In many ways, I made a fortuitous decision to take a day tour to the port city of Valparaiso when I stayed over in Santiago for a final day on my way home from the Galapagos islands.
I’m going back a week, or so, in time with this post but a lot has happened over the last seven days.
Santiago is a modern city and the capital of Chile. Chile’s economy is currently booming with many mining operations (mostly copper) and has a much higher GDP (per capita) than any of the other South American countries. It is a long country (4,270 km from north to south) and quite narrow (averaging only 177 km from east to west. The enormous Andes Mountain Range forms the spine of the country and their watershed becomes the boundary between Chile and neighbouring countries such as Argentina. They were clearly visible from my hotel room in the centre of the city and as I flew into the airport.
Valparaiso is classified as a world heritage town and is about 120 kms from Santiago. To get there we needed to drive through the Maritime Range of Mountains. Like the Andes, this smaller coastal range is also formed by the subduction of the Pacific Tectonic Plate as it is pushed under the South American Plate. The upwards pressure of this subduction puts the earth under pressure and the mountain ranges are formed.
We travelled through the Maritime Range on a modern highway and through some long tunnels. Before reaching Valparaiso, the road crossed through the broad Casablanca Valley with its many vineyards and wineries
Valparaíso was probably first populated by the Picunche natives, known for their agriculture, and / or the Chango people, who were nomads dedicated to fishing, and traveling between modern-day cities of Caldera and Concepcion. Spanish explorers (considered the first European discoverers of Chile) arrived in 1536, aboard the the supply ship, Santiaguillo. During Spanish colonial times, Valparaíso remained just a small village, with only a few houses and a requisite church.
It became important in the second half of the 19th century, when the city served as a major stopover for ships traveling around Cape Horn between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Valparaíso mushroomed during its golden age, as a magnet for European immigrants, when the city was known by international sailors as “Little San Francisco” and “The Jewel of the Pacific”. It boasts Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, Chile’s first public library, and the oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous publication in the world, El Mercurio de Valparaíso.
The second half of the twentieth century was less kind, as many wealthy families abandoned the city. The opening of the Panama Canal and reduction in ship traffic dealt a serious blow to its port-based economy. However, over the past couple of decades, the city has staged a recovery, attracting artists and cultural entrepreneurs who have set up studios and galleries in the city’s historic hillside districts. In 2003, the historic quarter of Valparaíso was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nowadays, thousands of tourists visit Valparaíso from around the world to see the its labyrinth of cobbled alleys and colorful buildings. The port of Valparaíso continues to be a major distribution center for container traffic, copper, and fruit exports as well as being a popular port for cruise ships that visit during the South American summer.
Our tour spent a good hour walking through its narrow streets and past its old buildings.
My lucky break came while talking to another Australian on the tour. His name was Tao (of Malaysian, Chinese descent). He noticed me wince as I held up my camera to take a photo. (I had hurt my shoulder when I fell in Albany, WA while attending the bi-annual reunion of my old army unit a couple of months ago). It turned out that he was an orthopaedic surgeon from Perth and was attending a medical conference in Santiago.
Tao gave me a quick examination and told me that I should get my shoulder looked at, rather than just hoping it would get better on its own. That night, he had very kindly sent me a referral to a colleague who was a shoulder specialist in Melbourne. Since i have been home, I have had an MRI scan and am now scheduled for surgery on December 6th to repair a torn tendon in the rotator cuff of my shoulder. Sometimes, in your travels, you can be very lucky and run into the just the right person who are prepared to offer their knowledge and kindness!