Every person I talked to about Valparaiso prior to my trip north told me the same thing: “You…are going…to LOVE IT.”
When multiple people echo the same sentiment from a variety of sources (from total strangers to trusted friends), it’s hard to ignore it. Furthermore, people that know me down here tended to add, in a lower voice with a meaningful look, “Shannon, you will fall in love. It’s the perfect city to live in and be a writer.”
Okay, I thought. Fine. Let’s do it. Give it a go. I decided to combine my Birthday Easter Island trip with an exploratory mission to Valparaiso, stay there for a week and see what happens. I went prepared to hate it, but also prepared to love it. Really, I was open to whatever. I had a loose plan to move to Valparaiso post-Puerto Varas (god knows I’m not sticking around for the frigid winter down here), so I was hoping I’d fall in love like everyone was certain I would, but I was also prepared to come up with a plan B on the fly if I went and found out it was a miserable, disgusting, awful, dirty city that just didn’t have the charm everyone else saw.
So I went. I found Amanda in Santiago after Easter Island, we took a day bus to Valpo, and began our explorations.
The street art in Valparaiso is incredible, completely unique,
astounding, breathtaking, and poignant. Not to mention really freaking cool.
The first thing I noticed about Valpo was twofold: the sea air, and the amount of people. We had arrived to a big city, with buses, people filling the sidewalks, tall buildings, and that unmistakable energy of a port city.
Valparaiso is dangerous, huh? I guess we’ll wear our thug faces to ward off attacks.
Valparaiso is centered around the sea-level pleno, where most of the government buildings, banks, big commerce and the port are found. Then sprawling up and around that center, away from the sea, are the 42 cerros (hills) that give Valpo that sparkling, multi-colored, extremely vertical backdrop. Based on my world travels, I would best describe the city as a Guanajuato, Mexico -style Vertical Venice. Add in a healthy dose of collaborative art that covers almost 90% of the city, a bustling port that lends a certain grit and open-sea worldliness, and you have Valparaiso.
The street art serves a purpose. It’s not just for shock and awe,
it’s to prevent the taggers from defacing the buildings.
People hire artists to cover their outer walls in order to
avoid that messy, sporadic tagging common to big cities.
What Valparaiso accomplishes, perhaps without intending to, is a small-town feel within a relatively big city. Valpo isn’t the biggest in the country – it’s about the 6th biggest city, and Valpo proper has around 300,000 residents – but it’s big enough to have veganism options, while still retaining an easy-to-understand city layout. By day four there I felt I had a grasp on where I was going. At the close of week one, I was directing others how to get around. That doesn’t include the cerros, necessarily – those, in fact, can be quite confusing and irritating to navigate, especially once you get off the beaten track and decide to “try out the staircase” in a particular area. Chances are you’ll end up several streets over from where you intended, and Amanda and I found an actual vertical street on our trek to Pablo Neruda’s house one day. I’m not sure how cars kept all four wheels on the ground. Driving in Valpo is not something I’ll be trying. Ever.
Valpo girl? Almost.
As soon as I got to Valparaiso and realized that I would, in fact, love to stay there, live there, and perhaps base a writing career there, I set to work looking at apartments. I ended up finding a majority of the leads from signs posted around the touristy cerros. Valparaiso is a university city as well, so there is a constant flow of transients, both Chilean and foreign, coming to stay for weeks or semesters or years. There is a huge renter culture in Valpo, and it became quickly apparent that me finding a place to live for any amount of time would be no problem. All that remained was finding the right place to live.
Calle Ecuador – the nightlife hotspot.
With over 20 bars to choose from, this street is
hopping pretty much every night. And the drink specials never end.
Being an American from a relatively small town, I am highly acclimatized to privacy, ample living quarters, and quiet. The Chilean style, however, is quite different. It seems most families will rent out rooms in their house to students or transients, welcoming the flow of new faces and energy without a second thought. I’m not sure if the primary motive is extra income, the feel of a full house, or both, but I definitely have found that most Chileans prefer to live with others, even complete strangers, as opposed to living alone. I quickly shed my original idea of “finding an apartment to myself”. Maybe someday, when I can afford to buy out a whole house to myself, but for now, shared living it is. I checked out four places before I found the one that, after 20 seconds, I said, “LA QUIERO” (I want it).
