I was once lured to read Isabel Allende’s novel Daughter of Fortune upon recommendation, but never got more than forty pages in. Though I stopped reading, I still remember the magical description of a bustling port city at the turn of the 20th century. Allende’s heroine runs about a city built along hills and terraces that look out onto the sea, and from her description I knew Valparaiso was a city I had to see.
The night I arrived it was late and pouring rain, but when I woke the next morning I found the city just as I imagined it, full of life winding and curving up narrow roads to homes of all shapes and colors that cascade down to the U-shaped port.
Because the city is built upon hills, one popular mode of transportation is the ascenseur or lift [also a funicular]. For about fifty cents you can step into a wooden car with windows, mostly unchanged since the 1890s, that wrenches you up a hundred feet along a metal track to a higher level of town.
One ascenseur I tried, which was different from the rest, was called Ascenseur Palenque. Here I walked through a long tunnel that cut into the hill and then stepped into a metal box that lifted much like a normal elevator opening up at the top of a tower that over looked the city. The sight was quite breathtaking, and I stood up there watching the neighborhood as it became covered in fog that rolled in over the hills. There I was able to witness this city as it moved and breathed. Children were tempting to fly kites in the narrow curved streets, old men were yelling at their neighbors as laundry swayed with the wind outside balconies and windows. Behind me the harbor was busy with ships, and from this standpoint it was easy to how such a setting could begin a grand romantic novel.