Valparaiso is a riot of brightly painted boxes, perched precariously on the city hills, creating a vibrant patchwork of colour. This mountain city by the sea doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s evident in the next level street art that decorates every surface. The scene in Valpo is boho meets urban cool meets hipster, hippie, art house, and funky all rolled into a picturesque package that somehow just works.
The hour and a half bus ride from Santiago takes you through one of the regions many wine countries. We rolled through miles of vineyards whose leaves were beginning to turn colours with the cooler autumn air. The land is arid and brown, creating some fantastic Sauvignon Blanc, Pinots and other varieties.
I managed to make myself carsick in the first 10 minutes of the ride, thinking I could get some writing done on the bus, but the hot sun blazing through the window combined with the climb into the mountains that separate inland Chile from the sea only made me sicker and sicker. I was desperate to get to Valparaiso, if only just to get off the bus.
When we crossed the final ridge into the city, we were hit with a wall of fog, and could see nothing but dreary gray, and our hearts sank. We had come here because it was cheaper than Santiago, and we hoped warmer. We were right on the former, but completely wrong on the latter. The area around the bus terminal was dodgy in the extreme, and the bleak surroundings started to play on our mood.
The nail biting taxi ride from the bus station up the steep hill to our rented house seemed to go on forever. A sharp turn left, a switchback right, up an impossibly steep hill, turn right, only to come to another impossibly steep hill — all while socked in with fog — none of it help to improve the mood.
Our little granny flat, descriptively named Casa Colorado was perched at the top of one of Valparaiso’s hills, and promised spectacular views. We could barely see across the street.
After a brief but intense domestic argument to release the tension, I headed back down the hill on foot in search of a grocery store to stock us up for the next few days. I had descended about 200m in vertical height when I realised I didn’t have any cash, and the little tiendas on the hill wouldn’t be taking my card. So I went on, all the way down into town in search of an ATM and food.
As I got closer to the bottom, the neighbourhood transformed from brightly coloured residential to urban cool – and the exceptional street art covered nearly every flat surface. This town decorated and adorned itself, and I was in the heart of one of the coolest neighbourhoods it had to offer. The murals were bright, big, and fantastical – some leaping from one building to the next, others occupied the small space of a doorway. No matter what, it was all amazing, and I felt my spirits lifting.
I had already decided that I’d be taking a taxi back up the mountain, so I loaded up with money and supplies, and set out to find a taxi who would take me back home. We had been in country for about 4 days, and my Spanish was starting to come back, but I was still struggling with a new accent, and a new country’s nuanced take on the language spoken in the widest geographical spread in the world.
I managed to find a guy willing to drive up the hill for a price as steep as the grades, but once he saw the route on Maps.me, he insisted I pay the price he originally started at, not the one we had negotiated. I agreed, but got to use a phrase that comes easily, “nada mas.”
Mark and Austin had found a soccer pitch a few switchbacks down the road, where the locals had made a nice warm fire and were playing a fierce game of futbol. They came back out of breath, but elated at having made new friends and found something to do.
That night, we feasted on homemade chili, Chilean beer and wine, and had a nice evening, forgetting the frustrations of the day. Mark fell asleep while telling Austin a bedtime story, and the little guy snuck into bed with me, where we snuggled in against the cold of our draftly little flat.
The next morning, the fog had lifted, and we could see all the way down to the harbour, past tightly packed brightly painted houses, and we sensed it was going to be a good day. It took us a while to get out of the house though. We had overdressed, and had several goes at removing a layer, then going back outside only to decide that layer might also be unnecessary. Eventually, we got it just right, and set off down the hill. I was eager to show them the arty neighbourhood I had found, and they were eager to show me the soccer pitch.
In the meantime, Austin had decided that it was his stuffed koala’s birthday, and so Koala came along for a day out on the town to celebrate. I realised they must have had a great time at the soccer pitch, when the shop owner across the street knocked on his window high above the street to get our attention and wave hello with a wide smile.
We continued down, down, down the mountain until we reached a little museum dedicated to clowns and puppets. It was open and free, so we decided to go in – mainly to stop Austin from whining about the walk down the hill.
I was reluctant. A clown and puppet museum could easily be a house of horrors, and my imagination ran wild with what we might find. But of course it was lovely. There was a hands on kids area where they could dress like a clown, read books, or make their very own puppet show. Around the corner were some gorgeous antique puppets and marionettes, and another hands on exhibit for making shadow puppets.
Austin made up a whole fairy tale, using the shadow puppet forms, and treated us to an unforgettable show about a sun (or maybe it was a flower) and a fairy. We read some books in Spanish, and then headed back out for the day. I’ve no idea what inspired someone to create that tiny little museum, but it was lovely, and I’m so glad we took the time to go in.
Just below the museum, we found a park with the coolest jungle gym I’ve ever seen. I was set on the grounds of an old fort that once protected the harbour from pirates and the English, and was a blessed flat piece of ground in a city that really doesn’t have any flat ground at all. Even the park benches on the sidewalk have different sized legs! But the jungle gym was more interactive sculpture than playground toy. It was a long cage about 4 feet wide, and 50m long. Inside, bright plastic waves carried children up and down it’s little hills for the entire length of the structure. Set against the backdrop of the city’s hills, it was urban landscaping done extraordinarily (and artistically) well.
Every corner of this funky city surprised and amazed us with its creativity. It’s all just a bit wonky – nothing is straight in a town that isn’t flat – but that makes it all the more endearing. Is it a beach town? Is it a mountain town? Skeezy port city or chic playground for those wanting to escape the metropolis? Artists enclave or littered with graffiti?
Valparaiso is all of these things and more.
From its tiny cafes with big views to enormous murals on tiny buildings, it is a city that draws you in with every one of your senses. It is clever, hip, gritty and vivacious.
We came to Valparaiso almost by accident, but stayed on purpose. And you somehow get the sense that everyone did, just the same.