Stretching along the west coast of South America, Chile is squeezed between the Pacific Ocean and Andean Mountains. I found it challenging to select the few towns I would visit during my journey through a country so diverse it spans the driest deserts to the greatest glaciers. At the recommendation of many seasoned travellers my first port of call outside of Santiago was to the colourful streets of Valparaíso. Many day-trippers venturing to the coast find themselves in Viña Del Mar. But the neighbouring seaside town of Valparaíso, or Valpo, offers a far more authentic cultural experience. What I found in these colourful hill tops the list of my favourite vacation destinations.
1 – Million Dollar Views Of The Port
After greeting my host, Rodo, the first thing I did was peer out the window at the downhill runway of rooftops leading my eye to where the sea meets the sky. Valpo is made up of 42 hills, or cerros, which curve around the bay. Due to building height restrictions there are few high rises to block your view, unlike the neighbouring mini-metropolis. At the end of every day I would visit the rooftop terrace and watch the sky paint itself with the most incredible palette. My camera roll soon filled with the Valparaíso skyline, as no two sunsets were ever the same. Day after day I was stunned that this ocean view could be as richly coloured as it was the day before. I asked my host family, the expatriate neighbour, even the foreign exchange students, and we all agreed it is a sight that never fails to impress.
2 – The Local Markets on Avenida Argentina
Rodo suggested I visit Avenida Argentina on the weekend to see the local markets, “You can find anything and everything,” he claims. Valparaíso is not a tourist town, it’s a thriving population of locals going about their daily business. This means the local street market is not filled with nauseating tourist tokens and gift stalls. What I found when I hopped off the trolley bus on the main avenue was a rich variety of locally grown fruits and veg, clothes, dog collars, phone chargers, and even construction hardware. My host was not exaggerating, you really can find everything on Avenida Argentina!
3 – Expressive Art and Wild Constructions
Valparaíso has more street art than any other city I’ve visited in South America. But the creativity and artistic expression of the locals extends so much deeper than the wild murals which line the winding walkways, or paseos. There are few restrictions on property development outside of height limits, firewalls, and earthquake resistance. This means there are many home renovators in Valpo for whom wood is their canvas, a screw-driver their brush, and recycled materials their paint. Here you can find houses and shopfronts rendered in straw and mud, with milk carton roofs, and glass bottle windows with bamboo trim.
4 – A Culture of Community
Each Cerro in Valparaíso is a neighbourhood of like-minded locals who all appreciate the beauty of their unique hillside town. The houses of Valpo are surrounded by art — they’re painted with colourful expressions and they are creatively constructed to gain an inspirational view of an ever changing canvas in the sky. The hills are inhabited by local artists, not just in visual media — there are poets, musicians, and dancers moving to the neighbourhoods where they can be appreciated for their craft. After a long work week these talented locals pick up their drums, put on their dancing shoes, and carry their home brewed beers to the paseos for a celebration of their inspiring culture. I was fortunate enough to live amongst warm families where I was welcomed to watch a movie at the street cinema, to join the batucada band, and take a seat at the community dinner table.
5 – Cheap and Easy Transportation
You can get to Valparaiso by bus, there are many companies doing this route as often as every 10 minutes from Santiago’s Terminal de Buses Pajaritos. Tickets with Turbus, one of the most prolific bus companies in Chile, cost $3000CLP, that’s less than $5US! If you, like me, don’t speak much Spanish, you can purchase tickets online and present the PDF ticket that is emailed to you. Getting around in Valparaiso is just as easy, the historic trolley buses, or troles, run back and forth from Avenida Argentina to the port terminal. From the trole route you can stop off at Plaza Sotomayor, the main square of Valparaíso where twice daily you can join a free walking tour run by Tours4Tips. If you don’t feel like walking uphill you can take one of the many funiculars, a vintage elevator, to watch the sun set over the city. If you wish to take a bus further up the cerros, you can use Google Maps to see every bus route and timetable! To make things easier for those of us who can’t navigate the language barrier the prices are written on placards in the front window of every bus, funicular, and trolley bus. A ticket to almost anywhere in the city costs less than $500CLP, that’s less than $1US. Valpo has so much to offer, it felt like home, and I didn’t feel the need to see if the grass was greener elsewhere. But for those with wanderlust, you can hop on the Metro, a subway that runs along the coast line from Viña Del Mar Botanical Gardens all the way to Playa Ancha, to see how the neighbours live.
6 – The Best Lunch at Cafe Pitra
On my first day in Valpo I said, “I’m going to get fit living here,” and I did. Taking those stairs day in, day out, feeling the burn in my thighs, carrying groceries back to my home, the pizzeria, did have it’s bonuses. I was able to eat a large set menu lunch everyday in search of the best meal in town! Don’t expect to see any big chain fast food restaurants here, the locals vote with their wallets and whoppers are out! Instead you will find many small yet professional cafes on almost every corner. If you’re on a budget, have specific dietary needs, or are just looking for the best lunch in town, I recommend Cafe Pitra! They offer set menus that change daily for meat eaters, vegetarians, vegans, and those on a low calorie diet. For under $5000CLP, about $7USD, you get 3 delicious courses, all home-made, and a drink. They’re open weekdays from 11am until 5pm, but it’s a popular spot with locals, so avoid the lunch hour rush if you don’t want to wait an hour for a table like I did! It was worth the wait, and that’s why I recommend a homely meal from Cafe Pitra.
7 – Dogs
Dog lovers will be delighted to see street dogs, or Quiltros, in Valparaíso are treated like members of an extended family. Most are friendly, but they’re often more interested in finding their next meal than getting a scratch behind the ear. The community of Valpo do love the dogs, they will feed them, make winter jackets for them, and even fight for their lives. When public health authorities set poison baits to reduce the population the locals rose up in defence of the dog’s right to life. In Latin America there is a different culture around, not only street dogs, but also pets, or mascotas. The people don’t think it’s right to leave their poochy pal locked up in an apartment all day, so they let them out to roam the streets while they are at work. “They are free dogs,” says my host, Rodo. Of course, as a vet nurse, I have my concerns about the health of all the dogs roaming the street, mascota or quiltro. Street dogs are rarely fixed or vaccinated, so while they are fed and given beds to sleep in, they are often afflicted with mange or, even worse, distemper. (Read my story about Cariña – the street dog with distemper). Free dogs are not free from the hazards of street life, they could get into a fight, pick up a disease, eat poison, or be injured by a distracted driver. It’s a pros versus cons argument, I don’t think either side is right or wrong so long as everyone is considering the dogs’ best interest, whatever that may be.
The twisting paseos of Valparaíso are like a city wide gallery of street art and creative architecture for which there’s no admission fee. You don’t even need to pay for a guide to find your way to the best viewpoints, just walk uphill to see a sea of painted houses overlooking the Pacific Ocean as it mirrors the sunset hues. Be welcomed to the most inspiring neighbourhoods in the world!