When you travel around Chile, you will hear one expression in particular over and over again: “Valparaiso is the cultural capital of Chile.” Other than a few poor attempts to describe the meaning of this expression, with the most common being “all the artists go there,” you'll be left wondering what it truly means.
We were so intrigued by this expression that we decided to extend our stay in Chile to figure out why everyone has such a high opinion of a city we rarely hear about. It only took a few moments in Valparaiso to understand, and the city quickly rose to a spot in our Top 10 favorite cities anywhere in the world.
But the question we were so interested in still needed an answer. Why is Valparaiso considered to be a cultural highlight of Chile?
The Culture Capital of Chile
How does a city get the distinction of being the cultural capital of a country? Valparaiso attempts to explain this at numerous spots throughout the city, each with a slightly different twist.
The most common explanation is that all of the major artists and poets from Chile have been influenced by Valparaiso. Pablo Neruda, Chile's most famous poet, had one of his three homes in Valparaiso which can be visited as a museum decorated just as it was when he lived there. Sitting in his favorite chair, he'd spend quite a bit of time staring out at the ocean and city as a means to get inspirations for his poems.
Although Neruda's life is very interesting (and we highly recommend visiting the museum), we had to ask ourselves: does that make Valparaiso a cultural place?
To us, this isn't a very good answer. All this explanation says is that the creative minds of Chile loved the city, which is not necessarily what makes the city cultural. After all, most of the famous artists have been dead and gone for decades with only their memory and work lasting on.
For us, we could see the cultural side of modern day Valparaiso immediately after we arrived. It has nothing to do with the famous minds of years past, but instead is purely focused on the artists of today.
In Valparaiso, they seemingly have free reign.
Murals, Murals, Everywhere
The first thing anyone who visits Valparaiso will notice is that it is a colorful city. Every building is painted in a unique and vibrant color that would not work, or even be tolerated, in other major cities around the world.
That is pretty cool, but the city goes even further as residents have allowed or, in many cases, commissioned local artists to paint murals on their buildings as well! The only rules are that the owner of the building has to give permission and the mural cannot be overly offensive (which, judging by a few we saw, is debatable).
On our free walking tour, we were told that this work is also frequently subsidized by the government although this is a claim we could not validate in our own research. Artists go around to homes, show off their ideas to the owners, and if there is a match the mural gets put up! As a result of this open minded attitude to art, Valparaiso is covered in some amazing murals ranging from incredibly small to the size of a 10-level high rise.
The City is Always Changing
From the sounds of it, you may think that this colorful city may become dull after a few years once all the available mural spots are taken and the colors dull with age. Luckily, the opposite is true!
Houses will repaint frequently, and mural artists will redo new work time and time again. In fact, the guide on the free walking tour we previously mentioned says he will always find a new mural every week on his tour (which never changes routes) and you could easily return to Valparaiso in 2-years time and see all new murals throughout the whole city.
This is what we think makes Valparaiso the cultural capital of Chile.
Looking back on it, we can see how the famous poets and artists of decades past would have shaped the culture of the city in a similar fashion. They were the reason people knew the city back then, much like the artists of today have continued the thriving art scene in a different form. But for us, when we consider the idea of “culture”, we cannot and should not look to the past. That term needs to be about what goes on in the present.
If Valparaiso continues this tradition, it will always remain an incredibly cultural place that will receive many visitors for decades to come.
We're sending our thoughts and prayers to the city of Valparaiso after the recent fire that claimed 12 lives and over 2,500 homes.
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