Clonk-clonk, say the old wheels underneath us as they pull a metal box up a 30 degree steep hill. We sit on the wooden benches of Valparaíso’s oldest elevator known as the Ascensor Artillería. The elevator sways and squeals around us. You can barely see out through the hazy window. The 50 meter ride to the top only takes a few minutes. The Cerro Playa Ancha square lends a beautiful view down to the harbor and to the amphitheater opening next to it – the colorful Valparaíso. The smell of tar lingers in the nose for long.
Valparaíso, founded in 1536, is about an hour away from Chile’s capital Santiago. For Chile visitors Valparaíso is almost a mandatory stop. Santiago doesn’t have the same Latin soul as the one found here. The decaying, centuries-old houses rise up the hill, with their heads held high, building an endless network of stairs, elevators, and small alleyways.
The old men playing bridge and other card games for money and the street food salesmen making heavenly meat skewers blend in with the shouts of the people pushing fruit carts and the smells floating from the outdoor restaurants. Nobody ushers you to buy anything.
Food is simple, like grilled fish, vegetable soup and rice, or empanadas, meat pastries. Wine is always unfathomably good and costs next to nothing.
The artists’ paintings decorating the streets make the city unique and luckily even the city management understands it these days. Painting on the walls is no longer punishable. In Valparaíso everything feels somehow dilapitated, but in a serene way, which is a big part of the city’s charm.
Chile of conflicts
You either love or hate Valparaíso. The same can be said about Chile. The country is full of contradictions. The unbelievably beautiful nature with its animals, all the way from Patagonia to the Atacamá desert, holds its own even when compared to the nature of New Zealand. The picturesque seaside town, the sand dunes, and the villages embraced by the Andes are like straight from the French Riviera, Switzerland or northern Africa, and the wine country like the one in Australia. It is highly likely that in ten years, Chile will be one of the world’s most interesting nature, wine, and beach vacation destinations.
But then there is the other side of the coin. Because in the midst of all this beauty is the ugliness. At the end of the most beautiful beach is a power plant. There are plenty of tall apartment houses made of concrete that carry the remains of communism. The rugged, gorgeous road following the beach is lined with trash.
All of this tells the story of a society that is not quite on its feet yet. The median income of the population is around 250-300 USD, but the price of gas and groceries is almost the same as in Finland. It’s hard not to wonder how people manage to get by and pay for food, living and heating – let alone for health care, which is arranged based on the U.S. model. Chile has a tremendous number of people with small income, and also people who are really wealthy. There are still families who are paying back for land and houses from the communism era.
Tourism is not yet being utilized as a source of income and the infrastructure around it is nonexistent. We were surprised by how much we enjoyed staying in the local cabañas, or cottage housing. It may not be all that appealing to always start one’s evening by heating up the stove in the cottage and then, with a baby in your arms, scurrying in the hot water pool to get warm, though. Luckily there were quite a few pools, to act as sauna replacements. It also tended to be warmer in the cottages than in the hotels, which were as cold as old houses in England, where you lift the brocade curtains on the window sill for wind protection.
Getting to Valparaiso
The majority of tourists fly to Chile via Santiago. We rented a car there, so getting from one destination to the next was handy. The traffic isn’t impossible, but you do need to feel secure in your own driver’s skills. Moving from one lane to another is an art form of its own, and there are all kinds of drivers on the roads.
Driving in Chile is no problem if you’ve driven in Paris, Portugal or Italy. The general feel of the traffic is very similar. The roads in Valparaíso are steep, so driving is not for the weak of heart. On the other hand, there are none of the scary streets of San Francisco with abrupt, sharp endings, so in that regard driving is a lot smoother.
Alternately, you can also enter the city in a high class luxury bus or in a basic one. Both options are inexpensive. The public transportation between the cities is pretty weak, though, so having a car of one’s own is a good choice if you plan on visiting nearby cities. In Valparaíso itself you can easily walk from one place to the next.
Sights in the vicinity of Valparaiso
Come to Valparáiso in the summer. The best travel destinations are those that lend themselves to all kinds of activities. That is why we recommend Valparáiso as a home base.
Here are a couple of cities and sights within a 15 minute to an hour and a half’s drive from Valparáiso.
- Wine areas such as Maipo Valley, Casablanca Valley and Aconcagua Valley. Of the vineyard visits, the one of highest quality in terms of content and wine is by far De Martino.
- Pablo Neruda’sfantastic and intriguing house by the sea in Isla Negra. Neruda’s houses can also be found in Santiago and Valparaíso.
- Viña del Mar, located next to Valparaíso, as a beach vacation destination. The big playgrounds and sports equipment by the beach are an added bonus.
- The sand dunes of Cóncón, the seals, pelicans, and steep seaside sceneries.
- The astonishingly beautiful seaside beach destinations of Cachagua (remember the Penguin Island!),Zapallar, Papudo and La Serena a little further away.
The quick guide to Valparaíso, Chile.
- The most beautiful areas of Valparaíso are Cerro Conceptión and Cerro Alegre, which are both good for getting a hotel at.
- Street art is beautiful, bar none. Cerro Conceptión and Cerro Alegre are also the places where you find the most skillful street paintings. You can find several free city tours on artists and their work if you go online.
- Ascensors, or elevators, are a handy way to move up. There used to be 33 functioning ascensors, but these days the number is down to around ten. They cost about a euro, so it’s a good idea to, for example, take the ascensor up and to walk down.
- Try at least the Cerro Artillerí and take the scenic route on the Play Ancha square. En route you can find, among other things, a phone booth from the early 20th century.
- Get a free tourist guide from the tourist info. Be prepared to speak Spanish. You can also take a boat tour from the harbor, which is probably a must in the summer.
- Instant coffee is favored in Valparaíso – and in Chile in general – so fans of espresso-based drinks will most likely find their coffee near the Plaza Sotomayor square. There’s also a Starbucks in the area with free (and fast) internet, and wonderfully comfortable couches upstairs.
- If you come by car, book a hotel that has a free parking spot and a guard. Car thefts are common and there weren’t all that many good cars parked on the streets. Leave your car at a guarded spot or in a shopping mall. Parks, beaches and other sights always have their ”designated guard guys” for the day, who will keep an eye on your car if offered a small compensation for their services. This turned out to be a surprisingly well-functioning system. These guard guys can also wash your car and give you the best tips for restaurants. If you speak Spanish, that is…
- There are two kinds of cabs in Valparaíso: the more expensive ones with a meter, and taxis that drive certain routes or operate in a certain area. The latter have a fixed price, which is inexpensive and convenient. They also have their main stops with people to help customers in the right cars.
Sources: The tourist info brochures and info signs of sights at Valparaíso.