Valparaíso is a city and commune of Chile, center of its third largest conurbation (Greater Valparaíso), is located northwest of Santiago and one of the country's most important seaports; it is an increasingly important cultural center in the Southeast Pacific. The city is the capital of the Valparaíso Province and the Valparaíso Region. Although Santiago is Chile's official capital, the National Congress of Chile was established in Valparaíso in 1990.
Valparaíso played a very important geopolitical role in the second half of the 19th century, when the city served as a major stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by crossing the Straits of Magellan. Always a magnet for European immigrants, Valparaíso mushroomed during its golden age, when the city was known by international sailors as “Little San Francisco” and “The Jewel of the Pacific.”
Examples of Valparaíso’s former glory include Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, Chile’s first public library, and the oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous publication in the world. The opening of the Panama Canal and reduction in ship traffic dealt a staggering blow to Valparaíso, though the city has staged an impressive renaissance in recent years.
Though nearby San Antonio has become the country’s most commercially important seaport in terms of tonnage moved, the City of Valparaíso remains a vibrant center of Chilean culture. The Greater Valparaíso metropolitan area (which includes Valparaíso, Viña del Mar, Quilpué and Villa Alemana) has the third-largest concentration of population in the country after Greater Santiago and Greater Concepción.
Valparaíso's bay was probably first populated by Picunches Indians, who were dedicated to agriculture. Other accounts say that it was the Changos who were nomads dedicated to fishing, and traveling between Caldera and Concepcion. Spanish explorers arrived in 1536, aboard the Santiaguillo, a supply ship sent by Diego de Almagro, who is considered the first European explorer, or discoverer, of Chile. The Santiaguillo carried men and supplies for Almagro’s expedition, under the command of Juan de Saavedra, who named the town after his native village of Valparaíso de Arriba in Cuenca, Spain.
During Spanish colonial times, Valparaíso remained a small village, with only a few houses and a church. After Chile’s independence from Spain (1818), Valparaíso became the main harbour for the nascent Chilean navy, and opened to international trade, formerly limited to commerce with Spain and its other colonies.
Valparaíso soon became a desired stopover for ships rounding South America via the Strait of Magellan and Cape Horn. It gained particular importance supporting and supplying the California Gold Rush (1848–1858). In its role as a major seaport, Valparaíso received immigrants from many European countries, mainly from Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy. German, French, Italian and English were commonly spoken among its citizens, who founded and published newspapers in these languages.
International immigration transformed the local culture from Spanish origins and Amerindian origins. Football was introduced to Chile by English immigrants, and the first private Catholic school in Chile was founded by French immigrants in Valparaíso: Le Collège des Sacrés Cœurs (The Sacred Hearts School) which has been operating for about 170 years. Immigrants from Scotland and Germany founded the first private secular schools, (The Mackay School, and Die Deutsche Schule, respectively). Immigrants formed the first volunteer fire-fighting units (still a volunteer activity in Chile). Their buildings reflected a variety of European styles, making Valparaiso more varied than some other Chilean cities.
The golden age of Valparaíso’s commerce ended after the opening of the Panama Canal (1914). Shipping shifted to the canal as captains sought to avoid the risks of the Strait of Magellan. The port's use and traffic declined significantly, causing a decline in the city's economy. Since the turn of the 21st century, shipping has increased in the last few decades with fruit exports, increasing opening of the Chilean economy to world commerce, and larger-scale, Post-Panamax ships that do not fit the Panama Canal.
The city was affected by the 27 February 2010 earthquake.