Valparaiso was more than I hoped for.
We took a bus from Santiago to get to Valparaiso. The two-hour ride was my first experience of Chile’s countryside, and I was looking forward to driving through the famous winery town on the way. Instead, we passed through a valley, hills on both sides, beautiful scenery. And, I fell asleep.
When I woke up, we were already in Valparaiso.
I had booked a classy hotel for our one-night stay in the historic city of Valparaiso, which a commercial hub of freight ships going to North America before the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914. The hotel was advertised as a luxurious casa and was one of the highlights of our stay in Chile.
The taxi driver dropped us at the end of a street, declaring that he could go no further. The street was blocked with iron pillars. We dragged our suitcases, on cobblestone, for two blocks, afraid that we would break the wheels at the start of the trip.
The hotel indeed was a casa but a century ago. Today it was a world heritage listed crumbling structure. The receptionist led us three levels down from a narrow staircase to a tiny and smelly room. The furniture seemed to have come from a museum – an old hospital bed, a free-standing wardrobe, a white thin-legged table, an old chair, and an ottoman whose cover badly needed a wash.
We guessed we had to put up with it. Thankfully we were there just for one night.
We tried to connect to WiFi, but it didn’t work. Our luggage was still at the reception. We quickly freshened up and went back to the reception.
The receptionist’s name was Phillip. He was a young fellow, very patient with our slowly building anger. He did everything to please us. Although his English was limited, he managed to get his message through.
“I am sorry but, WiFi in our room is not working.”
“Sometimes happens. I check. From mains.” He pointed to the door where perhaps the controls were.
“Are there any tours?”
“Yes, walking tours. But. Too late.”
“Not today. For tomorrow, I mean?”
“Tomorrow, plenty. Ten in the morning. Then afternoon. Three pm.”
“Do we need to book?”
“No. Go to the main square.” he showed all his fingers, “Ten minutes before.”
“Is there any good place to eat?”
“Yes. You like seafood? I recommend this.” He made a dot on the map.
“If you prefer Chilean food, this restaurant,” he made another dot on the map.
“And if drinking. And gourmet food, I recommend this place. Bit expensive but a harbor view. Atmosphere very nice.”
He forgot to mention that the hotel itself served Italian food, which we had the next day and was very nice.
We left the place, letting the receptionist take our luggage to our room and fix our WiFi. Equipped with a map, we set out to navigate the winding cobblestone streets of Valparaiso. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any of Phillip’s dots on the map because he forgot to mention the names of the restaurants.
Instead, we found an Italian place with Trip Advisor sign on the door. It had the best bruschetta and vegetarian pizza I had ever eaten.
When we came back, Phillip informed us, “I couldn’t fix WiFi in your room, but I have good news for you. You have three rooms to select from where WiFi is good.”
“Good, let’s have a look.”
The first room was the same as before, tiny, but its window faced the street rather than the harbor—a big no from me.
The second room had a spiral staircase leading to the bathroom and the window still facing the street. No again.
I prayed, let the third room overlook the harbor. It did. Not only that, it had its balcony. The room was the biggest, almost two adjoining rooms with a lounge and a third bed. The only problem was, the shower screen in the bathroom was broken. Furniture was still old style. I opened the door to the balcony, and two mosquitoes flew in.
What the room lacked in appearance, it made up in views. This photo from the balcony says it all. We took it.
The following day, after a breakfast of runny scrambled eggs, homemade cake, and black coffee, we got out of the hotel from the back street. The narrow road was as ancient as the hotel was. Cobblestoned with open drains. Locals were sitting on the steps soaking in the morning sun.
You can tell you are in a small town when people greet you and have time to ask where you were from. We stopped a couple of times from chatting, but language was a barrier, and we couldn’t converse much.
Just a hundred meters down, about the third house from the hotel, I stopped. It had a large slanting mural of overlapping boxed shape colorful buildings covering the black corrugated wall. It was such a striking and unexpected sight that both my husband and I stood in the middle of the street and watched it in awe. On the floor, to complement the mural, the house owner had placed planters made from old milk bottles cut from the top and painted in sapphire blue.
The whole street was laced with buntings – red, yellow, and blue with diamond-shaped holes cut through them. We were in a fairyland where a naughty wizard had used his wand to do graffiti wherever he went.
The next house had paintings of people on its light yellow walls – people taking photos, in swimming costumes, and with guns posing to shoot.
What struck me most was the house wall where some clever householder had made windows with paint and then hung plastic old Coca Cola bottles turned sideways with succulents growing in them. From a distance, they looked like genuine windows, like in the streets of an Italian town.
We were joining the walking tour at the main square. We got so engrossed in the mural that we forgot the time. With just ten minutes to go, we started running the winding street without knowing where it was heading.
