Travelling from Puerto Montt to Santiago and on to Valparaíso completely wiped us out. It was amazingly easy, despite the number of changes, but by the time we had walked from Valpo’s bus station to our hostel we were ready to give up and we spent the afternoon lying down. Our hostel was very weird, there was only one other guy staying in this sprawling space with beds for at least 40 people. He was an older guy from Liverpool who told us that he had been teaching English in China for ten years but the Chinese government had decided that he was too old to teach and, instead of going home to figure out what to do with himself, he decided to come to a hostel in Valpo instead. All this he told us within about 15 seconds of meeting us. Maybe we are being unfair, but there was something quite unsettling about him, and his penchant for watching horror movies with many screaming women in at all hours of the day and night was mildly disturbing. There was one member of staff who we saw twice in our entire stay and other than that we had the run of the place.
As avid readers, you will know how much we love hills, so we were in exactly the right place as Valpo is a town made up of 43 hills. Yay! If you look at a map of Valpo it looks more like a contour map than a street map as the roads wiggle and loop around in a complete rabbit warren.
Other than its hills, Valpo is known for its street art, its craft beer and chorillana, a local dish that we will tell you more about later but suffice to say that it is our ideal meal.
On advice from pretty much every blog that we read, we did the Tours 4 Tips classic tour of Valpo on our first afternoon. But before our tour we took the advice of another blog and tracked down empanadas from Le Pato. They were superb, beyond superb, an absolute must regardless of how far you have to walk to try them.
The Tour 4 Tips was also excellent. Our guide, Valentina, was very well informed, passionate about her town and just the right dose of mad to make the three hours that we spent with her fly by.
We wandered the main touristy areas of Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion.
The tour was a mixture of local and national history told through the stories of the famous buildings, viewpoints and street art around the city. The funiculars which dot the hills saved some serious hard work getting about.
Valparaiso’s colourful buildings are a reflection of the melting pot of cultures that make up the town. Once the most important port in South America, it attracted sailors and merchants from Europe and the impact of the influx of Germans, French, Italians and British can be seen all in the neighbourhoods all around town. Valpo fell on hard times when an earthquake in 1906 wiped out the port and then the opening of the Panama Canal rendered it unnecessary as a halfway house around Cape Horn and the Straits of Magellan. The vibrant culture remained and, despite natural disasters doing their damndest to rattle the town to its foundations, it endures and rebuilds with even more colour than before.
Interestingly, the large, obnoxious, ugly glass building in the middle of all of the original structures is the reason that Valpo’s Old Port area gained UNESCO World Heritage. The locals were so horrified by it that they petitioned UNESCO to protect the area.
Valpo, like many places we have visited has a large population of stray dogs roaming the streets. They generally are in reasonable condition and are fed by the locals. They are also all extremely friendly. On our tour, we were introduced to several of the characters who are known by all the guides; Bob, with his dreadlocks, Mr. Spock, with his funny ears and Margaret, who goes around fighting with all of the other dogs… we can’t imagine where they got their inspiration for that one.
Whilst not the focus of this particular tour, you can hardly miss the street art as you walk around town, particularly the old town, it’s everywhere despite being illegal. Caro loves street art and was in her element admiring all the pieces as we wandered.
The outside of our hostel was no exception.
After our tour, it was time to reward ourselves (James) with locally brewed beer. We settled down for a few pints from Alta Mira and Caro enjoyed a Pisco Sour, a South American speciality.
We also treated ourselves to their chorrillana, which is a large plate of chips, covered with steak, onions, and eggs. It is epic junk food.
We’d been so impressed by Tours 4 Tips that we decided to their “alternative” city tour the next morning, taking in lesser visited parts of the city. Our guide was equally as mad and equally as well informed. For this tour we took a bus up into the hills, there were far fewer tourists here and consequently far less money. It was another day of history and street art but our favourite stop for the day was probably the Cultural Centre. The site had served as a detention and torture centre during Pinochet’s dictatorship, it has now truly been given back to the people with communal gardens and the prison cells transformed into creative spaces to practice music, theatre or whatever other whim may take you. One of the interior walls is decorated with photographs of survivors of the prison, living their lives once again. It was a wonderfully positive and inspiring place to be.
It was an exhausting morning and we were well in need of sustenance when we headed to Mercado El Cardonal in search of some lunch.
The second floor has an array of restaurants serving Chilean food and local seafood. We opted for the busiest and ordered up a seafood platter which included ceviche, a local speciality. Overall it was only ok, but the ceviche was definitely a highlight. Our cheap seafood gamble paid off and we both lived with no ill effects.
All in all, we are definitely glad that we made the detour to Valparaíso; it is not the world’s prettiest or cleanest city but it has character and an atmosphere which you don’t get in many places. By way of example: plenty of places will have people who perform for money at traffic lights, Valpo has a full-blown brass band in noisy shirts.
PS. Seriously, go to Le Pato, we are still dreaming about those empanadas