English, German, French, Yugoslav, and other immigrants who had made their fortunes in business, finance, and mining built mansions and houses in the hills, but the precipitous topography and complicated street plan created access problems. The elegant solution was the ascensores, which carried residents quickly and directly to their neighborhoods.
At their peak, more than 13 million people used them every year; during the second half of the 20th century, though, roads and vehicles invaded the hills, so that only about 3 million per year use them now. Without operating subsidies, even more might close.
As Valparaíso achieved World Heritage Site status, the remaining ascensores were one of the attractions that made the city unique. Improving the surrounding areas with better sidewalks, ornamentation, lighting, and landscaping has encouraged a vigorous street life in areas that, until recently, were considered marginal neighborhoods.
All ascensores charge small fares, and there may soon be a differential rate for tourists; some are privately operated, while others are public. For more details, those who can read Spanish should see Juan Cameron’s Ascensores Porteños (Viña del Mar/Santiago: Ediciones Altazor, 1998).
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Chile.