City of poets, painters and dreamers

The colourful houses packed haphazardly up the cerros (hills) of Valparaiso

Valparaiso is a true gem in central Chile, so much so that I ended up visiting it two weekends in a row back in June and I am sure I will go again before I leave Chile. It is a port city on the coast just over an hour from Santiago and consists of 5 or so cerros (hills) all covered haphazardly by houses of every colour, shape and size imaginable. There are loads of little alleyways, stairways and windy roads linking the different hills and there are also these old ascensors (elevators) which are all over 100 years old and made of little carriages that go up and down the hills. Valparaiso is also famous for its graffiti and there are some amazing murals around the city. It is now a World Heritage Site, mainly due to the ascensors and old buildings on the plano (the narrow, flat area on the coast before the hills begin).

Caitlin at the entrance to one of the ascensors - Espiritu Santo

Brief history lesson on Valparaiso – in 1906 it was the largest and busiest port in the whole of the Pacific Ocean and a vibrant, bustling city rising up the hills along the coast. It had a very distinct British atmosphere as it was a British colony. But in 1906 there was a huge earthquake which destroyed much of the city. The next blow came exactly 8 years later to the day of the earthquake when the Panama Canal opened and overnight the port emptied and the city died. It has never fully recovered, but it is now quite a bohemian, arty place full of ‘poets, painters and dreamers’. It is a crazy, haphazard city with houses on top of houses all the way up the hills.

My first weekend there was with Caitlin (a friend from Oxford days who was in Chile doing research for her PhD). We arrived in the dark on a Friday night and were greeted by a rainy, cold and dirty looking city and it was quite hard to get our bearings. We tried to take a taxi to the hostel we had chosen, but after getting into one taxi realised that it was

Colourful houses with washing hanging from the windows are a common site all over Valparaiso

actually a collectivo (taxi that goes to specific areas with at least 4 people in it, so it is cheaper for everyone). We could not find a normal taxi and needed to try and figure out the name of the collectivo that would go to the Cerro we needed. We must have looked lost as a guy waiting nearby asked us where we needed to go. As always I am doubtful as to whether or not to talk to such people as you never know who they are. But we told him where we wanted to go in our broken Spanish and he said that he was catching a bus and then collectivo to a place nearby and so would take us (coincidence or not…). Any way, we stood in the doorway sheltering from the rain and waited with him and had a conversation about football (surprise, surprise) – he was thrilled to be talking to a South African in Chile during the World Cup. Thankfully my Spanish vocab on football had become fairly good by then as this was a key conversation to have with anyone during June/July. He turned out to be a great help to us and took us on the right bus and then spoke to the driver of a collectivo to take us to the right street before going in a different collectivo himself. Such encounters always renew my faith in people a little bit and remind me that not everyone is out to get travellers (although you still have to be cautious).

In the daylight the next morning we could get a better feel of the city and thankfully the rain had cleared and it was a lovely sunny day. We walked up and down the hills for the day, exploring everything. This included a visit to Pablo Neruda’s house. He was a famous Chilean poet, writer and politician who had a very interesting life, including winning the Nobel Price for Literature. He was also a collector and so his house in Valparaiso as well as two others in Santiago and Isla Negra are full of amazing artefacts and antiques collected from all over the world. In his house in Valparaiso the top floor was a study that had the feel of being in an old sailing ship and the view from the top over the whole city was breathtaking.

The old singer in Cinzano's, Valparaiso

The weekend also consisted mostly of splashing out on wonderful food at different restaurants. We had dinner at the oldest restaurant/bar in the city called Cinzanos and there was an old guy, (almost as old as the bar itself probably) singing, accompanied by another two old guys. The place had a really cool atmosphere and it was a great mix of locals and tourists. For lunch on Saturday we went to another fairly fancy restaurant with an amazing view over the bay and port where we were looked after by a Brazilian waiter who took a liking to us and bought us flowers and a liquer on the house after lunch. For dinner on Saturday we went to another restaurant with local Chilean food which was quite good. So definitely a culinary weekend.

The next weekend, Guy was in Santiago as he needed to renew his Argentinian tourist visa and so he hopped across the Andes to visit me and a little bit of Chile. It was great to see him again and hear all the gossip from Los Rapidos and reminisce about our crazy adventures, which in some ways already felt like a dream. He successfully sold the car, which while sad, at least means he then had the flexibility to explore more of South America in his last few months of travelling. After only exploring small parts of Santiago myself, I was a tour guide for a few days and showed him the sights, including a day in Valparaiso. I feel like in one day we walked the length and breadth of Valparaiso and went

A cute little cafe surrounded by some amazing graffiti

up and down the different cerros countless times. I found different places with him then I had seen with Caitlin the weekend before which was nice. The highlight was a little café we found on the way down Cerro Bellavista where we sat outside surrounded by amazing murals on the walls and steps and enjoyed a delicious iced coffee.

All in all, two very good weekends in a magical spot in Chile!

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