neruda
In 1940 a diplomat named Pablo Neruda was posted in Mexico City as Chilean Consul General. He was enamoured of the art scene there, in awe of the colour, freedom of expression, and artistic licence that was so readily embraced. He made it his mission to introduce a similar movement to Valparaíso, and on the return to his home city he invited Mexican artists to come and breathe life into the art scene.
At the time, unlike many of the famous pieces of street art of today, street art was not a celebrated medium and had to be practised in secret. Luckily the narrow, cobbled streets and winding backroads of Valparaíso provided the perfect cover for artists who would hastily paint their murals before making a swift exit. In 1973 a military dictatorship banned all forms of political art, making it even harder for artists to express themselves.
Legalisation of street art
Chile returned to a peaceful democracy in 1990, at which time the government of Valparaíso legalised street art and directly supported artists in the creation of new works. Valparaíso is the only place in Chile that allows street art to blossom in this way; everywhere else requires artists to work within strict commissions.
The street art of Valparaiso has come a long way since its legalisation. Now considered an essential part of the fabric of the city, the colourful murals and explosions of paint mean that Valparaíso is widely thought of as the artistic capital of Chile according to some guides. Not only do the streets glow with beauty during the day, they also come alive at night, with artists and musicians creating a cosmopolitan nightlife that draws crowds from all over the world.
It is possible to explore the art scene by taking guided walking tours through which you can take in the colourful works of art by street artists such as Sammy Espinoza, Cynthia Aguilera, Cuellimangui, and Inti.
If you’re planning on paying a visit to this unforgettable city, there are a few things worth remembering before you go:
Visiting Valparaíso is an experience of a lifetime, just make sure you remember to take your camera!