If you are planning a trip to Chile, Valparaiso is a must. This is definitely one of the wilder places I have seen on my travels and well worth a look for lovers of spectacular scenery and architecture. This bohemian sea port is situated around two hours from Santiago in Chile’s central zone and alongside the seaside resort of Viña del Mar. You could certainly squeeze both of those places in in a long day, but you´ll probably want to take your time and make a full day of Valparaiso itself, as there is so much to see and do.
Arriving in Valparaiso by bus from Santiago, you´ll soon see what all the fuss is about. This sprawling city of almost 300 000 people is built into a series of seventeen rolling hills overlooking the Pacific ocean, all of which are completely covered with multicoloured buildings, mostly residential. This makes for a jaw-dropping spectacle, especially when viewed from the north as you enter the city, with one hill rising up behind the next.
You can take a guided tour, as looking at this bewildering array of beautiful chaos, you may not know where to begin. But for more intrepid explorers, you might want to grab a map of the 17 hills and set off exploring on your own. It turns out that most of the interesting stuff is actually clustered around a small series of hills near the centre of the city. You’ll need some energy and a large bottle of water, as nothing is flat or in a straight line, but it’s well worth the effort and very doable.
One of the highlights is Pablo Neruda’s house, perched halfway up one of the central hills and commanding great views of the ocean. Pablo Neruda was a poet, diplomat and certainly one of the most interesting and prominent Chileans who ever lived. His house reflects that and also nicely sums up the wild creative spirit of Valparaiso itself.
From there you are well positioned to wander around more or less at random and will be presented with one stunning sight after another. You’ll see crumbling edifices perched over the edge of cliffs, vividly colourful houses, built into the hillsides, one on top of the other, narrow passages with thousands of steps, winding their way between the houses and up and down hills, as well as delightful streets with cafes and trendy boutiques, all with great views of the ocean.
Another stand-out feature of Valparaiso, often affectionately named ‘Valpo’ by the locals, is the amazing amount of street art. This is absolutely everywhere and looks right at home among the already brightly-coloured, creatively designed buildings. Not everyone is a fan of such art, classifying it as mere ‘graffiti’, but in Valparaiso it has been elevated to a higher status. The place is obviously a haven for artists and the locals are proud of the fact, which creates a very conducive atmosphere for creativity. In fact, the impression you get is that the artists must be in competition with each other, with one impressive mural inspiring the next and which naturally attempts to go one better.
Another very welcome feature are the mini funicular railways that have been built into the sides of many of the hills, very much needed to save your tired legs from further punishment. You can jump in one of these locally run transport systems, pay a few pennies and be down the hill in a minute or two. However, it goes without saying that they can be very ramshackle and creaky, winding their way up and down the hills using an antiquated cable system.
To finish off your day of exploration and photographing the wild artwork, you could try out one of the excellent sea food restaurants, while watching the sun go down over the Pacific.