Valparaíso is one of the main seaports of Chile, on the Pacific Ocean, and the capital of the Valparaíso Region. It played an important geopolitical role in the second half of the 19th century, when it served as a major stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by crossing the Straights of Magellan.
Valparaíso is located near the center of Chile at latitude 33° 01´S, longitude 71° 38´W, two hours by highway from the capital Santiago.
The Chilean Congress meets in a modern building in the Almendral section of Valparaiso, after relocation from Santiago de Chile during the last years of the military rule of general Augusto Pinochet. Although congressional activities were to be legally moved by a ruling in 1987, the newly built site only began to function as the seat of Congress during the democratically-elected government of Patricio Aylwin, who followed Pinochet, in 1990 .
Valparaíso's bay was first populated by Changos, an ethnic group dedicated to fishing and gathering. Spanish explorers arrived in 1536, on the (Santiaguillo), a ship sent by Diego de Almagro, considered the first European explorer of Chile. The Santiaguillo carried men and supplies for Almagro's expedition, under the command of Juan de Saavedra .
During Spanish colonial times, Valparaíso remained a small village, with only a few houses and a church. After Chilean Independence from Spain, Valparaíso became the main harbor for the nascent Chilean navy, and opened to international trade, which had been limited to commerce with Spain and its other colonies. Valparaiso soon became a required stopover for ships crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Strait of Magellan and Cape Horn, and gained particular importance supporting and supplying the California Gold Rush (1848-1858). In its role as a major seaport, Valparaíso received immigrants from many countries, mainly from England, Germany and Italy. German, French, Italian and English were commonly spoken among its citizens, who also had newspapers in these same languages.
International immigration transformed the local culture from its Spanish origins. Football (soccer) was introduced to Chile by Englishmen, and the first private, non-Catholic schools were founded by immigrants from England and Germany (The Mackay School, and Deutsche Schule respectively). Immigrants also formed the first volunteer fire-fighting units (still a volunteer activity in Chile), while architecture reflected European styles.
The golden age of Valparaíso's commerce ended after the opening of the Panama Canal, as most ships sought to avoid the Strait of Magellan, and the port's importance and use was reduced substantially. Traffic has increased in the last few decades with fruit exports and increasing opening of the Chilean economy to world commerce.
Valparaíso is arguably the most important Chilean seaport, and Gran Valparaíso, Chile (which includes Valparaíso, Viña del Mar, Quilpué and Villa Alemana ) has the third largest concentration of population in the country, after Gran Concepcion, and Gran Santiago.
Valparaiso's road infrastructure is under substantial improvement at present, particularly with the upcoming completion of the Placilla-La Polvora highway bypass, which will permit trucks to go directly to the port facility over a modern highway and through tunnels, without driving through the historic and already congested downtown streets. In addition, roads to link Valparaiso to San Antonio, Chile's second largest port, and the coastal towns in between (Laguna Verde, Quintay, Algarrobo, and Isla Negra, for example), are also under various degrees of completion.
Valparaíso was declared a World Heritage Site in 2003, thanks to its historical importance, natural beauty (large number of hills surrounding a picturesque harbor), and unique architecture (particularly, a mix of 19th century styles of housing).
Valparaíso's newspaper, "El Mercurio de Valparaiso", claims to be the oldest Spanish-language newspaper in circulation in the world.
"Fundación Renzo Pecchenino, LUKAS" maintains the drawings and paintings of the artist/cartoonist who came to symbolize Valparaiso in popular culture, in a newly restored building on Cerro Concepcion, overlooking the bay.
The city has the second largest concentration of universities in Chile, and is home to four major universities:
Valparaíso is the birthplace of many historically significant figures, including Augusto Pinochet and Salvador Allende among them. It has also been the residence of many artists like Pablo Neruda and Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío.