After a week of traveling and trekking through the spectacular Aysén Region, it was time to enjoy some Chilean-style coastal chilling. From Balmaceda, we caught an afternoon flight to Santiago and immediately transferred to a bus headed northwest to Valparaíso, one of Chile’s cultural centers.
It’s always surreal to return to civilization following a wilderness experience—the polarized transition from the emptiness and isolation of Patagonia to the claustrophobic alleys and crowded cerros of Valparaíso seems to be even more intense as we step off the bus at night. The sights, sounds, and smells of human settlement produce a constant assault on the senses. The more time we spend in a city, the more we become accustomed to the overload. Immerse yourself in wilderness for an hour, a day, or a week, and the stimuli become exponentially more offensive upon return.
Illuminated hillsides and glowing storefronts cause my eyes to dart in and out of focus, car horns and shouting voices make my ears twitch, and the smell of hot garbage in the streets makes my stomach turn. But this is a city, after all, and an ancient one at that. Valparaíso, commonly referred to as Valpo, is also a place rich in culture, history, and art. Famed poet Pablo Neruda made his home here, and a cultural renaissance is attracting artists to take up residence by the week. Street art adorns every conceivable surface in a brilliant array of colors, ranging from graffiti tags and psychedelic murals to venerable masterpieces created by the Bohemian town’s various art crews. The brightly painted homes extending up the cerros create Technicolor neighborhoods, each boasting its own unique flavor.
To get the lowdown, we show up the next morning for the Valparaíso Offbeat Walk, a 3-hour tour given by a local guide dressed in a red-and-white striped T-shirt bearing the name ‘Wally.’ We’re fortunate to follow Camilo Tobar Orosio, a 25-year-old Valpo native with encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s history.
We meet at 10 a.m. in Plaza Sotomayor, a frenetic center of activity where locals hop on and off the constant stream of buses that traverse the city’s labyrinth of narrow alleys and steep roads. Camilo immediately points out the crumbling, chaotic state of the city’s infrastructure before referencing its Golden Age in the second half of the 19th century. The Historic Quarter of the Seaport City of Valparaíso is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that pays homage to the period when Valpo became a major stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific via the Strait of Magellan. Many wealthy international families made “The Jewel of the Pacific” their home—the stacked architecture in the city’s natural amphitheater setting features Latin, French, German, and English influences.
The opening of the Panama Canal cut off Valpo from international maritime trade, causing economic collapse in the early 1900s. Many wealthy families who lived in the coastal flats fled the city, leaving the working class who resided up on the steep hills to scrape by as the city decayed. Camilo led us into a narrow alley ending at a long set of steep stairs that ascend Cerro Cordillera, one of Valpo’s hill communities named after a mountain in the Andes. Nicknamed “a hundred fires in the legs,” this staircase is still the main route for working class Chileans living on Cordillera to return home after a day’s work in the downtown district.
While many Valpo locals still walk the steps, the 612 bus, aka “The Rollercoaster,” connects riders to 10 of the 52 unique cerro communities. A few locals hop on as the bus crawls over 100 meters above the ocean. An older, bearded man wearing orange overalls covered in paint carries a trash bag filled with faucet fixtures. A young woman in tight, revealing clothes covered in tattoos and piercings hops on soon after. Seeing the two side-by-side, Camilo’s tour route starts to make sense. The city is one of contradictions—a stark contrast of old and new coexisting in one of South America’s cultural hotbeds.
We descend down crooked alleys to learn about Valpo’s infamous street art. Camilo explains that the art is intended for the people. While styles vary, common themes include commentary on the city’s dark past, the Pinochet dictatorship, calamitous social movements, and environmental catastrophes like storms and the 2010 earthquake.
As we stroll through the maze of alleys near the art school, some of Valpo’s omnipresent street dogs latch on to our group. Camilo says that they know his tour route and follow him almost daily. The city is full of free-range dogs that lounge in squares, gorge on leftovers, and play in packs until the wee hours of the morning. Strangely, all the dogs we encountered during our stay were friendly, healthy, and quite adorable. We soon learn if we pet them, they will follow us around until we enter a building.
We finish the tour inside a dilapidated building with a beautiful onyx and marble interior that must have been absolutely stunning in the Golden Age. Camilo walks around with a tray of jote—a traditional Chilean mix of red wine and cola. We take our shots, each pleasantly surprised at the smoothness of the odd mixture. It’s lunch time, and we jump back on the bus to grab lunch at Din_399, one of Valpo’s hip new restaurants with one hell of a view. It turns out that Chile is one of the most expensive South American countries—our meals and lodging costs are on par with the United States. Fortunately, public transit is extremely cheap, and we save our knees by taking a bus back to the bottom for 50 cents.
We head back to the La Joya Hostel Company a hip resting place that houses travelers from around the world. We befriend folks from Austria, Amsterdam, Chile, Colorado, and Germany. We connect the most with Maca Jo, the head receptionist for La Joya Hostel, a lovely 27-year-old local who gives us plenty of sage advice on everything from which buses to take, to the best photography spots, to her take on the city’s renaissance and the fact that anyone who lives on any of the three Americas should be considered American (it’s our job to specify which one).
“It is my mission to make people happy when they come here,” she says in her sultry Chilean accent.
Maca sends us to Plaza Bismarck, and we sit there as the sun sets and the city’s evening light show begins. Valpo is a night photographer’s paradise, and long-exposure shots can be perfectly captured due to the candlelit landscape of the cerros, backlit street art, and snaking headlights of buses.
The exotic sounds of Chilean rock waft up from the Rockodrama annual music festival from the Parque Cultural de Valpraíso just blocks below. We head down and find out that entry is free. The band sings festive Spanish lyrics with a reggae vibe. Throngs of young Valpraísians dance with the kind of movements that only Hispanic hips can pull off. The backdrop of thousands of orange lights on Valpo’s cerros provide the illusion of a huge crowd holding up lighters—what a treat.
We mosey on after a few tunes in search of a cold cerveza. We attempt a shortcut down a nearly vertical flight of stairs; I lose count of the steps around 90. We see that they descend to a tall iron gate—is it locked? My knees shake at the idea of being forced back up. Fortunately, the gate opens and we spill onto Av Ecuador, the city’s party strip of endless bars. It’s an idle Tuesday evening, but the sidewalks are filled with revelers of all ages and all genres of music blend into an auditory hodgepodge.
In an effort to avoid embarrassing myself with my serious lack of dance moves, I suggest we walk a few blocks to Casa Cervecera Altimira, Valpo’s only craft brewery. We order a flight of 5 unique brews, quite surprised at the quality. With tired legs and a pleasant buzz, we catch the late-night bus on Errázuriz back to La Joya. We can’t believe it when we realize it’s almost 3 a.m. Valpo has a way of warping time and space, of keeping you intensely preset. Reflecting on the day, I decide it’s an acceptable tradeoff for the early assault on the senses.