Valparaiso – the bohemian little sister

27 Jun

” Valparaiso how crazy you are, how mad, crazy port, what a head of hills, unkempt, you never arrive to brush your hair, you never have time to be dressed, always life caught you by surprise, death awoke you in a night shirt.”  Pablo Neruda

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Although just under 2 hours drive away from Santiago, the rough and ready city of Valapariso is a world apart. Built on 45 hills looking out to the Pacific ocean, it is the bohemian little sister to Santiago with vibrant coloured houses stacked into the hills almost on top of each other and creaky old elevators grinding their way up steep hillsides.

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This place exudes creativity with poets, painters and authors all calling Valparaiso their home and using the city’s heartbeat as their muse.

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The heart of the old city and its elevators (which are unique in the world) have been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site with the areas of Cerro Conception and Cerro Alegre really capturing the city’s vibrant spirit.

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Narrow cobbled streets wind higher in the hills leading to plazas with incredible views over the roof tops and down to the bustling port and blue sea.

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Eighteenth Century mansion houses with three stories and large sash windows were built on top of each other and painted the colours of the rainbow.

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Ornate metal railings and what looked like small covered bandstands reminded us of the seaside of Victorian England. Painters lined the streets capturing the moment on canvas in bright acrylics.

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There was no doubt that the city’s former glory had long faded, with grubby streets, crumbling buildings, frenzied traffic and a raw edge prevalent, however there was something honest about this city in a ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of way and we couldn’t help but be captivated by it.

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Everywhere we looked there was graffiti – walls, floors, stairs, lamp posts all had distinctive markings and artwork.

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Now we’re not talking about the mundane scribbles of meaningless names or perverted messages that can be found in any outer suburb of a major metropolis, we’re talking about tasteful, meaningful artwork that has taken many hours to create and will be admired for years to come.

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Funky cafes sold flavoured tea, cappuccino with vanilla syrup and artisan beers. Dreadlocked and tattooed locals ran market stalls selling hand crafted silver jewellery and individually designed clothes.

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Even the animals in this neighbourhood had artistic flair and demanded that passers-by look at them and give them the utmost respect!!

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In the hills it’s possible to visit La Sebastiana, a house owned by the late Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who lived his life between Santiago and Valparaiso and who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971.

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The house is still home to the poets rather excentric collection of furniture and possessions and is visited by thousands of people from around the world who are avid fans of his work, who enjoyed his controversial social and political commentary, surrealist works, historical epics and erotically charged love poems.

One of the city’s most lucrative industries is shipping and at the inner harbour it’s possible to watch huge cranes loading containers onto enormous ships.

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We guessed at what type of cargo the steel giants were carrying and what their destination might be. Street vendors sold grilled fish and fried whitebait with a squeeze of fresh lemon – the smells wafting in the air were delicious. Several atmospheric old bars lined the streets behind the docks which looked like they hadn’t changed in 100 years. We could picture sailors who’d returned from long sea voyages propping up the wooden bars and nursing a bottle of rum.

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Small motorised boats took tourists on rides around the harbour and offered panoramic views of the city and close up views of other sailing vessels.

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There is a large navy presence in the harbour and a monument paying tribute to those who lost their lives in the war of the Pacific but the navy is a bit twitchy about security so photography is strictly prohibited. But why is it that when you’re told you can’t do something you want to do it even more…?

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Further along the sea front it’s possible to get up close and personal with a horde of giant blubbery seals.

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About 15 of them shared a derelict platform just a few metres out to sea and they flopped around sunbathing, growling at each other when their space was invaded and occasionally splashing back into the water when they needed to cool down or wanted to catch some fish. They really were an unusual sight in such a busy port city and many people stopped by to watch their antics.

Vina del Mar is only 25 minutes along the coast using the efficient metro or bus lines but it feels quite different to Valapariso.

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Vina del Mar is best described as a beach resort designed with wealthy people from Santiago taking long weekend breaks in mind. The long promenade is filled with trendy cafes, ice cream parlours and craft markets. The beach is well looked after and surfers ride on the giant foaming waves. High rise apartments and hotels line the beach and further back from the front boutique shops, gourmet restaurants and glitzy casinos prise money from holiday makers fingers.

The sea was particularly fierce the day we were there and we watched with some trepidation a father and son fishing from the end of an old pier where the waves looked like they would destroy it at any minute.

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We walked along the beach feeling the spray of the waves hitting our bodies and occasionally having to run up the beach away from a huge wave. We saw a couple strolling casually along the shoreline who were caught unawares and ended up with wet feet.

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Young boys in wetsuits stood facing the surf with a cross between a surf board and a boogie board in their hands. Timing their run accurately the boys would sail on top of the water as the wave receded and then turn to catch the next big wave back in. The boys must have clocked up hundreds of hours worth of practice as they made their sport look effortless. As it’s always the done thing at a ‘beach resort’, we couldn’t leave Vina del Mar without enjoying an ice-cream as we headed back to the metro bound for Valparaiso.

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Valparaiso was certainly a city that oozed creativity and individualism. When we travel we often like to visit galleries and museums to discover local art and culture but here every corner of this city had something different and unique to offer so we found ‘art’ unfolding on the street before our eyes.

2 Responses to “Valparaiso – the bohemian little sister”

  1. Dean Brand June 27, 2013 at 8:04 pm #

    G´day Mates,

    Lovely to meet you both in Sucre, your blogs great, hope to catch up one day

    Dean and Ellen

    • latinchattin June 27, 2013 at 9:59 pm #

      Thanks guys – really pleased you are enjoying the blog. We will keep an eye out for you on the Gringo trail! x

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