Dispatches from Abroad: Los Ascensores de Valparaiso

With but ten days to go before I leave for another extended overseas trip (a six-week journey that is taking me to Sudan, Germany, and Australia), I’m still catching up on visions of Valparaiso. This post has a small parallel with the incredible displays of political energy in yesterday’s marches all over the US and around the world, in which good people everywhere spoke out against the forces of darkness threatening us all.

As I wrote in my last post, Valparaiso gives me hope. Long a hotbed of activism, activists, artists, and art, Valparaiso (and much of Chile) was in the midst of a municipal workers’ strike while I was there in November, a strike in protest of the inequitable private pension system that was set up in 1981 under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. As a visiting researcher and occasional tourist, I learned some things about the underlying issues, and also witnessed one of its impacts on a central attraction of the city—its ascensores.

The historic quarter of Valparaiso is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the highlights for visitors is to ride on one or more of the ascensores (lit. elevators, but really funicular railcars) up the city’s steep cerros. The first, Ascensor Concepción, was built in 1883. Twenty-five are identified on the tourist maps, more have existed at one time or another over the last century and a half, but fewer than ten are still in operation. On my first weekend in Chile (October 29-30), I did ride on a four of the ascensores as I walked around the city with my kiwi colleagues Hannah Buckley and Brad Case, and their 13-year-old son Sam, but we didn’t have enough time to see them all (click on any of the thumbnails to see the active ascensores in a slide show).*

But at Sam’s insistence, we thought we’d try to use another weekend day to visit all 25 of the ascensores, and ride as many as we could. But by November 4th, the nationwide municipal workers’ strike had commenced, and all the ascensores were locked up tight. Nonetheless, we had a fine Sunday walking all over the city while reflecting on the importance of public services to the general commonweal.

We started at the east side of the city, far from the World Heritage quarter. On this side of the city, six of the first seven ascensores we visited were defunct, strike notwithstanding (click on a thumbnail to see the defunct ascensores).

We were able to peek into the entrance to Ascensor Polanco, which is the only vertical, hence aptly called an ascensorAscensor Baron was the only other functioning one on the east side. The latter was also our first encounter with what would be come the refrain of the day: Municipales en paro! (click to enlarge).

As we got closer to the historic district, the impact of the strike became much more apparent. The ascensores were all closed, of course. And there were far fewer people on the streets enjoying the summer sunshine than had been out the previous week (click to see the functioning, albeit locked-up ascensores).

In fact, as we approached Ascensor San Augustin, we were warned away by a neighbor who advised us that it really was unsafe to be out and about that afternoon. But that didn’t stop me from scaling the wall in front of Ascensor Villaseca, the furthest west of the ascensores, to view the timeless beauty of wild nature reclaiming the built environment.


Which also gives me hope for the future.

*Note: although all the photographs on this page were taken in November 2016, Adobe Lightroom put my 2015 copyright watermark on each of the photos. I’ll work on correcting that when I get a chance…

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