It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
At least, that’s how it felt upon arrival in Valparaíso after a few wonderful days in Santiago. Chile’s two main cities seemed as different as could be. After stepping off the bus in Chile’s “cultural capital” and seeing what greeted us there, we almost got right back on again.
Valparaíso is a port city, historically one of the major stops en route to North America, and still an important departure point for merchant ships, the Chilean navy, and cruises of all kinds. It has hustled and bustled for hundreds of years, and the streets are full of markets, young sailors in uniform and colourful people. They are also full of dirt and refuse of all kinds, and the stench of excrement (human and animal) hangs in the air. For the duration of our 2-day stay, the air was always filled with the sound of ship’s foghorns, people shouting as they hawked their Christmas wares, dozens of dogs howling and barking as they jockeyed for position in the city’s canine hierarchy, and car alarms screeching for what seemed like hours on end.
As we wandered around the winding, cobbled, hilly streets (some at close to a 40° angle or so), at first with our luggage, we attracted the stares of almost everyone. They would look me up and down as if they couldn’t determine whether they first wanted to rape or rob me. There was always the feeling of looking over your shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being followed by thieves, even in daylight, and of needing to have one hand on your possessions at all times. In the old town, we imagined that we would discover the bars, clubs, and restaurants that all the guidebooks had promised would be thriving and open until late, but by 10:30pm all we found were dark and deserted streets and shuttered buildings bearing “cerrado” (closed) signs.
Everything was run down. I shall have to brush up on the requirements and imposed limitations of bring a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as the whole of the city has been designated as one. Perhaps they seek to preserve its “character” and prevent developments that would require building homes that don’t look as though they’ve been torn down and rebuilt five times, and are in the process of crumbling away before one’s eyes yet again.
I immediately noticed the numerous street dogs, which in Santiago had been ubiquitous but also seemingly pure bred and healthy if not totally clean. In Valparaíso, there were many more, and they all seemed to limp, a fact that did not reassure me considering the apparent lack of traffic lights and the exceedingly fast pace of the cars around the blind-cornered streets. My concern proved justified, as it was only the timely intervention of Hubs that prevented me from being hit by a bus travelling at about 100km/hour through a pedestrian crossing and ending up like the dogs – or, more likely, much worse off.
We didn’t love it.
To be fair, I am sure it was not as dangerous as I felt it was. I am sure that for locals, and some tourists who are comfortable with the language and have experience with similar places, it is charming and unexpected. It appears that we care not for Chilean-style “character.”
And were some high points. The city, taken collectively, is a visual treat. Houses of every conceivable colour seem to climb on top of each other as they ascend the hills in a jumbled mess. From our hotel window we could see thousands in every direction.
We visited La Sebastiana, one of the houses of celebrated Chilean poet (and Nobel Prize winner) Pablo Neruda, which was set high in the hills and looked over the whole of the city, still relatively undeveloped in a vertical sense, so the Pacific glimmered from every window. It is a quirky place, full of his collections, passions and obsessions (many of which I share, coincidentally): wall-sized maps, crime novels, fancy tablewear, stained glass doors, and naval paraphernalia. His convivial personality seemed to jump out of his possessions, and they told the story of a man who fully appreciated the good things in life, from material objects like comfortable chairs to entertaining his many friends, or drinking the superb Chilean wine he would give to foreign dignitaries when he was stationed in France as an ambassador. He invented a drink that he described in the style of a military battle, with some ingredients there merely as camouflage, others as thundering cavalry, and still more cast in the role of the conquered army. I don’t think I have ever felt as much that I would love to be someone’s friend after looking through his house as I did with Neruda.
We also spent a lovely day in the neighbouring town of Viña del Mar, and the contrast couldn’t have been greater. Beautiful gardens, clean streets and a nice beach, where we spent a quiet day (giving me my second sunburn of the trip – ouch!). The metro that took us there was cheap, spotlessly clean, comfortable, and fast. (Incidentally, it was, ahem, light rail.) We were amused to see that the practice of adolescents kissing ferociously in public parks extended the whole country, as young people are less likely to move away from home at an age young enough to indulge in such pleasures in private. We norteamericanos must seem quite cold, in comparison.
And, best of all, we had a homey retreat, just in time for Christmas. Our lovely B&B came with a kind proprietor who baked us cake and gingerbread cookies, and we watched Christmas-related Disney movies with her young child as we waited for midnight to come so they could open presents. The owner got us some too – magnets to remind us of our stay. As we descended the cobbled streets with our bags yet again, this time at 7:15 on Christmas morning on our way to the bus station, they were absent of anything but the dogs. The early morning sun shone almost horizontally and lit up the streets, and our suitcase wheels were loud in the holiday-induced silence. It was almost a different city entirely. Character comes in many forms, and it is the people that make (or break) a place – or do both simultaneously.