Off the steps of our hotel, we moved into the still air and shirt-sleeved weather of another comfortable Santiago morning. With our brigade of bags loaded into every crevice of a taxi, we wormed our way into the slow moving traffic of a working morning in Santiago. Eventually our taxi squeezed in the covered parking garage at the bus station. As our possessions were being disemboweled from the cab, I just managed to stop Becky from trying to pay cab driver 60,000 pesos (about $100 USD) for a 6,000 peso ride. The consequence of slipping digits here is painful.
At the bus station, we chose the Tur Bus line on the advice of our taxi driver for our journey to Vaparaiso. The cost was around $10 each for the roundtrip to Valpo, a two-hour ride each way. As the bus worked its way out of suburban Santiago, we eased into the seats of our modern, well maintained, and comfortable coach. Eventually the bus started climbing under the warm, hazy sun passing through the farmlands and the vineyards of the Casablanca Valley.
Over the pass, the weather changed as we emerged into the coastal fog and low clouds of seaside Valparaiso. As much as the weather and terrain in Santiago reminded us of Los Angeles, the darkly colored Pacific Ocean, the steep hillsides, and the heavy, low overcast recalled San Francisco. Even the bright, often pastel shaded buildings recalled the colors of the row houses in foggy areas of San Francisco area.
As the bus pulled to a stop at the station, the comparisons between San Francisco and Valparaiso pretty much ended. Valpo is gritty, rundown, and dirty under its impressive web of overhead utility lines. And yet, there is a beauty in its chaos.
From the bus station, our taxicab, struggling for grip on the damp and well-worn cobblestones, wound its way up the steep streets of Cerro Alegre, the hill where our hotel was located. Ever so slightly, the environs gentrified and the bones and beauty of Valpo from its heyday in the early 20th Century were revealed as glimpses. Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion are part of the area of Valparaiso that has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, reflecting both the intact heritage and the uniqueness of the area.
High upon the hill, the taxi pulled over to the curb at Hotel Zero. The boutique hotel was created from a beautifully restored, high ceilinged house. On arrival, our reservation was upgraded to an ocean view room that opened up to the harbor and the Pacific beyond. Hotel Zero was a comfortable base to explore Valpo with all its edginess.
With route advice from our host at the hotel, we headed out for some exploration. On the streets, we wandered amongst the hodgepodge of buildings; some painted brightly, others not painted at all and heavily weathered as a result, and all linked together through a lineman’s worst nightmare of a web of overhead wires. Between the buildings, the streets, with their potholes and debris piles, were home to numerous sleeping stray dogs. Graffiti coats the walls, though it is not so much graffiti as we know it but instead well crafted and planned murals. Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion, with all their colors and textures, are artist’s enclaves. And, in some ways, the artist’s canvas has become the town itself. The colors, the hillside setting, the street art, and the chaos of the jumble that is Valparaiso combine in an aesthetically pleasing way. Its appeal was not born of a plan.
Further along we reached Ascensor El Peral that we took down to Prat, the old bank-lined main street just off of Valpo’s harbor. Valparaiso has numerous ascenors that move passengers up and down the steep hillsides of the town. Technically, “ascensor” translates to “elevator” in Spanish, but in practice, the ascensors in Valparaiso would be more commonly referred to as funiculars, though they are particularly steep funiculars.
From the base of the ascensor, we headed the short distance to the water and Muelle Prat. We found an immaculately clean bathroom at the harbor for 200 pesos. I don’t usually go into the details of restrooms, but in this case, it is good to know ahead time that the toilet paper is outside of the stalls. Plan ahead and know your needs!
After looking about for a while, we decided to take a “Paseo Collectivo” (group tour) on the Vaca Loca (Mad Cow) for 1,500 pesos each (about $2.50 US). The guides hustle tourists on shore to fill the boats. Our guide promised that he spoke English to entice us aboard. We suspected, correctly as it turned out, that his English was not tour worthy, but we didn’t care. A harbor tour would be good, no matter what.
The tour was basically a loop around the harbor, returning alongside the seawall and the Chilean Naval ships moored at the dock. The Lonely Planet guidebook advises not to take pictures of the numerous Chilean Navy ships anchored in the harbor lest you become a guest of the military. Maybe I should have read that section before our cruise, but I guess the direction that my camera was pointing went unnoticed by anyone who mattered. In the boat, Becky was very interactive with the guide and the other guests. They were all impressed by her knowledge of Portuguese. At least that’s what they thought she was speaking. Funny that she didn’t think she knew Portuguese. Along the way, water was added to the engine to keep the boat running. Apparently this was not unexpected as there were several gallons of fresh water staged in the boat and ready to go. This was not a reassuring sign, but all was well in the end as we made it back to shore.
Lunch: Le Pastis Bistro, a newly opened place near by that offered fresh and light meals.
Our hotel: Hotel Zero