I’m convinced that if you follow the yellow brick road it will invariably lead you to Valparasio, Chile. A small city of about 200,000 people, Valparasio is actually one of the most important seaports in the South Pacific and a big university town as well. However, it’s so much more than both of those aspects and was a great escape for me just when I needed it most.
It’s about an hour by bus from the capitol of Santiago, but a world away in many respects. Sure, there are some similarities between the two cities. The warmth of the Chilean people is ubiquitous; the cold weather in July is inescapable, and the love of the region’s wine is very much intact. However, Valparasio has something that Santiago doesn’t have, something I’ve never found anywhere in fact, which makes it one of my favourite places. Ever.
It’s definitely a bit rough around the edges, and a part of me can see why some people wouldn’t like it (although those people are idiots, and I want nothing to do with them). It’s not the cleanest city. There are a ton of boarded up buildings and vacant lots in the port neighbourhood. The 15 ascensores (funiculars) across the city are old and rickety. There are more street dogs than people. And there is graffiti EVERYWHERE. Nevertheless, it has an incredible vibe, and it is chalked full of unique bohemian neighbourhoods over twisting streets and rolling hills with the most beautiful street art I have ever seen in my life.
There is as much pride in the local beer as there is in the local fare, which is all about the fresh catch of the day. There are buskers on every corner and a thriving arts culture that is the backbone of the historic downtown area, rightfully deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. And nothing rivals their love of the famed Nobel prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda who created many of his masterpieces in one of his homes up on the hill, which is now a busy museum, La Sebastiana.
My time there was made even better because I found an amazing B&B that just might be the best place I’ve stayed. Ya know….the type of place where the managers kiss and hug you hello and goodbye, make sure your breakfast is the best thing you’ve ever eaten, and genuinely care about how much you love every inch of every street of their city. It was quite a lovely stay, and I found myself chuckling more than once that I just may have met my match in the affection department.
It was located at the top of the city on Cerro Playa Ancha, so after breakfast and the corresponding lovefest each morning, I bundled up in the warmest clothes I brought and walked down to the city centre to explore. I followed one of the main veins the first day to view the city from Paseo 21 de Mayo, but of course, I took every way possible after that, making sure I got lost on the winding streets and hills. I figured it was really safe, so all I had to do was go down if and when I had enough of not knowing where the hell I was going.
The real highlight though was spending the greater part of each day walking the historic core to capture all the vibrant street art – every mural on every wall, in every door way, around every tunnel, and on every park bench and lamp post on the cobble stone streets of Cerro Concepcion and Cerro Alegre. It was like getting punched in the face with colour and art and design and very often, a socially conscious message for good measure. Then I think I hit every gallery and art display, every coffee shop and pub to soak it all in. And up.
I thoroughly enjoyed the time to write, read, and relax in Valpo, as it’s called by the locals, although I kind of regret not going to see some live music at night because I heard that the local music scene was quite impressive. However, after walking the hills all day and making my way back up to Rancho Loveshack, I was always so exhausted that I crashed. As youthful as I like to think I am, the perils of age still catch up with me sometimes, especially after two months of travel.
One day I took the metro to the nearby city of Vina del Mar for a stroll, which a cab driver told me is so close you don’t know when one city begins and the other ends. However, I did. You can smell the snobbery of Vina del Mar as you walk the clean, well-manicured streets that begin as soon as you break the city’s perimeter, so I didn’t stick around.
I quickly recoiled back to the gritty streets of Valparasio where I felt much more comfortable wedged in between the warmth, the colour, the strays, the fringe, and yes, the happies.
Much more me. Much more at home.