Valpo, I love you so. This seaside city barely two hours away from Santiago is so incredibly charming and colorful it just took my breath away — it helped that food in general was a lot better than what we were served in the capital.
With windy, uphill roads lined by eye-poppingly painted houses, Valparaiso reminded me of San Francisco and Montmarte with a South American spin. The shanty-esque feel of how the houses were arranged seemed so spontaneous and wild and free.
We spent a far-too-brief two days there, and while there weren’t particular things to do, Valparaiso is a place that needs time for you to soak it in. And it helped we were staying in an amazing Airbnb place with floor-to-ceiling windows — no bars to us appreciating the spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean intersecting with this once glorious city (it was called the Jewel of the Pacific!).
To be honest, when we first got to our apartment, I was a little worried about how we were going to get down. Our taxi had navigated circuitous routes that ascended steep inclines, and he was undeniably lost. (It didn’t help that my Spanish got him thinking I wanted to go to “Calle Eden” even though I thought I was articulate about the fact that I wanted to be at “Calle Herder” — the ‘h’ is silent in Spanish.)
Thankfully, our lovely hostess told us about the colectivos, or collectives. These were cars with a small sign above them, whose drivers would make their way around designated paths shuttling people who needed to ascend one. Considering the city is built on dozens of steep hillsides, it helps to get a travel aid to make the most of your vacation. If you’re traveling in pairs, you’ll probably split the car with other would-be descenders, and all for the low price of 300 Chilean pesos ($0.64).
Of course, before there were colectivos, there were ascensores — steep, inclined cable cars that got you from the foot of the Plan (where the financial district is located) to a hill of your choice. These rickety-looking things are a feat of engineering in itself, and part of the reason why the city was declared a World Heritage Site 10 years ago.
The city also has a distinct architectural culture but frankly, I would give this place World Heritage status on the basis of its graffiti alone. Everywhere we walked we were attacked by color and drawings.
Even in hidden alleyways — especially in hidden alleyways — no surface was left uncovered. Altogether it just lent the place an unseen, pulsating energy. Suddenly lazy Rachel wanted to walk, explore, do more! Color is magic.
And the staircases — wow. It’s like Valpo graffiti artists ran out of walls and were fervently finding spaces to express themselves. The result? Eyecatching mini-murals even from a distance.
Walking around helped us tick the landmarks off our checklist. Wenbo, who had been to both Santiago and Valparaiso before, acted as our tour guide. What ensued were watered-down versions (heehee) of what a real guide would have told us, but it was also a much speedier (not to mention cheaper) tour.
We decided to take a boat tour of the bay.
All the tourists boarded this tight-fitting vessel:
But thanks to yours truly and her negotiating skillz, I got us a private boat for 25,000 pesos. (Actually I didn’t do anything la, I just translated in Spanish cos I didn’t know what the going rate was. Though I think it worked out for the better, haha.)
As it turns out, our uber-chill (albeit enterprising) “captains” allowed us to steer the boats for an additional 5,000 pesos — not like we could have protested, since future naval officer Aaron was already guiding the boat through the clear blue waters.
Because we had our own boat, we got up close and personal with the sea lions. Forget San Fran’s Pier 39 — you can’t get any more intimate than this:
And of course, we spotted the navy’s fleet too. Even waved hello to some of its sailors when we got close enough (but obviously not that close, or I’d be writing this post from jail).
The other highlight of Valpo was the trip to Pablo Neruda’s third house — his holiday home called La Sebastiana. Not gonna lie, all this while I thought Neruda was just a poet (but still one I like very much!). It wasn’t until I got to the museumy part of his house that I was like, “Wait… He was a politician?”
Neruda’s house is an assemblage of the strangest things he collected from his travels around Asia, Africa and Europe. I couldn’t quite reconcile this communist with his capitalist love of things — this was a man who loved his worldly possessions, his food, his tangible items.
We weren’t allowed to take photos of the place, which was a pity because this is great inspiration for interior decorating. I managed to sneak one of his super eclectic bar area — the man loved to hold alcohol-infused parties.
One of the running “jokes” (now that I’m trying to recount it I realize how unfunny it sounds) throughout the trip was that Alan and I are extremely “literary” while Aaron, Wenbo and Stanley were less prone towards enjoying “books for fun.” We were playing one of those dinner games where you name a category and everybody lists an item that belongs to it. I decided to go with “Shakespearean plays” and we barely made it through a round… So when we got to Neruda’s place, Wenbo would stalk me in every room and ask, “So why you like Pablo Neruda, ah? Can tell me what his poems are about? Can explain to me?” This would be accompanied by Aaron’s looming face, affirming: “Yah, can tell me also please.”
Neruda had his house built such that the windows would wrap around his house. From every floor you could take in these amazing views of the bay and the city and the ships. Imagine waking up to this view everyday (and this was taken from his bedroom):
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.
Write, for example,’The night is shattered
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.’
Escribir, por ejemplo : ‘La noche está estrellada,
y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos’.
Before I end off, I just wanted to immortalize one amazing restaurant we dined at, La Concepcion, situated in the Concepcion historical district. The area is beautiful, filled with secret coffee places and gift stores that put the “in” in “indie.” But I think what really sold the area for me was the restaurant. Despite its top spot on TripAdvisor, I was skeptical: Chile had been distressingly disappointing in the food department so far — even when we scoured the Internet for recommendations — what would make this any different?
I was wrong, thankfully. All praises to the food, and I think Alan and I chose the two best dishes of all: he had 4 generous, hefty chunks of medium-rare tuna steaks, and I had amazing garlic-pesto crabmeat ravioli. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water. And OMG THE CHOCOLATE DESSERT NOM NOM NOM.
Not to mention the impeccable service. Of course it helped our waiter was super cute (Jane and Michelle agree with me here), but he also handed our blankets when it got cold, and presented all the dishes with flair and flourish.
Just a note to all those going to Valpo: there are lots of wild animals, especially cats. You can’t miss them — they hover outside your apartment, around your legs when you dine outside, heck they’re even portrayed in tonnes of graffiti.
Anyway, if you ever find yourself in Chile, don’t miss out on Valparaiso. In fact, you should even head on down to Vina del Mar, where I’ve been told it’s a great beach area to rival Miami’s. Sadly the weather on our second day caused us to cancel our plans but Valpo still had more than enough to offer.
Alrighty: RACHEL’S LOWDOWN ON VALPARAISO
Getting there: Take Turbus or Pullman — two reliable companies from which you can book tickets online — to get to and fro Santiago. The earlier you get your tickets, the cheaper, but we never paid more than US$8 for a one-way ride.
Getting around: Colectivos are no doubt the cheapest way to get around but taxis, while comparatively expensive, are still somewhat affordable around US$5 per ride. Along the Plan, rely on your two feet.
Where to stay: Loreto’s lovely place listed on Airbnb. Our host was super sweet and nice — she left us watermelon and avocados in the fridge, arranged our early morning taxi to the bus terminal for us etc. Did I mention the apartment is beautiful?
Where to eat: La Concepcion for lunch/dinner, Pasta e Vino (snooty, upscale, needs reservations but good), La Belle Epoque for tea + great views, ViaVia for crepes and breakfast. Chileans eat late — most restaurants don’t open for dinner till 8pm.
What to do: La Sebastiana for sure, rent a boat, walk around Cerro Concepcion, ride an ascensor.
Notes: On our second day, we were warned by five different Valparaisians to keep our chunky dSLRs out of sight. Apparently we were in an area prone to snatch theft, but in spite of the frequent warnings, I never felt unsafe. I was, however, heartened by these nice people’s keeping our interests in mind.