Although we had technically been in Chile for 8 days, we only truly arrived in South America once we’d flown from Easter Island to Santiago. From here, we had about eight weeks in South America – the majority of which we would spend in Chile, Bolivia and Peru. Our South American adventure was just beginning!
We arrived at the airport in the late afternoon, having lost two hours in the time difference between Easter Island and mainland Chile. We took a shuttle bus from the airport to the ChileStay Apartments, which we had booked a few weeks beforehand. The first thing I noticed was just how much traffic there was. After months of relatively quiet traffic in New Zealand, and then almost no traffic in Easter Island, it was a bit of a shock to the system. It wasn’t tame traffic either – everyone was really aggressive, cutting one another up and blaring horns for minor infractions. I’d just got settled into the car when we arrived at our chosen accommodation. We went in and checked in – due to a misunderstanding with dates, they weren’t expecting us but made up a room anyway. The apartment was pretty decent – a good place to hang out. A little noisy though. And cold! Luckily there were some heaters in the apartment, but after the subtropical heat of Easter Island, the drop to 4 degrees celcius that night was felt by both of us.
Santiago was an interesting place, and a very gentle first stop into South America. We spent our three nights there mainly wandering around, getting a feel for the place. The Plaza de Armas (every town/city in Chile has one as I soon discovered) is the central point of the city. While we were there we visited the cathedral – a very sombre place – and people watched in the square. There was certainly a lot going on with various performances, people selling things, and an overall busy vibe as people walked through the square to get to their various destinations about the city.
A short walk north from the plaza took us to the river (Rio Mupocho) which ran through Santiago, It was a bit of a sad sight – full of rubbish and nearly empty of water, but nearby there were a few interesting sights – including the fish market, which we skimmed through because it was smelly and the old train station, which has been converted into a theatre. The architecture was really interesting, and we stuck around for a while in there, as it was quiet and peaceful!
Further along the river was beautiful Bellavista – rather touristy, but very pretty with tree-lined streets and nice architecture. I found myself wishing we were staying there, as it felt like it had a bit more character than the city centre. Even so, where we were staying was very convenient, and only twenty minutes walk from Bellavista.
While in Bellavista, we took the funicular up Cerro San Cristobal, the highest point in the city, complemented by a giant statue of the Virgin Mary! We took a wander around there and took in the views of the city which looked good from up high. We could even see over the smog (Santiago has real problems in this respect) to the mountains behind. Santiago must have a beautiful backdrop on a clear day, but owing to pollution we never saw it! The Virgin Mary herself was impressively large – she did have a bee hive attached to her though, which she didn’t appear overly worried about.
On the way back from Bellavista we saw some of the most obvious evidence of the recent earthquake which was centred a few hundred kilometres south of Santiago. The Museum of Art was closed, owing to a partially collapsed entrance way. I mean, you could have gotten in if you wanted to, but they’d closed it off because I guess it’s unstable. Further evidence is dotted around the city – mostly in older buildings which are cordoned off with signs reading “peligro” (danger). These mostly just look a bit run down, with a few bricks laying on the sidewalk. Still, there seems to be a lot of minor damage, and I think a few of the older buildings have been condemned. It’s lucky that there wasn’t more damage – pretty much everything else we visited was functioning as normal.
Further views were found at the top of Cerro Santa Lucia. This hill was a bit closer to the city centre, and was a nice refuge from the noisy traffic and people. It was a decent climb to find the views, but once at the top we were rewarded with good panoramic views of the city, as well as the remnants of an old fort at the top of the hill. Unfortunately, along the way we were subjected to bench after bench of young Chileans having a kiss and a fondle – they do like to get very personal in public in these parts!
Santiago was a good opportunity to acclimatise to Chile, but three nights was about the right amount, and we boarded a bus to Valparaiso on the fourth morning. It was only a two hour bus ride to get there, and we shot westwards towards the coast on the very efficient Turbus service. Upon arrival we got into a taxi and got driven to a B&B called the Yellow House, which overlooks the harbour and old port area of Valparaiso. It’s a really pretty view from up there! Our taxi driver was a little confused as to the exact location of the B&B, but he asked around a bit and got us there eventually.
Valparaiso itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and with it’s port charms, colourful houses and inspired murals it’s definitely worthy of that status. Basically, the layout of the city is that the commercial area and port are down by the sea, in the basin of a valley. The main city area is surrounded by hills, and the residential areas sprawl up into the hills and beyond. Some of the hills are really steep, and can’t be driven directly up. The most direct pedestrian access is either by foot or traditionally by funicular – or as they’re called in Valparaiso, ascensor. Most of the ascensors are no longer working (to our chagrin, as most often it was the ones we wanted to go up were the ones that didn’t work), but the ones which go up to the touristy areas of town are functional, and are a fun and cheap way of getting around. There was one just two minutes from the door of our B&B, and we used it often for getting down to town, and back up again.
We spent a lot of time wandering around town to see the various sights. One area was particularly interesting was Cerro Conception, at the top of Ascensor Conception. We wandered around the cute little streets here for a few hours, looking at the pretty houses and old churches, as well as the murals which were dotted around here and there. The houses in this area were so colourful. It was a particularly bad area for cat poo though – that’s one of the interesting things about Valparaiso, there were a lot of wandering felines about the place!
That night we had an awful meal at a Chinese restaurant. Clearly the Chilean interpretation of Chinese is not the same as that of the rest of the world, and I have to say my chicken in chicken flavoured, cornflour-thickened broth is not my idea of good Chinese! Still, now we know not to go back.
Another interesting spot was the open air museum, up near Cerro Bellavista. I’m not sure what made it an open-air museum as such, but it was another pretty spot, and had a really steep ascensor. The rows of colourful houses with tiled seats along-side them were a highlight for me.
On the Saturday that we were in Valparaiso, there were a couple of food-related events going on which we attended (you know me, I love my food!). The first was the Gastrinomica, an event which had originally been scheduled for the day after the earthquake, but had been postponed. This was an opportunity for various restaurants, winemakers and food buffs to showcase their products. For us, it meant free samples. We tried a few things, and traded our entry tickets in for a slightly disappointing lunch from the university booth. Well, it was ok, but I wish we’d chosen something else! It was interesting to see the various bits and bobs on offer.
Then, we went down to the Saturday market on Avenue Argentina, a massive event whereby people sell their crap (basically, a garage sale), but also sell fruit and vegetables. It was interesting to wander around for a while and see the hustle and bustle of the place.
Our final activity in Valparaiso was to walk the bicentennial walkway, which followed the coast away from the city and then doubled-back on itself towards our accommodation. This was a pretty walk along the coast, in which we saw some sea lions swimming offshore, and among the rocks we saw what were apparently sea otters. The route also followed Avenue Gran Bretana, which to my eye was nothing like a British street.
Three nights in Valparaiso was a perfect amount, and we enjoyed every minute of it. It’s a highly recommended destination if you’re in Chile! Between Valparaiso and Santiago, we had a great introduction to Chile. From there, it was north to La Serena and the desert – more on that soon!