A Tale of Two Cities. Valparaiso, Chile

July 9, 2010 at 7:30 pm 2 comments

Valparaiso is a city with two faces. One is a gritty port town full of flea-infested dogs, crumbling buildings, shifty eyes and resentful stares. The other is a particularly magical little corner of the world, a hillside town of winding streets and narrow buildings bursting with colour and life. Unfortunately for us, this was a realisation that dawned late in our trip after two days spent wandering around with our hands in our pockets and our heads down, trying desperately to be invisible in a city where everyone was staring and whispering as we passed.

Our breaking point came when we followed the Lonely Planet walking tour of the city. Twenty minutes in we were feeling pretty good – we had passed the beautiful Plaza Sotomayor, waved at police in pristine white caps and photographed some fantastic graffiti. We were just saying that once you scratched below the ugly surface Valparaiso wasn’t so bad when a taxi pulled up at our toes and the driver started screaming in spanish. Noting our confusion he decided to switch language. “Don’t go up that hill! Very very dangerous! Go back now!” he barked before speeding off again. Looking around we noticed that all the locals were gripping their handbags with white knuckles and a homeless man was miming something along the lines of “Watch your bag.” After confirming with a policeman in pigeon Spanish that anywhere west of the plaza was mugging country, we shoved our hands firmly in our pockets and sprinted back towards our dive of a hotel.

After a block or two I started to feel a little guilty. We were hardly giving Valparaiso a fair hearing and what would I write on the blog? It was time to man up so we swung a right and started to climb up a steep hill. After only 200m our opinion of Valparaiso had been turned on its head. Gone were the broken windows and towering blocks to be replaced by rainbow-coloured buildings and wall after wall of elaborate graffiti. Where the streets in the port had been wide and pockmarked, the hill was a warren of narrow cobblestones that stretched upwards, defying the earth’s gravitational pull.

On every corner there were tourists musing over street art, locals sipping coffes and photographers brazenly flashing their wares. And it wasn’t just this one street that had character – every now and then there was a gap in the tightly packed buildings and the horizon opened up to reveal an endless stretch of coloured, corrugated iron houses or a vast ocean dotted with hulking tankers and rigs. This was a far cry from the paranoid shufffling mob in the city.

Our trip got better from then on and our last day or two in Valpo (as Valparaiso is known to its mates) was spent devouring set lunches in delicious Italian restaurants and trying to get to the very top of the highest hill so that we could get the best view of a city that was quickly growing on us. Part of our enjoyment was down to the two friends we had picked up in Santiago. Sophie and Paul were a Welsh-English couple who had a great sense of humour and displayed an uncanny knack of attracting strange dogs. Our exploration ended when Paul came home with a passive-aggressive Alsation who had taken a liking to him and had started to attack anyone who encroached upon his terrirory (mostly old women and one-legged men passing by on the other side of the road). For fear of contracting rabies or maybe losing a limb or two, we were all confined to our mouldy hotel rooms for the rest of the day.

After a few days spent in Valpo we left with nine dogs and a better feel for Chilean life. If given the chance to do it again we would change a few things – we would definitely stay in a hotel up on the hill and would completely avoid the newer part of town – but we would still do it again. With the right itinerary and a well hidden moneybelt Valpo is worth a day or two.

There are more pictures from Valparaiso available in the gallery


Entry filed under: Travel. Tags: , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Teri Taylor  |  August 12, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    Thanks for your post. Has the town recovered from the hurricane last spring?

  • 2. FRANCESCA  |  October 31, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    if you don’t like dogs on the strets..then go to Europe.
    Teri: there haven’t been any hurricane in Valparaiso or Chile, an earthquake yes and the city is fine


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