Valparaiso’s Staircase Culture

Valparaiso staircase
Staircase party

“Don’t go up the stairs at night,” our landlady told me. “They’ll steal your camera.”

But it was June. The sun went down at 6:30. What time, exactly, do the stairs get dangerous?

“After eight,” she said. A man standing in line at the liquor store said nine. On the day the students went on strike, some kids smoking pot on the staircase said later.

“Marijuanos aren’t aggressive,” I said to them. “They won’t bother me.”

“No,” they agreed. “It’s the drunks. Don’t go up the stairs after midnight.”

Valparaiso is a warren. The central area was populated two hundred years ago, when no one anticipated the automobile. Most of the streets now are too narrow for cars, or at least for more than one lane. The pasajes twist and turn and, hemmed in by two and three story houses, feel more like hallways than streets. The geography is inclined towards varying degrees of verticality. There are five or six or seven staircases that lead down from Cerro Bellavista, where we’re staying, and several of those staircases have tributary staircases that originate from Hector Calvo, the street that runs down the top of Cerro Bellavista. Hector Calvo itself dead ends into a stairway that leads down to Plazuela Ecuador.

pasaje galvez
A pasaje in Valparaiso

Valparaiso has great architectural spaces. The labyrinths of staircases are some of them.

Because of limited sightlines, and a relatively scant and unaggressive police force, the staircases are excellent locations for illicit parties.

“Sometimes there are drunks yelling and laughing outside my home,” our landlady told me. “I call the police. Sometimes they come, and sometimes they don’t.”

In the mornings, broken bottles and empty wine boxes often litter the staircases. Some mornings sleeping bodies are the testament to the night’s festivities.

The other night I went to the San Carlos to meet some friends. It was late when we left. Maybe eleven. Maybe one. At that point, time was just a number. I opted to walk home, up over Cerro Florida. Cerro Florida abuts Cerro Bellavista. Cerro Florida hasn’t suffered the tourist development of some of the other hills. Cerro Bellavista is undergoing some changes, but it’s not as prissily developed as some of the other neighborhoods, with four star hotels, and sushi bars. Cerro Bellavista retains some urban grit. Cerro Florida is all urban grit.

The streets were empty. The sodium street lights left dark shadows in their yellow twilight. I hewed close to the middle of the street to up near the crest, where Cerro Florida and Cerro Bellavista meet, and turned down the street that led down my hill.

Somehow I fell in with some guys on a stairway. The details are a little hazy. Some liters of beer and a joint got passed around. I kept my back to the wall.

“Be careful,” one of the guys told me. “Someone will steal your camera.” He pointed to my hip, where my point and shoot was strapped to my belt in its fake leather case. “Not us,” he said. “We’re good guys.”

The next day I went back, purely for some artistic research. Some of the same guys were on the same staircase.

“El gringo puñetero,” they called me. In Mexican Spanish it would be like el gringo cabron.

After a while, the party broke up. Strolling carabineros in the distance encouraged our group to break up, and reform, perhaps, later. Cat and mouse.

The anarchist Hakem Bey might have called Valparaiso’s staircases Temporary Autonomous Zones. Burning Man is a temporary autonomous zone. So are raves. The staircases lie outside the strictures of convention. On the staircases, we’re pirates.

a small party on a staircase
A downtown staircase

Weeks earlier I’d been in downtown Valparaiso at night. My wife and I mostly live on my younger son’s schedule, and he goes to bed early. But somehow I’d snuck out. The sidewalk cafes were bustling.

“It’s like this till six a.m.,” one of the shopkeepers told me. I was the only person I saw who was over fifty. I was the only person I saw in a snap-front shirt with Western yokes.

I reflected on my feeling of otherness a few weeks later, talking to a Chilean couple at the hotel.

“We went up the wrong cerro,” they told me. “And we had to climb over two more cerros to get back here.

“We didn’t want to go through downtown because of the inseguridad.”

I wonder if anybody warned them about the staircases.

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