December 12, 2007

Cable car: The ups and downs of Valparaiso

The gritty, technicolor port city of Valparaiso, Chile spreads itself across a network of high hills, all festooned with Victorian and colonial buildings painted in fantastic shades of cobalt and canary, purple and pink, scarlet and key lime. There are no timid paint jobs in Valparaiso.

From the top of Artillery Hill, where we'd come to stand on the 21st of May Promenade, Valparaiso's most visited hilltop paseo, we took in the city-wide swirl of color and flamboyant architecture; the panorama of Valparaiso Bay and ships and cranes and trucks and men moving goods in the busy port below; the Pacific and its coastline running in an arc to the seaside resort of Vina del Mar, Valpo's tony, affluent alter ego.

And beside us, beyond the sidewalk snack and souvenir sellers and behind an iron fence, ran one of Valparaiso's signature ascensores, funiculars built at the turn of the 19th century to ferry people between the port and town center and the candy-colored neighborhoods perched on the hills above.

There are some 15 old ascensores in Valparaiso. Most are relics awaiting possible restoration. (The ascensores helped Valparaiso earn UNESCO World Heritage designation, and they've appeared on a World Monuments Fund endangered list.)

The Artillery Hill funicular still runs. Two spacious wooden cars, effectively chained together, act as counterweight for one another: as one car climbs the hill, the other descends. The tram station at the top of the hill houses the giant pulley that keeps them from sliding down Artillery Hill into Wheelwright Square (named for the 19th-century Bostonian who financed the building of the Chilean railroad system).

We stood at the fence and watched the cars' grindingly slow progress up and down Artillery Hill. Many more people were watching than riding, and I felt sad that this trustworthy old contraption (built in 1893 to haul cadets between Artillery Hill's Naval School -- now museum -- and the port) had more lookers than users. But we lookers were helping to keep the Artillery Hill funicular running. Our interest ensured that tour buses would climb to the top of the hill each day and disgorge visitors who'd take pictures from the promenade and then buy drinks and ice cream and cable car postcards in the shop attached to the station.

I took pictures of the cable car. I stood at the fence near the track and poked my lens through the metal fence rails.I popped off a few shots, then my polarizing filter popped off my camera and landed on the tram track.

I watched the filter, which costs $50 and helps to secure brilliant color in colorful places, roll and bounce all the way down Artillery Hill into Wheelwright Square.