My new bedroom, complete with two windows, a desk, a bookcase, and a closet.
Not to mention a sweet view of sprawling, sparkling Valparaiso.
I EVEN HAVE A DOOR! A step up from Puerto Varas, for sure.
Being that I’m a 2__ year old lady, I’ve reached a point in my life where I feel confident in demanding a certain something from my living situation. No longer can I cram myself and my belongings into an unforgivingly small cube of a dorm room (unless it’s a hostel, and only for a few nights); no longer will I go for the cheapest option, conditions be damned (unless, again, it’s a hostel, and only for a few nights, and I’m broke); and furthermore, I have NEEDS- space to lay my yoga mat, appropriate sun for meditation/contemplation, a desk for my laptop and work environment. My bedroom is my office essentially – for nonprofit work, for writing articles, for writing novels, for translating and copyediting – so having the room to breathe, think and work is crucial. I know this now because I haven’t had it since I moved to Chile. And now, I’m demanding it.
Amanda makes herself comfortable on the couch in the shared living room.
Bad Chilean soap operas come included with the cost of rent.
Valparaiso is cool because it’s a gritty, artsy port city, but other lifestyles are within easy reach on the same coastline. Just 10 minutes away from Valpo Center sits Vina del Mar, a newer, slightly classier city that caters more to tourism and family life. It features taller, bigger apartment complexes, better beaches, and fancier options…essentially the Small Suburban Brother of Valpo. In fact, that’s where American tourists may be pleased (or dismayed) to find both Ruby Tuesday’s and Starbucks. (I, for one, was thrilled to visit Starbucks. I never imagined I’d be so excited for drip coffee. When I get back to the States, I’ll boycott it again I promise.)
On Renaca beach, just a bit beyond Vina del Mar.
A father and child in the evening sun on Renaca beach.
Valparaiso used to be Chile’s number one port city; it’s still one of the most important seaports in Chile, but now the seaport of San Antonio takes the number one spot. The influence of the sea-faring life in Valpo is palpable; open-air seafood markets abound, the smell of fish and sticky salt hangs on the coastline, and amongst the hostels in the city center it’s hard not to run into a sailor or two. In fact, on the last night in my first hostel, I recorded English phrases for a Chilean ship captain who was taking a test to obtain certification to sail internationally; one important aspect being able to announce things in English to both passengers and other ships. It was fun getting a look into the life of sailor, including some of the terminology unique to ship captains. The guy was really friendly and took the time to explain why they say certain things, how the ship is laid out, etc. He’s also traveled quite extensively around Chile and we talked (actually, gushed) for a long time about Easter Island.
View from our walk toward the Pablo Neruda house/museum.
Looking up the ascensor Reina Victoria,
which passes right next to my NEW PATIO!
Another thing Valparaiso is famous for is the abundance of ascensores, the cable cars that lift you from one level of the city to another. It’s helpful for avoiding the sometimes-vertical and always-rigorous climbs up the winding streets. I still wonder how the hell anyone managed to build a city on these hills. The houses are so jampacked and sprawling, it’s a curious feat to think how many people per square mile are stuffed into the houses on the hillsides. I think this also lends to the small-town feel of the city: you don’t have to go far to get from one end to the other, but there sure are a lot of bodies in between!
Wandering around Cerro Alegre, one of the best-known tourist areas.
I am thrilled to consider myself a resident of Valparaiso soon (even if the government of Chile might disagree with the term ‘resident’). I plan to move by the end of the week, with all of my belongings in tow, and begin inhabiting my new space in Cerro Alegre. It’s not hard to see why Pablo Neruda loved the city so much, nor why he used it so extensively as inspiration for his works and poetry. I plan to be extracting the same creative juices from the air and the sea. Let’s hope the Valpo sights, smells and sounds can similarly infuse my words with that special, time-transcending, port-city magic.
Check out The Best Travel Backpacks before your next trip! Especially if you’re on your way to Chile, or want to swing by Easter Island, I always go with Lonely Planet: Lonely Planet Chile & Easter Island (Travel Guide)