We arrived in Valparaiso after a very uncomfortable and exhausting overnight bus trip from Pucon. Our weary eyes struggled to take in the sights out the taxi windows, but we already had a sense for how unique this city would be. When the taxi screeched to a stop at our hostel, the crooked smirk of an elderly woman with a tight gray bun, thin round glasses, red lipstick and red nails, and a black and white sweater greeted us from the wall.
We quickly discovered that Valparaiso, derived from the quick blend of va al paraíso (go to paradise), was a true hilly coastal paradise painted with street art on every wall. You couldn’t turn a corner without revealing another masterpiece. We never released our cameras from our palms, because this city was a supermodel with amazing angles. I’ve never taken so many pictures in a matter of three days.
Our hostel, Planeta Lindo, was owned by a jolly stoned 38 year old named Rodrigo, who lit incense as often as joints and played Bob Marley in his consistently empty reception room. The rooftop view of the city provided constant ooohhs and awws, as we all peered out across the colorful hills to the bright blue sea spotted by naval ships and cargo freights.
This city that has no founding date, but the most historical port in all of South America, provided a home for immigrants from Germany, Italy, Spain, and England dating back to the 1848 Gold Rush in California. Boats would circle the continent headed for California and stop in Valparaiso on their way up the west coast. They had to extend the space between the port and the 45 hills that make up most of the city, so there would be some flat land to build government buildings.
They were the first city in Chile to have a fire department and all volunteer firemen. Chile is the most susceptible country to earthquakes, so they needed firefighters to protect the city. Many important buildings and homes had to be rebuilt multiple times due to the destruction caused by earthquakes. Unfortunately, the design of the city built on the side of 45 hills with steep, narrow streets makes it really difficult to get fire trucks up to the houses on fire. So as a result, the hills are riddled with the rubble of fire ravaged homes.
The impact of the immigrant cultures in Valparaiso can be seen in the food, architecture, and amenities. The English, who built enormous homes in the upper hills, did not like climbing to their homes up the steep streets or winding staircases. So, they built ascensors, metal hill elevators that lift you up the hills easily. They used to cost a fortune to ride and were only accessible by the rich English, but nowadays they only cost 100 pesos. The English also built an Anglican Church to practice their religion while in Spain.
Germans also made their impact on the city by introducing the first beer to the country of Chile. They brought over their traditional brewing practices and offered their lagers to the people of Valparaiso. Now there are many breweries and artisanal beers. Altamira Brewery has a beer museum about the history of the first beers brewed in the city. The Germans also impact the food of Chile with schnitzels and burgers. Like the English, they also built a church for them to worship as well. The bright green Lutheran church can be seen from the bottom of the hill and from any lookout points in the city.
Italians also laid their mark on the city with their cuisine and sweets seen throughout Chile and Argentina. They also built mini markets in the hills, since the only supermarket is at the bottom of the hill and if you ever forget something, going back down the hill to get it would be a nuisance. So, they started building little shops in the hills with essentials.
You can spend days just exploring all of the little alleyways and staircases covered in bright faces, colorful animals, picturesque sceneries, and stories told in art about the city. A great start to viewing the city is the Tours for Tips free walking tours at 10am and 3pm. The early tour provides a more edgy tour about the politics and underbelly of Valparaiso. The later tour hits the highlights.
We took the 3pm tour and learned about the origins of the city at the port. Then we road one of the micro buses to Plaza Aníbal Pinto, a social plaza great for bars and restaurants. Then we climbed Cumming Street, also popular for going out and took the Reina Victoria ascensor up the hill to the scenic viewpoints and narrow streets of Urriola street. We learned about the bright painted houses owned by a rich Englishman and built for his many girlfriends.
Then we visited the Lutheran and Anglican churches in the Conception neighborhood. Each hill, called cerro in Spanish, has a different name and the neighborhoods reflect a different viewpoint of the city and culture of the city. We wound through the alleys and hills of Conception to the hill of Alegre. There we visited a wide plaza in front of a rose and white striped mansion hotel and the Museo Palacio Baburizza. This unique home-turned art museum passed hands several times from the English builder to a Yugoslavian art collector who added the red and white checkered design of his country.
Our guide gave us free alfajores, local treats of dulche de leche squeezed between two shortbread cookies and covered in chocolate, as a taste of the city. Her Italian friend prepared them for us out of his broom closet-sized shop. He also sold us delicious empanadas. She told us about a national and local food loved by Chileans called completos, a foot long hotdog in thick bread roll with tomatoes, avocado, and mountains of mayonnaise.
Once you’ve competed this tour, it’s best to just wander the hills and view the free art on all the walls. You can also visit one of the three homes owned by famous poet, Pablo Neruda. He named his Valparaiso home Sabastiana and it sits atop Mariposas hill overlooking all of the city. His red and gray striped four-story home is now a museum. He was known to collect strange artifacts like wooden carousel horses, nautical art and trinkets for his love of ships and the sea, and colored glass cups for drinking wine and water. He wrote odes to food, his homes, and his loves. For only 7,000 pesos you can take the self-guided audio tour and peer out all his panoramic windows across the whole city and out to the sea.
There’s endless things to discover in this city. Just be careful wandering around alone as there can be crime due to young poor immigrants. Many locals warned us of this, but we never witnessed it firsthand. I believe if you don’t instantly fall in love with this photogenic and edgy city atop the hills, something is wrong. I highly recommend a visit just two hours from Santiago.