The sea has always defined Valparaíso and the region surrounding it. Fishing sustained the area's first inhabitants, the Chango, and no sooner had the Spanish conquistadores arrived than Valparaíso became a stop-off point for boats taking gold and other Latin American products to Spain. More seafaring looters soon followed: English and Dutch pirates, including Sir Francis Drake, who repeatedly sacked Valparaíso for gold.

The port city grew slowly at first, but boomed with the huge demand for Chilean wheat prompted by the California gold rush. The first major port of call for ships coming round Cape Horn, Valparaíso became a commercial center for the entire Pacific coast and the hub of Chile's nascent banking industry.

After Valparaíso's initial glory days, the port saw hard times in the 20th century. The 1906 earthquake destroyed most of the city's buildings, then the opening of the Panama Canal had an equally cataclysmic effect on the port's economy. Only the Chilean navy remained a constant presence.

Today Valparaíso is back on the nautical charts as a cruise-ship stop-off, and Chile's growing fruit exports have also boosted the port. More significantly, the city has been Chile's legislative capital since 1990. Unesco sealed the deal by giving it World Heritage status in 2003, prompting tourism to soar.