Before last month, I had only once ventured to Valparaíso, a multicoloured, higgledy-piggledy port city about two hours (and a whole world) away from Santiago. It was my first weekend back in Santiago after my six-week return home and, as tentatively happy as I was to be back, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t slightly disappointed by ‘Valpo’. Sure, some of the street art was kind of cool, and the famous empanada place was pretty good but, really, what was all the fuss about? Why did everyone, including my friend Gillian, whose judgement I hold in very high esteem, seem to love it so much?
A bit of background: the headquarters of the Chilean National Congress since 1990, major educational hub, and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Valparaíso was, for many years, one of the most important seaports in the South Pacific, a status compromised by the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. A large portion of the city was completely destroyed (and over 3,000 lives lost) in a major earthquake in 1906, and military dictator Augusto Pinochet was born there in 1915. The second half of the last century saw rapid decline in the city as many wealthy families moved away due to the severely decreased port activity; however, since then, Valpo has made somewhat of a comeback as a artistic and cultural centre. Pablo Neruda had a home there, La Sebastiana, and seems to have considered the city as something of a muse; what the city is most known for today, especially, it would seem, among backpackers, is the world-class quality and sheer volume of the street art boasted by its hills, which number more than forty.
I couldn’t help but feel that I must have missed something on my first visit: on paper, Valparaíso sounds exactly like the sort of place I should love. And so, with two friends from university staying with me on their very first weekend of a trip through Chile, Peru, and Ecuador, I decided to take the opportunity not only to show them somewhere with a completely different onda (vibe) to Santiago, but also to give myself a second chance to fall in love with it.
And I’m very pleased to say that fall in love with it I did. I loved the way none of the houses matched in either colour or style (trivia alert: port workers would build their own houses from unwanted material left at the docks, and some of these houses are still standing and inhabited today). I loved the blatant passion and pride that porteños (Valparaíso locals) feel for their city. I loved the politically charged pieces of street art pointed out by our fabulous guide on our ‘tour for tips’. I loved the slightly eerie silence that engulfed the hills, imbuing them with a certain air of mystery. I can also confirm that the famous empanada place is, indeed, pretty good.
Valparaíso is packed to the brim with history, some of which manifests itself very physically, and I’m slightly embarrassed that I failed to see any of it on my first visit. But I’m very glad that I went back before the end of my time in Chile.
The other thing about Valparaíso is that it makes for extremely good Instagram fodder (#doitforthegram). I’ll leave you with two photos I took while I was there (and swiftly posted on Instagram); I think that they pay tribute to the city and all it has to offer far better than I ever could.
P.S. Self-promotion alert: I’ve started writing a TinyLetter about the grief process and my experience of it. You can sign up for it by following this link.