Vibrant Valparaíso was easily the highlight of our South American holiday last year. From the moment we stepped off the bus after a nine-hour trip from Mendoza, we knew that we were someplace special. Although it is Chile’s fourth largest city, Valparaíso is less a sprawling metropolis and more a jumble of buildings clinging to cliffs and jostling for space; the result of a topographical environment marked by steep hills and gouging ravines. It’s a schizophrenic experience to drive through the streets: dip down and it feels like a modest village; head up the next rise and you feel dwarfed by towering hillsides and houses like giant Lego bricks, twisting and tumbling to the sea below. There are stairs everywhere in Valparaíso and when you tire of climbing, there is also the option of using one of the marvellously quaint funicular elevators (the oldest built in 1883) that will carry you up or down the hillside for a pittance.
Prior to the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, Valparaíso had been an important sea port for international trade. This history of wealth and diversity and a transient population of hard-drinking, hard-working sailors, dockworkers, prostitutes, merchants and opportunists, has left its mark on the gritty and bohemian city. Pablo Neruda, Chile’s beloved poet who owned a house here for many years, coined a poem to the city which begins: “Valparaíso, how absurd you are, what a lunatic, crazy port, what a head – rolling hills, disheveled, you never finished combing your hair, you’ve never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you”. This is exactly how it feels: Valparaíso constantly surprises. At every turn there is more colour, more street art, more stairs and alleyways, more beauty (and frequently) less beauty, another glimpse of something new; in short, too much to know what to do with.
We arrived in Valparaíso just as the sun was just beginning to set, but the streets were a hive of colour and activity. Our taxi whipped us through narrow streets and up a steep, cobblestoned hill to our (fantastic) hotel. We had elected to stay in the Historic Quarter, which is a beautifully preserved UNESCO World Heritage site. Our stomachs were ready for dinner, so after checking in we walked a few minutes around the corner to the restaurant strip. Maybe it was hunger, maybe it was just Valparaíso, but as we arrived on the corner of Templeman and Urriola streets, we were momentarily stunned by the fairytale view of cobblestones, quaint shops and restaurants and twinkling lights. Trying not to appear like turistas estúpidos, we picked up our jaws, surveyed the the restaurants in our immediate vicinity and made an quick decision to try Almacén Nacional, which specialised in Chilean food. Up to this point, our culinary adventures in Chile hadn’t been particularly memorable, but it was a different story in Valparaíso. That night we demolished a deeply fragrant seafood soup served in bowls as big as our heads, washed down by pisco sour (of course).
The next day we had cereal and coffee at the hotel, but ever hungry for protein in the morning, we spent most of the morning wandering the streets looking for a second breakfast of eggs. In the process we climbed Cerro Alegre, which was partly shrouded in mist and took the first of hundreds of photos of the amazing street art which was literally everywhere (the best street art photos will come later in another post).
The Historic Quarter is full of colourful and quirky buildings housing art galleries, cafes and boutique stores selling local crafts, jewellery and design. Around every corner are a million photo opportunities and despite the chilly weather, we happily spent the entire day exploring the area. Around lunchtime we finally found a cafe that served our raison d’être (omelette) and this kept us going until night fell when we sought out more fish soup – this time, a chowder so thick that I was defeated before I had even finished half the bowl. The bubbles in the fantastic wheat beer (Cerveza Baron, made locally in Viña del Mar) probably didn’t help the situation.
We had five nights in Valparaíso, which allowed plenty of time for leisurely wandering. Each day we took a new direction, seeking out the divine and the dilapidated in equal measure. It was a wonderful, eye-opening adventure but one that was undeniably tinged with fear. I lost count of the number of locals who warned me that my camera made me a target for mugging. Valparaíso does have a reputation for being unsafe and although this seems to have improved recently, outside of the Historic Quarter we felt very conspicuous as tourists. I took furtive photos whenever it felt safe to do so, stowed the camera away in Colin’s backpack at all other times, and even left it at the hotel once or twice. I don’t want this to deter anyone from visiting this wonderful city, but it is clearly important to be extra careful. This blog post has some great tips for staying safe during your visit.
One day, I forget which but it was certainly the most memorable, we decided to make our way to the cemetery perched atop Panteón Hill that we had admired from afar while sipping wine on the neighbouring hill, Cerro Concepción. Panteón is home to three cemeteries, Cemetery No. 1 and No. 2, and Cementerio de Disidentes which was created for the burial of “dissidents” or non-Catholics. We enjoyed a quiet couple of hours wandering around the tombs, alone except for a few caretakers sweeping the paths. The site might have lacked the magnificence of the inner city cemetery we had visited in Recoleta, Buenos Aires, but it more than made up for it with incredible views over the city.
Leaving the cemetery, we walked up into the hills and followed the twists and turns of Av. Alemania all the way to La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda’s house, now a museum. No photographs were allowed in the house which killed me as it was one of the most beautifully evocative house I’ve ever seen. It has the unmistakeable feel of an artist’s playground and sanctuary and it’s where Neruda lived while writing his Nobel Prize winning works. On leaving the house and walking back through Barrio Bellavista we became caught in the rain that had threatened for days. We dashed into a nearby restaurant (Espiritu Santo), pulled up at the bar and attempted to dry out. Our coffee arrived with a complementary snack of chewy homemade bread served with a small pat of butter heavily sprinkled with salt and pepper. The calm ambience, hospitable service and the taste of that amazing bread made such an impact that we promptly made a reservation for lunch the next day. Venturing outside again we found a bright world washed clean by the rain.
On our very last day we explored a bit more, heading up to Cerro Artilleria with its expansive views of the port and sea. After a final lunch and a final pisco sour, we returned to the hotel to check out then travelled by bus to Santiago for our long flight home. Of all our travel memories vibrant Valparaíso remains the strongest and purest; a fitting way to mark the bittersweet end of our incredible South American adventure.