“If you are staying for the night, you probably don’t want to go down that area, that area and that area after dark”, Francisco said, pointing in three directions around us ,”If you wander away from the city centre, you DEFINITELY don’t want to go up any staircases and alleys alone, even during the day.”
“But don’t let that put you off”, he quickly added, “This is a really beautiful city.”
And that was our introduction to Valparaiso (pronounced “Bel-pa-rai-so” because of the wrong way the Spaniards pronounce “V”… Question: do you think the Spanish-speaking world watch “B” for “Bendetta”??? I digress…).
We had taken a day trip from Santiago to the port town and our first impression of Valparaiso was what you would’ve imagined from Francisco’s description. The city was dirty and grimy with numerous dark alleys and shady staircases that would not have looked out of place on the set of Sin City. Electrical wires crisscrossed haphazardly over rundown graffiti-covered colonial buildings. The streets were littered with garbage and many broken bottles of beer. And then there was that perpetual stink of urine in the air.
It was not a good first impression.
Honestly speaking, if we were left to our own devices that day, we probably would not have enjoyed Valparaiso all that much. Good thing we went on a free walking tour (yes, another one) from Tours4Tips Valparaiso with Francisco and Chris.
Francisco is a native of Valparaiso and Chris is an American who loved Valpo so much that he decided to stay for a (very long) while. Together, they showed us the lifestyle of the Porteños (people who live in port cities) as we walked through the city.
It’s hard to believe from the state that Valparaiso is in now, but it used to be one of the major ports in South America. It was a key stop for ships crossing the Atlantic and the Pacific ocean. This brought about a deluge of immigrants that helped create the Golden Age of Valparaiso, bringing with them “Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, Chile’s first public library, and the oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous publication in the world” (Source: Wikipedia). The opening of the Panama Canal swiftly brought an end to this Golden Age.
Over the four or so hours, we went up and down (and up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down) the cramped alleyways of the cliffside city built beside the sea.
Francisco and Chris would point out the quirks that makes Valparaiso such an endearing place for all those who can see past the gritty streets (and smell through the pungent stink).
Even though Valparaiso is “just” 120km away from Santiago, the citizens of Valpo are a lot poorer and “street-ish” than those in the capital city. Along with a huge university population, they felt that the Porteños are more politically aware, and the integrity among the people in the port cities is much stronger than those in the capital. (Apparently the districts of Valparaiso are divided by the numerous hills within the city. The denizens of each hill are supposed to have their own “characteristics” and it is not uncommon for people to have extended shouting matches across the different hills)
The “street art” within the city reflects all these characteristics. While there is a lot of amazing graffiti in certain districts in Santiago, the ones in Valparaiso are somehow infused with a hell of a lot more humour of the gallows-y nature. There are also a lot of “installation art” made from the most random of material that are found on the streets.
Francisco and Chris were amazing guides and we fell in love with an unlikely city. Best of all, we ended the day at an artist colony, sitting on a rooftop and having a sip of Chile’s famous pisco sour with the two lovely fellows…
Tours4Tips runs free walking tours through Valparaiso twice a day at 10am and 3pm. The meeting point is at Plaza Sotomayo, a 15 minute walk from the bus station.