The Future of Funiculars?

by Emily Ullman

A port city founded in the nineteenth century, Valparaíso is known for its labyrinth of brightly colored houses that hug the peaks and dips of the city’s many cerros—steep hills plunging down into the Pacific Ocean. In a city of past and present, this scenery, neither industrial nor residential, neither modern nor antiquated, has earned the city its demarcation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

At the heart of the city are the funiculars, sets of counterbalancing cable cars that have creaked up and down the cerros for over a hundred years. They numbered 31 at the peak of their use, and were built in the late-nineteenth century as transportation up hills with gradients of at least 45 degrees. Although funiculars are common in mountainous regions throughout the world, no city has so many. While the tourism industry keeps most funiculars in operation, the funiculars also regularly transport residents of Valparaíso, from young men on their way to work to elderly women going to the market. Today only 14 funiculars are functional, of which five are owned by the city and nine by private companies. Ticket prices of the funiculars vary wildly, with some private ones charging three times as much as public ones.

These higher prices, though insignificant for most tourists, impact workers who rely on funiculars for daily commutes. The fact that prices remain so variable means that, despite the efforts of many over the past decade, the initial goals of Camilo Vargas Koch—known as el Hombre Ascensor, the elevator man—remain unfulfilled. Since the election of the fiscally conservative Sebastián Piñera, Vargas has been unsuccessful in his attempts to spearhead a government buyback of funiculars. For Vargas, the funiculars are an economic investment and a practical means of transportation, not to mention a cultural landmark.

Many think the government’s tendency to prioritize decisions in Santiago is to blame for the state of disrepair of more than half of Valparaíso’s funiculars, leading outsiders to consider the machines relics, whose aesthetics outweigh daily value. But for those whose homes are nestled high in the hills, the slow, decrepit cars are a waste of crucial city infrastructure. “Yes, they are part of culture, but the funiculars are the best method of transportation in the city,” said Juan Torre Barca, who spends his days sitting outside of El Peral, an operating funicular, selling the book he wrote about the funiculars and their history. Like Vargas, Torre thinks repairs and modernization, to make the decrepit funiculars safe and the others operate automatically, are the obvious answer. But, such changes would hurt the livelihoods of the operators, many of whom devote their lives to running the funiculars.

Luis Segovia, who has operated El Peral for over 35 years, believes that a government buyback might cost him his job. Segovia has worked for the funiculars in every capacity: selling tickets, operating the machine, repairing the engine. Like family to many commuters, he has watched as small children in the neighborhood, including his own, grew and now ride the funiculars with their own young children.

“We know the funiculars are old, but there has to be a process with the people, because people make our heritage… and that is priceless. And now they come and say, ‘you old ones, to the side,’” Segovia said.

Modernization is one way to ensure that the cable cars continue setting the rhythm of life in Valparaíso. But as Segovia explained, to modernize “would be to lose what is magical about the funiculars of Valparaíso. The sounds of the machinery, their surroundings, the colors, the types of people.” The people of Valparaíso want to protect these romanticized machines, yet without their operators, the funiculars cannot be the same. Valparaíso cannot have it both ways: the poetic cable cars of the past cannot also be the functional transportation of today.

EMILY ULLMANN ’14 is an American Studies major in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at