27 Feb to 2 March ’14 – Climbing a million stairs in Valparaíso*

Valparaíso, Chile – Day 1



Leaving Santiago for the second time was much easier and faster than before. It does help to know what we are doing this time around.. The Alameda bus terminal is much quieter in the middle of the day, and I would definitely recommend planning your travels to take advantage of this.

Valparaiso - named so after the the Valley of Paradise in Spain*

Valparaiso – named so after the the Valley of Paradise in Spain*

A quick hour and a half bus ride from Santiago lies the coastal city of Valparaìso. In stark contrast to shiny Santiago it is an old, classic, bohemian city with a similar feel to that of Buenos Aires. Traditional European architecture reaches toward the skies in the bustling city centre, narrow sidewalks are crowded with too many people, vendors on the street selling snacks and everywhere smells just a little bit like canine excrement. Aaaah, the familiar welcome to a big (ish) city.

Valparaíso, affectionately known as Valpo, played a very important geopolitical role in the second half of the 19th century, when the city served as a major stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by crossing the Straits of Magellan. Always a magnet for European immigrants, Valparaíso mushroomed during its golden age, when the city was known by international sailors as “Little San Francisco” and “The Jewel of the Pacific”. In 2003, the historic quarter of Valparaíso was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a new national law named the city “Chile’s Cultural Capital.”

Examples of Valparaíso’s former glory include Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, Chile’s first public library, and the oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous publication in the world, El Mercurio de Valparaíso. The opening of the Panama Canal and reduction in ship traffic dealt a staggering blow to Valparaíso. The second half of the twentieth century was not kind to Valparaíso, as many wealthy families abandoned the city. Over the past 15 years, the city has staged an impressive renaissance attracting many artists and cultural entrepreneurs who have set up shop in the city’s hillside historic districts. Today, many thousands of tourists visit Valparaíso from around the world to marvel and the city’s unique maze of cobbled alleys and colourful buildings.

Atop the hills of Valpo lies the cobbled streets of a city begging to be explored*

Atop the hills of Valpo lies the cobbled streets of a city begging to be explored*

Though nearby San Antonio has become the country’s most commercially viable seaport, the port of Valparaíso continues to be a major distribution centre for container traffic, copper, and fruit exports. Valparaíso also receives growing attention from cruise ships which visit during the South American summer. Most significantly, Valparaíso has transformed itself into a major educational centre with four large traditional universities and several large vocational colleges. The city has also become a shining beacon of Chilean culture, with many major festivals every year and street artists and musicians on every corner

Valparaíso was declared a world heritage site based upon its improvised urban design and unique architecture. In 1996, the World Monuments Fund declared Valparaíso’s unusual system of funicular lifts (steeply inclined carriages called ascensores) one of the world’s 100 most endangered historical treasures. In 1998, grassroots activists convinced the Chilean government and local authorities to apply for UNESCO world heritage status for Valparaíso. Valparaíso was declared a World Heritage Site in 2003. Built upon dozens of steep hillsides overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Valparaíso boasts a labyrinth of streets and cobblestone alleyways, embodying a rich architectural and cultural legacy.


It's hard to find a wall without artwork in this town*

It’s hard to find a wall without artwork in this town*

Our host, Stefano, meets us at the terminal and we take a short bus ride in a short little bus up the hills of Valpo to LAB00 – our home for the next three days. This creative space is the brainchild of Anita and Stefano. This Italian pair came to Valparaìso to offer a space of rest for artists and travellers on their life journey. This communal studio has 5 well-appointed bedrooms, enough bathrooms for all, a cosy kitchen and enough space for everyone to write, paint and create. This is the perfect place to stay in such an eclectic town as Valparaìso. You can find them on AirBnB.com.

We arrived in town early in the day, and it was definitely time for some lunch. We walk down the narrow alleyways between the houses to get to the city streets in search of food, street food preferably. Street art is quite common in the cities of South America, but the magnificence of the art in this city is unbelievable! Every inch of every wall is dressed in colour – from the classic buildings near the shore                                                                                to the worn, retro houses crawling all over the hills. A marvellous sight indeed!

Every wall a canvas*

Every wall a canvas*

We walk back in the direction of the bus terminal to Plaza O’Higgins, on the corner of Pedro Mont and Uruguay, to find a street vendor selling Sopaipillas  – deep fried, salty, flat pumpkin fritters – that Gonzalo introduced us to in Santiago..but this guy’s tomato and onion relish was not as great. A few feet further we find another vendor grilling Anticuchos on an open fire. Yum! Lunch is served. We park on a bench and enjoy our traditional Chilean street treats and watch an impromptu street show – a middle aged woman in a shiny getup is singing to a very loud stereo – and the surrounding audience loves it.

After our meal we take a left and walk towards the ocean and stumble upon the street where all the fruit and vegetable merchants hide away. And not a moment too soon, I am dying for something with some vitamins. There are so many to choose from and all their produce looks amazing, I am craving!

Retro architecture in contrast to the classic buildings in the city centre down below*

Retro architecture in contrast to the classic buildings in the city centre down below*

This does seem like a bit of a dodgy part of town so we make our way as close to the shoreline as possible to walk along the coast to the Port. It is quite a far walk! If you are the train taking type, there is a new line that goes along the coast from the Port to the south all the way to the neighbouring city of Viña del Mar to the North. It’s fascinating to see the face of the city change from dodgy to modern towards the Port.

At the Old Port we take an evening harbour trip in a little, 7m or so, wooden engine boat with about 14 others, 2 guides and Captain Carlos and watch the sun fall behind the hills as we glide across the bay. Between sailboats, military tankers and huge cargo ships we move seeing a *hoard* of sea lions play on and in between buoys at dusk. The city lights sparkle on the hills in the distance as the superfast Chilean Spanish dances off the tongue of our guide, Christof, but we don’t listen, we just enjoy the ride. Later Christof comes to us and asks if we followed his explanations of Valpo and her history… Nope, not so much. He is kind enough to give us a concise Spanglish version and then we were amigos! Just like that..  Back at the docks we chat with Christof, Diego the second guide, and Captain Carlos about our journey, about South Africa and about what it means to be a boatman in this city. They invite us to stay on the boat while we share a smoke and park the boat in line in the middle of the massive boat parking lot that this port becomes at night. Little tourist boats and fishing boats all line up, tied together as to not float away. A small row boat comes aside and we shakily hop in to make it back to land. This authentic experience is what we set out for..

What a view!*

What a view!*


The sun is long gone and it’s almost 22:00. We need to make our way back to LAB00 in the darkness and we don’t know these streets too well yet. It’s always advisable to take a taxi at night, for safety’s sake and all that, but we decide to take a chance on foot. At night a city always looks more beautiful to me. It must be the soft yellow lighting and the dramatic shadows the architecture creates. The darkness also does an excellent job of hiding the ever present filth of course. Oh, this love/hate relationship I have with cities.

I think I’m going to like Valparaìso*

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One Comment

  1. Jay G July 18, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

    Most wonderfully written experience.

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