Valparaiso – Where Murderers can be Saints
Rising steeply out of the Pacific, Valparaiso is a no-nonsense port town, merged with a bohemian counter-culture. It is vibrant, colourful, full of originals and a little rough around the edges.
The posher crowd hang out in Vina del Mar, just around the coast and home to holiday resorts and fancy shopping; but Vina lacks the character of Valparaiso.
The port makes up a large portion of the sea-front, with container ships next to a large naval base. A little back from the port three parallel streets run from South to North through a run-down district, the Admiralty and financial quarters, before heading off towards Vina. Behind those, steep hills rise into the Concepcion and other hill-side districts and further into the distance. Valparaiso is famous for its ascensors: small funiculars, hundreds of years old, that ferry people up into the winding streets and balconies above for a small fee.
Everywhere is graffiti, I have never seen so much. It makes the place look decidedly rough. But, there are also beautiful murals everywhere: one-offs painted by local artists and repainted anew once covered in the ugly graffiti tags. They never paint the same image twice, so the town has become a living art gallery. Even the long stairway pavements are painted bright colours.
Every year there is a famous and very extreme down-hill mountain bike race through the streets of Valparaiso. It is absolutely nuts. The riders navigate steep drops, narrow pavements, long staircases and jumps at break-neck speeds all the while avoiding spectators and stray dogs. Here’s a little taster I found on YouTube.
Our first hostel (Costa Azul – highly recommended) was way up in the hills and to get into town we grabbed the small buses for 450 Pesos or 50c. They careen around at high speed, randomly failing to pick people up. Every so often they draw alongside a man with a notepad standing roadside – the timekeepers – and exchange a few words before shooting off again.
Beneath clear blue skies, we spent our days exploring the stairways and alleys around Concepcion, full of little restaurants and funky galleries. On the main streets, we hit the end-of-winter sales to pick up new t-shirts for a dollar or two. We also found the ultimate empanada shop with over 60 varieties.
One night whilst searching for pre-dinner 2-for-1 cocktails we found a a hotel (PazZHotel). Super funky inside and with a beautiful roof terrace overlooking the port, we got talking to the owner Niels and his friend Edward. Before we knew it, we’d booked two nights in the nicest room, complete with a jacuzzi… on the grounds that I bloody well wanted a bath for once. Not yet officially opened, we spent our evenings talking with Niels over a glass or two of fabulous red wine, hearing how he had rebuilt the inside of the place over five years. Every bed, every chair and bench he designed himself…a Grand Design in Valparaiso where we were the only guests.
Resplendently clean after our bath, we found our first Thai food since March. Another evening, we found ourselves drawn into a bar called Poblenou (the district of Barcelona I used to work in) by the sound of bag-pipes and proceeded to inadvertently gate-crashe a Chilean birthday, complete with fully be-kilted Scottish piper. We never did figure out what the connection was. And we watched the super-moon rise over the bay as we sipped cocktails.
One afternoon we took a ‘free’ walking tour (although obviously everyone tips at the end). Our guide took us up and down the ascensors, explaining the history of the town. One of the ascensors was apparently opened by Queen Victoria … a year after her death. Hhmmmm….. He told us of the local saints – dead villains, drug dealers or even murderers that people ask favours of. When they’re granted, little plaques often appear by way of thanks.
The local stray dogs follow the tour around from start to finish, attacking moving cars along the way. I guess that’s how they get their daily walks and the odd tidbit from a tourist. Having been up and down to various viewpoints, interesting churches and such like the tour ended next to the Admiralty. Our guide told us never to walk further along into the run-down quarter, we’d be robbed within a minute and even the cops didn’t like it in there. Whoops – shouldn’t have been walking around there yesterday for 45 minutes taking pictures!
So that’s Valparaiso, a very real town with pockets of beauty, a vibrant street culture, great bars and restaurants all mixed up with some other pockets of grottiness. We loved it!