After a stunning 12-hour bus ride over the snowcapped Andes from Mendoza, Argentina we arrived in the seaside town of Valparaiso, Chile.
As the taxi navigated through the dark, graffiti-lined streets to our bed and breakfast, I was wide-eyed in the backseat thinking to myself “Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Don’t stop”.
We have been to cities like Melbourne and Penang that are famous for street art, but I have never seen a city so covered in graffiti. It felt more like a set in a Police Academy movie than real life.
We pulled up to the Puerta Escondida Bed & Breakfast, a colorful, un-tagged building, located in the Heritage District and quickly made our way in. For dinner that evening we ventured as far as the bar next door. After two weeks of eating nothing but pizza and empanadas in Argentina, my soup and salad and Chris’ pork-filled ravioli were heavenly.
The next day, we found our way to the main square of town for a walking tour with Tours for Tips.
Our guide told us about the past glory of the city that was a major port for ships crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific before the opening of the Panama Canal. Once the canal opened, ship traffic was greatly reduced and wealthy families abandoned the city. We saw the effect firsthand looking at once splendid turn of the century buildings crumbling from years of abandonment and earthquake damage.
Today, the port is still home to the Chilean Navy and vital to the city’s economy. Valpo serves as an important port for wine, copper, and fruit exports and cruise ships use the port during the summer months.
As we walked about the steep, winding streets and hidden passages, the charms of the city started to kick in. In the light of day, the graffiti that looked so ominous in the dark morphed into intriguing and clever pieces of art.
Around every turn, there were bright murals and quirky drawings like piano keys going up a staircase or ants painted on the sidewalk leading to a store. We spent a day exploring our neighborhood which was more like a gallery crawl.
Transportation in this city is as unique as the art the lines the streets. Along the flat streets near the waterfront runs an electric trolleybus line that circles the city. Passengers ride for a mere 270 pesos ($0.41). Some cars date back to the late 40’s, making them the oldest trolleybuses in regular service anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, the line is frequently stopped due to street blockades for protests which we learned as we made our way to the bus station one day. After a few minutes delay, we were switched to another trolleybus which happened to be a relic. Traffic made the trolleybus crawl along but we enjoyed riding amongst locals and taking pictures out the window.
Funiculars, or ascensores, carry passengers up the steep hillsides for a mere 100 to 300 Chilean Pesos ($0.15 – $0.46 USD). From the funicular window, you can see the curving shores leading to Viña del Mar and the tin rooftops of the colorful homes below. On a clear day, you can even see the peaks of the Andes, Chile’s western border.
When I wasn’t stopping to take photos of street art, I was photographing the residences of Valparaiso. The corrugated sheet metal facades are brightly painted and no matter the state of repair, I found them beautiful.
Valparaiso is an easy day trip from Santiago at just under two hours drive. It’s also a half-hour from the Casablanca Valley, one of Chile’s premier wine regions notable for Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. We spent a day visiting a few of Casablanca’s wineries and were impressed with the quality of wine and the production rooms which were the largest we’ve seen. If you are in the region it’s not to be missed.
After decades of downfall, Valpo has reinvented itself as an artist enclave and it’s labyrinth of quirky streets now attract throngs of tourists. We ended up extending our stay by two days to spend five days total exploring this UNESCO World Heritage city. It’s rich past and colorful present make this “Jewel of the Pacific” a diamond in the rough.