Valparaiso is a city of contrasts. Every time I told a Chilean that I was planning to spend an afternoon there, they raved about the historic port city as if it was the soul of the country.
But every time I told a visitor the same thing, they groaned and told me that it was a depressingly run-down city that I would be best to leave off my itinerary. I was intrigued by this difference of opinion. As a concession to both, I decided to visit, but only for a short afternoon.
My flight from the Atacama Desert arrived in Santiago at 12:40pm, and I took a bus to the Pajaritos metro station in the city. From there I walked to a booth to buy bus tickets for Valparaiso. Everything I had read said that advance reservations weren’t necessary since buses depart every 15 minutes. That proved to be true on the way there, but not the way back. With only five minutes before my bus from Santiago to Valparaiso departed, I couldn’t find a company that had a single seat left on any bus back to Santiago that day.
Racing against time, I darted between the three counters of the bus companies that travel between the two cities, trying to find a ticket back to Santiago. When I received a firm ‘no’ from every one of them, I only had one minute left before my bus to Valparaiso departed. I had to decide whether to get on the bus with no sure way of getting back, or give up my ticket and with it my only chance to see the city on the coast.
As a last desperate effort, I asked one of the ticket sellers if there was space left on any buses back from Valparaiso’s neighbor, Vina del Mar. No. With thirty seconds left, I asked another. Yes, there was one bus at 5:55pm that had a seat. I bought the ticket, grabbed the receipt, and ran to my bus right before it pulled away from the station.
For the next hour and a half I calmed my frayed nerves by enjoying the views of the countryside out the window of the bus. It reminded me a lot of Northern California, what with its vineyards, low fog, and shrub-studded brown hills. The scenery was fitting given that Valparaiso was supposed to be just as full of steep hills and colorful buildings as its fellow seaside city, San Francisco.
It was so peaceful that I almost fell asleep before we arrived in Valparaiso. But when we pulled into the city, the vibrant market outside caught my attention and lifted me out of my haze. The market was a lot like the one I had seen the previous week in the Maipo Valley, only much larger. It lined the median of a major street in the city, and on display was every kind of textile imaginable.
The bus came to its terminus, and I found myself in the middle of a gray fog in the kind of gritty area that can only be home to an urban bus station. Not sure of my agenda, I walked over to a local park where music was playing and hardened men wearing denim overalls and smoking cigarettes sat at small tables playing cards.
In the middle of the square was a large equestrian statue, and on the other side sat an extension of the market I had seen on my way in. There were a few stalls selling street food, and although their offerings weren’t very appealing, they reminded me that I hadn’t eaten in over eight hours.
I walked down a nearby street to see if I could find a place to get some food. That was when I smelled the market. A mix of raw meat and dead fish filled my nose with a stench so nauseating that I had to stop for a second.
Steadied, I continued, and found myself in the middle of a foul-smelling but beautiful-looking vegetable, fish, and fruit market. Vendors lined the street selling huge slices of yellow-orange pumpkin, plump black olives, and crusty shellfish. Just as I was starting to enjoy the experience, a guy about my age walked up to me, pointed to my camera, and said “cuidado.” Be careful. Sigh.
A bit further along the market went indoors, and I wandered through the large warehouse, dodging feral cats and haggard-looking men with brooms. The bright, fresh fruit looked good enough to eat right then, but the gritty atmosphere, stray animals, and dim lighting gave me pause. It was certainly a scene of contrasts.
Leaving the market, I headed back towards the bus station and found a pizzeria called Paola. The place was packed with locals, and the only available seating was on the third floor. I ordered what was presumably a pizza, but tasted like a heap of processed everything, and resolved to get out of the neighborhood to try to find a more savory place to explore.
After paying my bill, I decided to head up to an open-air museum called El Museo a Cielo Abierto. Famous for its murals and multicolored buildings, it was supposed to represent Valparaiso at its best. The museum was located 10 blocks from where I was, and given that I was carrying my luggage on my back, I decided to take a taxi. Bad idea.
