Exploring the color-filled city on the bay
IF I SAY THAT VALPARAISO IS TO CHILE AS AUSTIN IS TO TEXAS, I mean to compliment both. Of course, I would have to layer in some New Orleans and some San Francisco to get the right mix, and yet that would not describe any of them justly. Too bad none are sister cities. I think they would all get along.
I reference Austin simply because Valparaiso—or Valpo as it’s called—is the fun-loving, easy-going, artsy, intellectual, energized, funky weird, government city that draws some of the same carefree citizens of Chile as Austin does. Santiago is the country’s official capital, but the Chilean legislative branch meets in and governs from Valparaiso. Yet another parallel to Austin.
VALPARAISO IS AN EASY DAY TRIP from Santiago. In fact, buses make the 1 ½-hour trip back and forth several times an hour. I took the Santiago Metro to the Alameda de Santiago station, went upstairs and was in the middle of the private station for Turbus and Pullman buses. Pick a time, get a ticket and you are on your way within 15 to 20 minutes on most any day. It’s that simple.
The buses are modern, clean and comfortable and the drive from Santiago provides wonderful views of farms, vineyards, wineries and mountains as you go from city to sea. Buses make a couple of brief stops along the way to drop off and pick up other passengers.
THE BUS STATION IN VALPO IS AN EASY LAUNCH PAD for walking and roaming the city. Soon after you step out of the bus station, you’ll be greeted by a half dozen tour operators ready to sign you up for a car tour. The tours may be fine and get you farther faster, but I planned to walk and see what I stumbled upon. I stopped for one young man’s tour pitch that included a brochure with a map. He highlighted the points of interest and I thanked him for the information. Oh, and for the map!
I was relieved to read that “visiting Valparaiso has less to do with touring specific sites than it is about roaming the chaotic, hilly streets, and taking in the views and ambiance.” I was afraid I was missing some important sites of Valpo and realized that walking along the energized streets and taking in the port views was the experience.
VALPARAISO CURVES AROUND A SWEEPING BAY anchored with cargo ships, cruise liners and small craft for work and pleasure. A half dozen major streets run parallel to the coastline and ripple out from the bay toward the steep hills that ring the city. When you reach the hills the streets and alleys rapidly change to all directions, climbing, zigzaging and disappearing higher and higher. The bus station was on Calle Pedro Montt, one of those major streets and where the walk began.
WITH LUNCH IN MIND, MY WALK DID HAVE A MISSION—to find the Casa Quatros Vientos (House of Four Winds restaurant) overlooking the bay. Of course, most every building in the hills has commanding views of the bay. Passing small parks, shops, street vendors, musicians, monument squares and brightly painted buildings, I found the Ascensor Artilleria nearest to the massive cargo ship dock. Valpariso is proud of its antique funiculars that efficiently track you up the steep hills to commercial and residential areas.
THE ASCENSOR ARTILLERIA IS MORE THAN 100 YEARS OLD and a national monument. The modest fare and quick trip lands you right in front of the Naval and Maritime Museum where a beautiful park lookout delivers a fantastic view of the bay and city.
The restaurant hangs right over the funicular track, but I admit it took some trial and error finding it, mainly because there was no sign on the blue Victorian house on the day I was looking for it. For more about lunch, see CEVICHE ON HIGH post.
Every flat surface in Valpo is a potential canvas for the city’s bounty of artists.
After a leisurely and wonderful lunch, I walked back down to sea level. Just about every flat surface I passed—stairs, fences, posts, doors, walls—are, for the most part, artfully painted or artfully grafittied.
Walking back to the bus terminal, one shop that caught my eye was a neighborhood grocery right out of the early 1900s. Floor-to-ceiling shelves and bins, packed tight, were fenced off by counters where attendants behind them were ready to fetch whatever you wanted. An older man, neatly dressed in sport coat and tie, greeted customers and kept order over the floor. Perfect film set for a shopping scene in an old seaport town.
WITH A LITTLE TIME TO KILL BEFORE HEADING BACK TO SANTIAGO, I stepped into a small diner across the street from the bus station for a sit and a cold Cristal beer. At 4:30 in the afternoon, I watched a steady stream of orders for beer and hot dogs. Valpariso has this penchant for hot dogs slathered with mashed avocado and mayonaisse. I mean spatula-laden layers of both, like a thick spread of frosting on a cupcake. I was happy with my beer. They were happy with their hot dogs.
For kicking around town on a sunny day, Valpariso and Austin are hard to beat.