Valparaíso & Viña del Mar

Posted by on Jan 20, 2014

Valparaíso & Viña del Mar

I lived 22 years in Australia and never once visited New Zealand for many reasons but most likely it was because of money and the fact that half my kiwi family was living in Australia and that I was just a kid so unless we had some family holiday planned it wasn’t as though I could pipe up and say, ‘Oh and by the way, I’m going over to New Zealand for the long weekend.’ It is however a close neighbour and therefore gets the ‘Oh I can do it anytime, s’pose cos it’s juz a hop over the drink!’

I tended to treat Valparaíso in the same way, ever deferring when people asked me if I’d been and what I’d thought. When I was travelling I was like, ‘Sure I want to go, but I’m waiting until I’m studying in Santiago to visit those place close by but for now I’m taking advantage of my travel time to go further abroad.’ Such lovely rationalisations that are just so….rational and just so….not how it works. Two months into the semester that didn’t work anymore so I confessed to a friend and we decided to make a weekend of it. I finally made the major minor leap next door.


 Fittingly Pablo Neruda had a place here. The boat-loving though decidedly landlocked Chilean wordsmith fashioned himself a characteristic abode filled with an eclectic mix of ship artefacts salvaged from dumps or antiques shops, auctions and sales and crammed lovingly into a narrow, poky four-story villa with enviable view.


The name ‘Valparaíso’ could be traced back etymologically as a conjunction of two words: valle (valley) and paraíso (paradise). Paradise Valley. It has been an important port for hundreds of years. Its location midway down the western coast of Chile gave it strategic value during the Spanish conquest and the importance of the Viceroyalty of Peru and then as a base for later expansion and discovery into the pacific – a regular watering hole for vessels navigating the difficult Cape Horn, that merciless and bitterly cold extremity dipping into the Antarctic known somewhat ironically as la Tierra del Fuego, ‘The Land of Fire’.


It is completely different to Santiago and not just because of the fact that it’s on the coast and Santiago is at the base of the Andes but everything about it is distinct. I wouldn’t really call it a valley, or paradise, but there is a bay and flat area by the port from which hills rise away on three sides creating a kind of amphitheatre. Colourful shanty-shack type houses adorn the hillsides; their contrasting blocks of colour a unique attention grabbing characteristic that gives Valparaíso its own distinct flavour and feel. ´The city is dirtier and more random and a haven for the artsy scene – no sociological comment – and a walk through the streets of certain districts demonstrates this well. On day two we took one of the ‘ascensores’ (lifts) which was a tunnel cut into the hillside followed by a lift of some 80 vertical meters finishing at a lookout with a clear panorama of the port. From there I engaged ‘random-amble-ramble-mode’ and we traipsed the steep and narrow streets ogling at the wall art and admiring the brightly coloured low-slung cottages perched on the steep slopes. It wasn’t one of those glorious late afternoons I waxed on about in earlier travels but instead a rebellious moody-drizzly-misty early afternoon – fittingly unpredictable weather for a seaside hamlet though somewhat at war with the riotously optimistic tones around me. I mean have you ever been caught between a flagrantly orange wall staring down a drizzly day? I wasn’t sure if I wanted an earl grey or fruit punch.


Fittingly Pablo Neruda had a place here. The boat-loving though decidedly landlocked Chilean wordsmith fashioned himself a characteristic abode filled with an eclectic mix of ship artefacts salvaged from dumps or antiques shops, auctions and sales and crammed lovingly into a narrow, poky four-story villa with enviable view. La Sebastiana, like the Chascona in Santiago, is just bursting with randomness and individuality. One minute it’s a stove from the captain’s parlour, the next a small round window from a porthole, or a hidden dining room accessed by a narrow winding metal staircase, or coloured bottles on the window and many small wooden desks. Even a duck. There was even a duck!

We walked the fresh food market, the fish market, the fleish market, the flea market and I settled for fish and rice dish which was underwhelming given my expectations for a port town while my friend – who by the way has a name and therefore should not continue as the faceless acquaintance in the monologue but instead rise up and become Héctor Rodríguez Rojas from Costa Rica – consumed a seafood soup full of squishy things in shells.

It so turned out that that weekend the annual ‘Fiesta de Mil Tambores’ (Festival of a Thousand Drums), Valparaíso’s Carnaval was happening and when walking along the shore near the port we saw groups of youths already banging away….at the drums, preparing to get their faces and bodies painted for the coming night.

Viña del Mar is a popular beach destination close to Santiago and right next to Valparaíso. We went on the drizzly Sunday so we didn’t see it at its best. People say it has a beach and you can swim and there’s this idea that it’s pretty good and I just have to be honest, I’m from Australia and to me Viña del Mar is like the beach at docklands except that the water is colder. This opinion is shared by people from Brazil, Colombia and other countries that actually have beaches so while I saw some people swimming, after dipping my toe in and squealing, I sat it out and just looked on.

Chile just lacks great beaches for swimming, the whole country is one long beach accompanied from south to north by the cold Humboldt Current which makes for great fishing, and crappy swimming. Sorry folks, you’re on the wrong side of the southern pacific for beaches. They’re over there just 10,000 kilometres in Queensland and New South Wales.


I liked Valparaíso a lot but to be fair I think I’d need to return to Viña del Mar when the sun is shining before serving final judgement.

One Comment

  1. An enjoyable, insightful and humorous piece of travel writing. The wall art is beautiful. What a change to the boring spray-can graffiti of Melbourne’s back streets which only serves to mark someone’s territory like a mongrel dog lifting its leg.

    The little bird perched on the world globe and the matching contemplations of statue and protagonist son lindos y gracioso!

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