Valparaiso is one of the major seaports of the South Pacific located about 70 miles northwest of Santiago. As an “extraordinary example of industrial-age heritage associated with the international sea trade of the late 19th and early 20th centuries” the city was deemed a UNESCO World heritage site in 2003. With its steep hills and colonial buildings Valparaiso is sometimes thought of as ‘Little San Francisco’.
From more prosperous times in the second half of the 19th century and before the opening of the Panama Canal, Valparaiso was one of the main stopover cities for ships crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Its mild pleasant climate attracted European migrants from Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy.
Valparaiso suffered a decline in the 20th century but during recent years has revived into a thriving tourist destination as people are attracted to its colourful buildings, cobbled streets and excellent seafood restaurants.
Valparaiso (known as ‘Valpo’ by its residents) is home to a number of universities and as such has a large student population.
The city is also a major port of call or indeed starting point for a growing number of cruise ships on their way towards the southern tip of South America.
Getting to Valparaiso
We arrived from Santiago by ‘Turbus‘. As we were not travelling during a busy time such as a public holiday we didn’t pre-book our tickets. There are also several bus companies where Valparaiso bound buses leave every 20 minutes or so. We took the red metro line from Santiago city centre (Santa Lucia stop) for about 7 stops to the Universidad de Santiago stop which is underneath the Turbus bus station.
We purchased our tickets from the Turbus counter and 5 minutes later we were on the bus and on our way to Valparaiso. To our surprise we had comfortable designated semi cama seats again for a cost of just 2,700 pesos or the equivalent of less than £3 per ticket. So very easy to transfer to Valparaiso by public transport and no need to pay $100 for a taxi.
Full of artists, art galleries, artisan shops and musicians Valparaiso is also a maze of brightly painted buildings and murals. One of the must do things in Valparaiso is to participate in a street art walking tour some of which are offered free of charge.
As we were staying in the Cerro Alegre district, the heart of ‘street art land’ we simply wandered around taking colourful pictures whilst stopping from time to time in one of the equally colourful and quirky coffee shops.
Art in the form of street music runs through the veins of this city. For example as we made our way down one of the cobbled streets one evening we could hear the distant sounds of a live band. As we drew closer a small group of beaming students were playing their instruments as they sauntered along the street!
‘Happies not hippies…’
With its bohemian psychadelic vibe the city has adopted the phrase ‘We are not hippies… we are happies…” as painted on a couple of steps in the middle of Templeman Street. The area around this street is known to be one of the best for locating street art and is also a great area for refreshing drink in one of the cool and colourful little coffee shops.
Restaurants and cafes
Restaurant La Conception: during one of our walking expeditions we had lunch in La Conception. Having previously found this to be the ‘number 2’ TripAdvisor listed restaurant of Valparaiso with a ££££ price tag we were delighted to find the prices were actually quite reasonable. The lunch bill was around £15 with a large Chardonnay for example being only 3200 pesos (less than £4). This restaurant has a pleasant leafy courtyard setting which overlooks the (not so lovely) port area.
‘In Bocca al Lupo’: this delightful little Italian came to our rescue when we were hungry another time at 6 pm at a time before many restaurants were open. The food was so good that we re-visited another night where we enjoyed a flamenco show!
Cafe Vinilo: cooked to perfection we had the best tuna steaks of 2016 in Cafe Vinilo! This, together with the nostalgic crackly sounds of jazz music being played on a record player resulted in a memorable night in this authentic Chilean restaurant with a French wine bar atmosphere… we felt we had been transformed to backstreet Paris circa 1980…
Cafe Dulce Pols: just down the hill from our apartment this coffee shop became a little favourite most days. We particularly enjoyed their taste in 70’s and 80’s music playing the likes of Blondie, the Eagles and Simple Minds… “Don’t you… forget about me… don’t don’t don’t don’t…”
Via Via… hurrah! our 3rd Via Via this year (above)… having visited Via Via Yogyakarta in February; Via Via Copan in September and now Via Via Valparaiso! We are becoming Via Via global regulars… Via Via Buenos Aires… ??
Visiting Vina del Mar
Around 5 km away Vina del Mar is Valparaiso’s ‘posher’ neighbour and is easily reached by either metro, bus or taxi. We took a metro from Bellavista station and disembarked at Vina del Mar station. Similar to most city metro systems you have to buy a card which is loaded with you amount you are likely to need. This was very easy as we simply explained to the lady at the kiosk that we needed ‘two returns from Vina del Mar’ and she worked out the cost and loaded the exact amount of money onto the card for us. You can have multiple persons on one card and the cost was small, only the equivalent of £3-4 for both of us.
As we emerged from the metro station we immediately noticed quite a contrast between Valparaiso and the more upmarket Vina del Mar. With palm trees springing from the pavements, the streets, buildings and shops of Vina were modern and there was significantly less rubbish around.
Unlike Valparaiso which is really just a port city Vina del Mar has a wide sandy beach. The weather was warm and sunny and although still only around 20 degrees several people were sunbathing on the beach. The waves were huge so other than the occasional surfer most people stayed safely on the sand.
We went to the ‘Mall Marina Arauco’ a modern shopping mall with a few designer shops and a couple of decent department stores.
We were in Valparaiso during the evening of 13th November 2016 which coincided with the date of the supermoon, the ‘most spectacular supermoon since 1948‘ i.e. the closest the (full) Moon has been to the Earth for 69 years and appearing ’14 per cent bigger and 30 per cent brighter than usual’. We headed out at dusk and managed to capture the supermoon casting its shimmering reflection in the Pacific lighting up the wide sweeping bay of Valparaiso. This was a pretty sight especially with the coloured lights twinkling around the bay too.
For our stay in Valparaiso we rented a small modern newly built AirBnB apartment (above). This met our needs perfectly: it was in a great (and safe) location; enabled us to prepare some of our own meals in the fully equipped kitchen; do our own laundry and relax in-between wandering around the city. With its excellent facilities and fabulously helpful owners this was one of our top accommodation choices for this year.
Valparaiso: ‘Shabby Chic’ or just a tad shabby…?
So far this post probably paints a golden picture of a gorgeous pastel coloured city bordering the sapphire blue Pacific… In reality we found Valparaiso to be more than a little tatty around the edges… rubbish is piled high in the streets; brilliant street art is often tarred with scruffy and mindless graffiti and there are too many dogs roaming around for the assurance of clean pavements!
The city also has something of a dark reputation for its shady characters and high levels of street crime. Many a tourist has suffered from bag and camera snatching. Throughout our travels this year we’ve heard this warning over and over… as always and particularly in most cities (with the exception of, from our experience, Tokyo) you must be on your guard and you must be self aware:
- Know who’s behind you
- Don’t walk alone in quiet or dark streets
- Don’t let your bag out of your sight
- Don’t carry unnecessary valuables
- Lock your passport in your room or safe…
But in spite of this, with its selection of marvellous restaurants, friendly locals and colourful cobbled streets we do have something of a soft spot for this upbeat quirky city!