Huffing and puffing, we stopped a young man at a corner and asked him where the main square was. Like most people, he didn’t understand us—language problem. On top of that, he was a tourist too. He must have guessed we wanted to go to the main square; opening the map in his hand he directed us to a set of stairs that descended to a street leading to the main square. With no time to enjoy lovely mermaid murals along the stairway, we descended the first flight of stairs and got out of breath. There were three more to go.
The main square was nothing like the main squares I had seen. It was enormous. What was striking that it was virtually empty? Unlike Santiago, there was no one there other than some stray tourists.
For a small tip, we joined a group of excited tourists and tour guide Wally (dressed in a red and white striped t-shirt like Where’s Wally in children’s books) from the Valparaiso Offbeat Tour Company. The tour was for two hours and involved eight kilometers of walking.
Wally told us about the main buildings encircling the main square. Iglesia de la Matriz, a historic church with a mixture of classical and colonial design. The Agustin Edwards Building, also known as Reloj Turri, is iconic and serves as a reference point. The Chilean Navy building has French neoclassic design and La Sebastiana, one of the three houses of the national poet Pablo Neruda that works as a museum dedicated to the artist’s life.
We then walked to Valparaiso’s original neighborhood, Barrio Puerto, once one of the wealthiest areas in the world, was now experiencing a decline.
From there, we went to an old prison house that had been turned into artist’s studios. Local artists can hire a prison cell at a nominal fee and make it their studio.
The prison house has lovely lawns, which are now used as children’s playgrounds and local picnics.
The next stops included the cemetery of Valparaiso and the city’s street art galore.
All through the tour, Wally kept us engaged by telling stories about food, graffiti, politics, social realities, and old brothels of the port city.
My only regret was, sometimes I couldn’t hear him correctly. On the other hand, maybe our group was too big.
Valparaíso is one of the main ports of Chile. It played the most critical geopolitical role in the second half of the 19th century when it served as a major stopover for ships on the routes communicating Europe with the Pacific coast through Cape Horn. It had a port suitable for large vessels.
There is no certainty about when the city was founded. However, most historians assure that it was in 1530 when Juan de Saavedra arrived in the Quintile Bay.
The city had its zenith until the early 20th century, when it was hit by an earthquake that almost destroyed it.
When the Panama Canal was opened, the sea traffic was interrupted, and the city began to decay.
In 2003 Valparaíso was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO due to its exceptional testimony to the first phase of globalization at the end of the 19th century.
Now it is known for its artists, writers, and poets. It houses La Sebastiana, the museum house of Pablo Neruda, a Nobel Prize-winning poet.
There are three modes of transport in Valparaiso.
Elevators (also known as ascensores or funiculars) connect the hills with the flat part of the city. In the beginning, there were 30 elevators, but today only 15 work properly. Between 1974 and 2010, all elevators were declared Historical National Monuments.
We took a ride in one of them during the second walking tour. The ride lasted three minutes, getting in and out five minutes.
Trolleybuses (also known as trole) are buses driven with electricity and go on a set path. They have been around since 1952.
We sat in one of them. It was crowded, and you had to get in quickly because it didn’t stop for long.
“O” buses (pronounced OOOOOhhh bus) that race each other to pick up passengers and are bumpy and scary. Prices are cheap, and they are much faster than walking. One “O” bus route travels through Valparaíso’s hills parallel to the ocean, offering unparalleled views of the coastline and passing some of the city’s most iconic tourist attractions.
This was the most exciting but terrifying trip. The driver drove dangerously in the narrow streets and in a rush to beat another bus to pick up a passenger. He was getting tipped off by someone (to whom he paid some tip) about the waiting passengers. The ‘tips’ were the only way these informers make a living. Wally told us it was sufficient to live on.
Valparaiso has seen many natural disasters. Other than the earthquake of 1906, which almost destroyed the city, a great fire burned down 2500 houses in 2014, leaving 11000 people homeless.
The city has a proud history of firefighters. It has the continent’s first volunteer fire department which now has expanded to several battalions representing their different countries. There is a Canadian battalion, a British battalion, and so on.
Second Walking Tour
After a break for lunch, we joined the second walking tour to show us the town’s highlights. It was three hours walking from the port to up the hills.
Valparaiso is built on a natural amphitheater of 45 coastal hills connected by maze-like side streets and endless stairways.
We explored Valparaiso’s wealthy hills of Cerro Alegre and Concepcion and then the poor hills by bus. We walked past bohemian hotels, five-star restaurants, and wild nightclubs and took photos of the rubbish truck with graffiti mosaic pillars and seats.
Valparaiso is a city where creativity is on display everywhere, where people invite artists to do graffiti on their walls. Where the government supports them by providing low-cost studio space, it is a place I wholeheartedly recommend you to visit.