Valparaíso, the jewel of the pacific

We’d had a great time in Santiago, but it was time to move on. We had already booked a hostel in Valparaíso, a port town about 1.5 hours north of Santiago. We caught a taxi to the bus station and managed to use our extremely limited Spanish to buy a ticket on the next bus which left in just 5 minutes.

The trip was fairly short and uneventful (due to me being asleep), but Michelle informs me that we went through some nice vineyard regions. When we arrived in Valparaíso we found the information center at the bus station and grabbed a map. The helpful guy suggested we catch a bus, then an elevator, then walk up the hill to our hostel. We considered this, but decided that since we were still fairly new at lugging our 20kg packs around that we would splurge $9 on a taxi. Once we saw the hills, we considered it $9 very well spent!

Valparaíso is a port town that rose to prominence the late 20th century as an important trade point during the California gold rush, and as a stopover for the increasing shipping traffic around South America when it was known as the Jewel of the Pacific. It’s fortunes declined after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, when a more direct route became available, but it is still a major port for goods in and out of chile.

It might sound like visiting a working port city would be like going on holiday to Port Botany, but the main attraction here is the stunning old buildings, street art and cultural sites set on a seemingly impossible series of hills. Over the years Valparaíso had influences from many countries, and this is evident in the amazing mish-mash of building styles, with elements of German, Spanish, French, Yugoslav and English architecture all sitting side by side. It might sound like a mess, but it works. The hills are accessed with a series of “Ascensores”, elevators that are essentially short funiculars that enable easy traversal of the hillside areas for a small fee of 20c – 60c. There are 14 of them, and they date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with virtually nothing but basic maintenance done to them in between. They certainly feel like it, and it’s one of those times you just have to use the logic “what are the chances that after 100+ years it would crash today?”

We spent the first day just wandering around taking photos. Lots and lots of photos. Every time we walked around a corner there was something new begging to be photographed. The colours and textures were just amazing, with years of history, ad-hoc maintenance and art combined into a sensory overload. At the Cafe Brighton we marvelled at the view over the town, and enjoyed a Pisco Sour on the balcony.

Eventually we stopped in a bar for some dinner, and enjoyed a relatively expensive (on our budget) meal. In an attempt to save some money, we didn’t order beer or wine with our meal, opting for a bottle of water instead. Imagine our shock when we got the bill and the water was “Patagonian virgin water” at a cost of $10 a bottle – we could have bought 4 of their craft beers for this price! Lesson learned – always order from a menu.

The next day we attempted to add some order to our random wandering – instead of just meandering around without looking at a map, we picked out a few things that we wanted to see and headed for them. First was the Palacio Baburizza, a beautiful old mansion turned into a fine arts museum. This was actually the first museum we’d successfully visited after several attempts in Santiago to visit galleries and museums that were closed, under maintenance, or on strike. It contained lot of Chilean and European art, as well as features of the house like a 1920’s full body shower, with pipes running around it (seriously, why don’t we have these now?!).

Next we headed down to the port, and quickly found ourselves getting onto a boat to cruise around the harbour. The boat was almost empty when we got on, and for the bargain price of $4 it seemed we would have plenty of room to lounge about. Over the next half an hour, the boat completely filled and life jackets were handed out; there wasn’t much room to move, but we did get a pretty good overview of the harbour, and a good view of the city from a different perspective that further emphasised the madness of building a city here! We also got a good view of the Chilean Navy fleet, and the loading of the massive container ships docked in the port.

On our last day, we decided to catch the metro to Viña del Mar (literally Winery by the Sea), just 20 minutes up the coast. With no wineries in sight, it’s really more like the Gold Coast – high rises and crowded beaches. We had considered staying here, instead of Valparaíso, but opted for the charm of an old town instead of the tackiness of the new. Although a beach sounded nice, the water is cold, the beaches are incredibly crowded and are not a patch on most Australian ones. So we wandered around the shopping district for a while, before settling down to get a drink at a restaurant near the beach. The drink turned into several drinks and some lunch as we enjoyed the atmosphere and met some nice people from Columbia at the table next to us. We had a great time talking to Wilson, Caesar and Diana about their country and now have a long to-do list when we visit Columbia, and hopefully some new friends to meet for dinner. We sauntered back to the train, grateful for a nice day in Viña, but pleased with our choice to stay in Valparaiso.

On our last day, we slept in a bit but managed to squeeze in a quick trip to the Naval museum before catching our bus. It would have been nice to have more time here, as the Naval history of Chile is quite fascinating. It started in the early 19th century with the fight for independence from Spain, and then continued through the late 19th century through wars with Peru and Bolivia. I presume there was more after that, but sadly we had to catch our bus back to Santiago.

We arrived back in Santiago at around 4:30pm with our bus to Pucon not leaving until 9:45pm. We decided to take up the offer of our friendly Santiago hostel owner Rudy and spent a sunny afternoon in the hostel courtyard. We stopped by the supermarket and picked up some beer and things for dinner, and enjoyed a relaxed few hours in Rudy’s garden chatting to him and the other guests. This is often the nicest part of travelling, and doesn’t happen in all hostels, so it was a nice way to spend the afternoon.

We jumped into a taxi and headed back to the bus station to wait for our 9:45 bus. The station was absolutely packed, and the buses were struggling to get in and out. Eventually we spotted ours on the road outside, but lost sight of it and were worried that we’d somehow missed it, or been in the wrong place. We did ask several official looking people in uniforms, but with our complete lack of Spanish we were forced to communicate through the medium of rapid hand gestures. It seemed like they were either trying to tell us that the bus was very late and that we were in the right place, or they were demonstrating how to swing a cat by the tail. Just to be sure, I went for a walk outside the station and discovered our bus in a line about 20 buses long and 2 wide queued to get into the station. None of the buses could move, and despite the fact that we were clearly going to leave very late, it was reassuring to know we hadn’t missed it. We waited patiently and finally it pulled in and we boarded the bus an hour and a half late.

Our seats on the bus were amazingly comfortable, reclining back about 3/4 with heaps of legroom. We managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep, and it was actually far more comfortable than the similar length flight from Sydney to Santiago. 10 hours later, we woke up and looked out the window as we approached our next destination, Pucón.


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5 Responses to Valparaíso, the jewel of the pacific

  1. Barbara says:

    Very good and interesting reading Ben keep it up

  2. Petrea barker says:

    Ben. your writing is very descripitive.It compliments the photos very well. I am sooo enjoying your “articles, both of you. Love the vibrant colours.

  3. Brigid says:

    quite the story teller..I love this town.. on my list 🙂 xxxxxxx

  4. Verena says:

    Very well described and great photos – I couldn’t have done it better. I’m the one (red head) you met at the Brighton Hotel in Valparaiso 🙂

    • jamminb says:

      Hi Verena, wow that is great timing we were just talking to some people today who are going to Valparaiso and staying at the Brighton and we thought of you and our Pisco Sour on the balcony!

      Hope you enjoyed the rest of your cruise and tango!

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