Between traffic, road blocks, and a driver that was certainly trying to take advantage of my ignorance of the city map, I ended up arriving at what was supposedly my destination 30 minutes and US$15 later. It was only after I got out of the taxi that I realized that my driver took me to a location not-so-near to where I had asked him to drop me off, and lied to me about where I was when I got out.
Still, I was in the general vicinity of where I wanted to be, and just as I grew determined to make the most of my time there, the fog rolled away and the sun shone down on the beautiful murals, mosaics, and colorful buildings of the neighborhood. For the first time since I arrived in Valparaiso, I understood why the Chileans loved it so much.
I only had around 15 minutes left to explore the area, which was disappointing given that I was already in love with it. Set on a steep hill, it had narrow San Francisco-like stairways leading up, down, and across the neighborhood in an M.C. Escher-like maze.
I climbed a few of them, discovering bright murals on the sides of pink and green buildings. Next to them sat mosaic-covered benches and lamp posts, and pretty cafes that surely served pizzas that tasted like pizzas.
I wanted to walk around more, and also walk up the hill to the former home of Pablo Neruda, which had been turned into a museum. Alas, I had to get to Vina del Mar to catch my bus back to Santiago.
My one last wish was to ride one of the city’s famous funiculars down to the waterfront, but the woman I asked for directions told me that the one I had in mind wasn’t working. A lot of Valparaiso’s urban elevators were damaged in last year’s earthquake, and that must have been one of them.
It was disappointing to have the best part of my stay end on a sad note. However, I was thankful to have had even a short time in the beautiful neighborhood. I’m glad that I didn’t leave Valparaiso with only the gray memories of the hard area around the bus station.
I walked down the steep steps to the ocean, where I caught the new light rail to Vina del Mar. The train was clean and efficient. It offered great views of the paint-by-number hills on one side and the container ship-filled port on the other. In 10 minutes I alighted at Vina del Mar station.
Vina del Mar, Valparaiso’s upscale neighbor, was a beach town that Santiago locals flocked to on the weekends. Unfortunately I only had 20 minutes to explore it, so I didn’t get to see the highlights.
Instead, I parked myself and my luggage in a pretty garden in the middle of the city and did some people watching. The sunny square was full of flowers and fountains, and around it were horse-drawn carriages that took visitors through the city in the old fashioned style.
I eventually made my way to the bus station, which was packed with people returning to Santiago after a day or weekend away. The bus ride back to the capital was pretty, and when I arrived in the city I took the metro to my hotel.
I checked in at 8pm, and found myself in need of some fresh air after a long day of traveling. My hotel was in a great neighborhood, and I wandered down a street lined with restaurants on both sides. One particular restaurant that caught my attention was an amazing foodie shop and cafe called Coquinaria. With a motto that read “amor por el sabor”, or “love of flavor”, Coquinaria featured imported foods from all over the world, huge cheese and chocolate counters, and a shelf entirely dedicated to Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. I was in love as soon as I walked in.
Then the worst thing that could possibly happen happened: I discovered that I wasn’t hungry. No, the mystery ‘pizza’ in Valparaiso had somehow filled me up so much that even five hours later, surrounded by the world’s most amazing olive oils, teas, coffees, pastas, wines, cheeses, and chocolates, I couldn’t muster an appetite. It was tragic.
I walked around for a bit longer, hoping that I would miraculously get hungry, but sadly it didn’t happen. I went back to my hotel to do some work and picked halfheartedly at the giant fruit plate they had left for me.
I suppose that experiencing a stark contrast to my usual voracious dinner appetite was a fitting way to end that day. Given my experience of Valparaiso as a city of both grey grit and green glitz, sparse port areas and abundant, colorful markets, it was only natural that I experienced a contrasting version of my own self, too.
And as if in response to the less contrasting nature of Santiago, when I awoke the next morning at 6:15am to catch my flight to Easter Island, I was famished. To be continued…