Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso is a special place. A coastal town about a two hour bus ride from Santiago, it was much bigger than I had expected. In my head I had been picturing a little fishing village but this was a real city, smaller than Santiago, but still with a lot going on. It’s filled with nooks and crannies and tiny little side streets and winding stairs that climb (and allow the citizens to climb) the forty plus hills of the city. I can see why Neruda liked the place. Walking through Valparaiso was like playing a game of hide-and-seek with the city. Neruda designed his houses just in that way, and his Valpo (Valparaiso) house was our first destination.

We took the long way to get there, stopping every other block to marvel at the beauty. The hills were all covered with brightly coloured houses that looked as if they were reflecting the sunset. The fact that they were built on hills made the sight even prettier because it allowed us to see almost every house individually, above or below it’s neighbours. Many of the walls also had beautiful murals painted on them. I found it difficult to decide whether I wanted to concentrate on the details in the paintings or the wide, stretching landscape of the hills and the ocean. The city felt, right from the start, full of curiosities and the seagulls circling and calling made it hopelessly romantic. We were very excited to get to Neruda’s Sebastiana, named after the man who had originally owned it. After my tour of the Santiago house, I felt like I knew him a little bit. I’ve also been reading his poetry throughout this trip and am falling in love with his words. I feel like the houses help me understand his poetry a little bit more, if only because I get to see his inspiration for myself. La Sebastiana was certainly beautiful, but after seeing the two I think I prefer La Chascona in Santiago. Neruda loved the sea, and this house had a lot of nautical decoration. I understand why it makes sense of his house in Valparaiso, but it wasn’t quite as colourful and playful as the Santiago house. But the views it had and the side of him that it showed me were amazing, and I would give anything to have a study like that to write in. Walking through I found myself feeling a little sad, though. He designed and decorated his houses to be lived in, played in, and loved in, and now they’re empty. Sure, tourists pass through, but no one is there to read in the chairs or drink from the brightly coloured glasses, or enjoy his intricate bar. Of course it’s amazing that all these things have been preserved, they might otherwise have been completely lost, but I think he would be sad to see his houses so empty. It’s conflicting, though, because I’m certainly glad I had the chance to see them.

The next day was tour day and we started in the morning with the Valpo Graffiti Tour. I learned so much right off the bat. The guide started off by explaining the different styles of written graffiti and showed us some examples. In American style every letter is designed individually and they often have features like googly eyes, Mickey Mouse hands, or arrows. Bomb, on the other hand, integrates the letters much more in a very bubbly style. After giving us a little bit of an explanation, the guide took us to see some of the best murals in Valpo, which is a lot considering Valparaiso is one of the best cities for graffiti in the world, and the second best in South American, behind Sao Paulo. Some really amazing artists come out of there. We saw one piece by Inti, a really famous street artist who just painted the largest mural in the world in Paris a few months ago, and who just happens to be from Valparaiso. It was also cool because our guide knew a lot of these artists personally and she was able to tell us fun little anecdotes to go along with the murals. One crew/artist, El Odio, also owns the only paint shop in Valpo that sells a certain kind of paint. So, no one dares tag over his pieces because then he won’t sell them any paint.

What was amazing was that on the tour we learned to identify the crews by the symbols they use to identify themselves. And once we got back to the hostel, Hostal Po, I realized that many of the murals inside were actually done by the artists we had seen.

Our second tour in the afternoon was another Tips-for-Tours. Our group was very small so it was fun being able to really talk and joke with the tour guide instead of it being more formal like a class field trip. He was really nice and showed us some of the best views in the city. As we looked out at the beautiful pacific coast, he told us that the city was thinking about expanding the port farther along the beach. This would completely ruin the ocean view of the whole city, especially the more touristy areas, which would really detract from the experience. He then mentioned that there’s a possible alternative to expanding it in the other direction and then making a sea-side park instead. I don’t know all the details of the debate, but this one seems like a no brainer to me. We also saw some more typical tourist sites such as the Navy building and the Justice building. The navy building used to be the site of the municipal government, but it was so beautiful that the federal navy decided that it should be theirs… typical. The Justice building also has a fun story. In front of it is a statue that is supposed to be of Lady Justice, but if you look closely you realize that she’s holding the scale under her arm, so it’s not at all balanced, and that her eyes are wide open, meaning justice is not blind. Apparently the statue isn’t really of Lady Justice but of the Greek Goddess of Justice and that it had been delivered to Valparaiso mysteriously.

No one knew where it came from or what to do with it, so someone decided to put it in front of the Justice building. It makes sense at first, until you really think about what the statue is implying. Personally, I think it’s a much more realistic portrayal or the justice system. We ended the tour at the port which was good to see because it is such an important part of Valparaiso’s history and economy. However, I much preferred being up in the hills surrounded by the street art and all the colours.

Valparaiso was amazing and I was a little sad to say goodbye. I could see myself staying in a place like that for a long time.