Chile: the ascensores of Valparaiso, an endangered heritage

As emblematic as its painted houses, Valparaiso’s funicular elevators attest to the city’s golden age. As transportation to the heights, they offer a magnificent view of the port and its bay. But apart from the four ascensores that now cater to the tourist trade, the other elevators may well be left to ruin due to technical and financial problems.

It was September 2012. After a long renovation phase, the ascensor San Agustín was finally put back into service. The inhabitants of the cerro Cordillera, one of the city’s forty-five hills, were going to be able to travel effortlessly from the bottom of the valley and Avenue José Tomás Ramos up to their quarter. Alas, just a few days later the elevator was shut down. Technical defects had been found, and it was announced that the reopening would have to take place at a later date.

Unfortunately, this was not a novel situation. Of Valparaiso’s fifteen surviving ascensores (out of the thirty that used to run here), only four are in operation at this writing. The others are decaying while endless renovations, promises of reopening, multiple breakdowns and unsolvable management problems continue.

Over a hundred years old

In defence of the authorities, it must be said that the ascensores are showing their age. Built between the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, they began running during the Chilean port’s golden age, when Valparaiso was an unavoidable commercial halt along the Europe- to-the-American West Coast route before the Panama Canal became operational. In this city built in the shape of an amphitheatre above the Pacific Ocean, it was very practical to be able to take funicular elevators up to the neighbourhoods high up in the hills. The alternative was to climb home from the port via punishing stairways. But Valparaiso lost its lustre after the First World War. Once the ocean-going had ships left the port, the city became stuck in a nostalgic melancholy that rusted its inhabitants’ souls... and its elevator cables.

A political and financial hornets’ nest

Let’s take the example of the ascensor Florida. Connecting the plan (lower coastline) to the Florida Hill along the road of the famous Sebastiana (Pablo Neruda’s house), the yellow metal car with a wire mesh window is still there, but it’s ‘stuck’ to the rails, and has been for ages. Garbage litters the track that runs between the unassuming houses edging the startlingly steep line’s 138 metres. Weeds and brush grow between the ties. Just looking at it, it seems obvious that major renovations will have to be completed before the line can run again, even if its closing was not so very long ago. But don’t expect to be given clear information about the reopening date. Nothing is posted on the (locked up) ticket booths or at the tourist office. Administration of the ascensores is a hornets’ nest involving political ups and downs, legal issues and limited financial resources.

Doors closed

Most of the elevators were listed as national historic monuments in 1998, and they’ve belonged to the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2003 as an integral component of the historic quarters. Five belong to the municipal authorities; the others are private property. Ten of these are thought to have been bought by the Chilean government for restoration. But how to rehabilitate systems that have been abandoned for so many years, are woven into the urban fabric, require an exorbitant outlay, and can’t promise profitability in this battered city? The inhabitants have lost the habit of using them, either because they’ve definitively stopped running, or the regularity of breakdowns is so off-putting.

And then there’s the human factor. ‘This time, they aren’t running because the employee went off to shop for something; next time it’s because the person in charge of the station has died. Or the cars are in maintenance.  There’s always some good reason why they’re closed,’ complains a local woman in front of the closed door of the ascensor El Peral, which usually links the terrace of the paseo Yugoslavo to the harbour.

Remarkable panoramas

Yet the elevators have lost none of their charm. Just above the commercial wharf, the ascensor Artillera shows off its leggy box cars painted in bright, pretty colours. It runs along a steep track between the docks and the cerro Artillera. From the top, Valparaiso is on full display: a city overlooking a magnificent bay and twinkling with thousands of yellow lights as soon as night falls. The ascensor Concepción is also worth the (short) journey. In service since 1883, it is Valparaiso’s oldest. It costs 100 pesos (€ 0.16/£ 0.13!) to enter the ancient metallic gate and climb into the venerable wooden car. Barely thirty seconds later and the car stops at paseo Gervasoni, another remarkable lookout point. The ascensor Polanco (1906) is arguably the most original of the lot. A genuine elevator, this one admirably restored, its intensely yellow tower rises above the modest homes of the El Barón quarter. The lower level exits to a pedestrian tunnel that leads to the right of Avenue Argentina. At the upper level, a wire-fenced footbridge links to the top of the quarter. The terrace at the summit boasts one of the most beautiful panoramic views of the city. That alone is reason aplenty to save the Valparaiso ascensores.

Practical Information

Hotel Palacio Astoreca
Calle Montealegre, 149
Valparaiso, Chile
A boutique-hotel open since September 2012 in an old Alegre Hill manor overlooking the bay. Very designer chic. 23 individualised rooms, restaurant and spa. Rates run from € 180/£ 145 to € 255/£ 206 depending on comfort level and season. Suites from € 270/£ 218 to € 380/£ 306.

Café de Iris
Paseo Atkinson, 110
Valparaiso, Chile
A charming tea room-café-juice-pastry-and-sandwich shop agreeably set in a family home on Concepción Hill. Excellent welcome by Evelyn, the proprietor, and her team.

The tourist attractions mentioned

Valparaiso Hills Valparaiso Hills
Valparaiso Hills