When we get out of the bus in Valparaiso, after a three hour drive from Santiago de Chile, we feel a bit lost and cannot figure out well where we find ourselves in this new city. Overfriendly people spot us coming out of the bus and offer us the best price for the best hostel on the best location and they would even bring us to their hostels. It sounds good but works badly for us as we feel trapped in this maze of competing ‘hotel-stuffers’ hungry for their part of the tourist-cake. So we take a local bus and leave the rather dirty and dark district behind us and go for the centre of the city. As minutes pass by, the image at the other side of the bus window starts to change slightly to cleaner streets, to better maintained facades, to less poor and to more joyful. It doesn’t take too long to find Hostal Licanantay, a good place to spend the night, so we leave our backpacks and go for our first impression of the city. We find the typical street market scene, people buying and selling local food and drinks, a harbour and coastline with its classic promenade with views on the Pacific horizon.
Surrounded by suburbs that are located on the steep hillslopes, the enclosed centre is actually nice and tight. It’s a representative example of a with abrupt mountains encircled village that became a big city despite the geographical inconvenience or in this case I would almost say geographical impossibility, an example of an ever growing population of by now 876.000 individuals that have no soil to expand on and by that building up its population density. Steep, almost vertical streets snake up and down looking for a mode to connect the different neighbourhoods of this city. An infinite amount of little, almost hidden, stairways curl between the buildings to offer access to every corner of each hill. Seven authentic, historical recognized, elevators offer an alternative on doing a daily workout of a couple of thousands steps.
It looks chaotic like an anthill with all these small passageways going somewhere and some of them going nowhere further then the entrance of a building. It’s the ultimate urban jungle!!! It could be easily the scenery of a ghetto ruled by violent gangs feeding daily their bad reputation as, local people say, delinquency and poverty are worse than elsewhere in Chile, the sextrade is still widespread and at night some parts of town are unsafe. But despite of that Valparaiso found a way to brighten up the grey slum. Valparaiso has put its wish for banning that sad depressing dark image in the witch pot together with the need of political, economic and sociological freedom of expression of many inhabitants, it has stirred it a couple of times and magically has been able to brew a cultural gaudy adventure in a concrete labyrinth. We feel like this secret potion has changed oppression into freedom, shadow into sunshine and indifference into pride while we walk the first few alleys. Muralism, wall paintings, decoration of street furniture, graffiti and urban poetry have just been lifted to a complete new level for us. Making street art legal gives the artist the time and liberates the devotion to make the best of it. And that’s exactly what we are looking at here… the mother of all urban expressing.
With every turn we take, another moment of silent marvel overcomes us, every step down different colours in new shapes are overpowering us and with every step up another miniature landscape is overwhelming us. Some of them, on a quality level so good they should be in a museum and others with such a truly profound message they should have sound. Valparaiso got eventually so famed for its colourful alleys that it didn’t take long for famous artists to join the movement which today is known as the “Museo a cielo abierto”, a marked tour through the hidden stairways guiding the fascinated public towards the many famous paintings.
Nevertheless the big coloured walls, it is the countless small details that keep the whole act together. Streetlamps that are taken out their traditional forms, small artistic altered bench on a square corner, fascinating handrails that guides you down, a small statue on the corner of a roof, an artistic composition hanging out of a window,… and after a while even the, amongst buildings hanging, colourful laundry drying in the sun starts to be part of the image.
It is easy and uncomfortable at first, taking all this different sideways in all four dimensions, to get lost in an urban web like this but it turns into eternal gratitude to look for your way out passing by all this occurrences of the human soul.
- Hostal Licanantay has everything you might need, has a reasonable price (6500 CLP per person/night), is close to the centre and offers a great ambient.
- Ask for the ‘Museo A Cielo Abierto’ and try to get hold on a street map that indicates and gives explanations about several artworks all part of the old part of Valparaiso named World Heritage by UNESCO in 2003
- Some of the cemeteries are worth a visit, they are packed with diverse beautiful statues and enormous mausoleums.
- Get well informed about public transport, as after having asked on the street for directions we were walking in circles for quite a while, looking for the correct bus terminal.
- If going to Argentina, change money into dollars (you might loose on exchange fees but will gain more on the black market in Argentina)
- Being in Valparaiso means to be just a stone’s throw from one of the three houses of Pablo Neruda, talented writer and politician, winner of Nobel Prize for literature in 1971 and one of the most beloved poets in Chile. Here you will find La Sebastiana, located in Cerro Bellavista, a pretty bizarre house totally designed by the artist, with breathtaking views on Valparaiso’s hills and its coloured streets, a library, a cultural and tourist information center where you can find useful tips about the region and the poet, a bar with a nice terrace looking on the beautiful indoor garden and, of course, a store. An astonishing place, it is definitely worth a visit. Do not leave Chile without visiting the other 2 houses, in Santiago (Casa Museo La Chascona) and in Isla Negra, El Quisco (Casa Museo Isla Negra or Black Island).
- March to December: Tuesday to Sunday 10 am to 6 pm hours.
- January and February: Tuesday to Sunday 10 am to 8pm hours.
- Monday closed.
- General ticket: $5.000 each person.
- Students: $1.500 each person (with student credential)