The mountain pass to Mendoza still closed we decided to take the opportunity to explore Valparaiso, a city about an hour and a half on the bus from Santiago. Valparaiso used to be one of the world’s largest ports serving vessels moving between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and in its heyday was an affluent city. However a massive earthquake at the beginning of the 1900’s buggered things up for them killing nearly nearly 4,000 people, generating a Tsunami and smashing the town to bits. If that wasn’t bad enough, about 10 years later the Panama Canal was opened resulting in a pronounced reduction in the number of ships going through the port and the wealthy families moved away from the city leaving it to decline. It has taken Valparaiso a long time to come back from those two smacks in the face however, the city is now home to circa seven Universities and is still a major port in South America but substantially shabbier then when it was in its prime. In 2003 it was awarded UNESCO Heritage status.
Hills are the first thing to notice about this city, there are over 40 of them with a lot of stairs and a number of funicular railways to save the legs. It transpires that there is a big divide between locals and their thoughts on tourism. We had been warned about Valparaiso in terms of general safety, watching out for pickpockets and sticking to tourist areas etc. The increase in tourism has focused around a small number of the hills with the ‘non-tourist’ hills being left under-developed and in significant poverty. Some of the hills are best avoided certainly at night as tourist muggings are becoming more common. There are the Valparaisians who see tourism as saving a declining city and those who see tourism as pricing them out of their own home.
To be fair, the day we arrived was utterly torrential and I don’t think even the most determined mugger could be bothered to venture out in that kind of rain! We ended up soaked and learning more from local bars than actually seeing the city. However, the next day the rain stopped and we saw the explosion of colour that is Valparaiso. Every house is painted brightly coloured and the street art street art is incredible; almost every house has some kind of art on the side, it turns out owners either allow, donate paint or pay artists to paint their houses as it reduces the amount of graffiti tagging which is endemic across the city. Some of the art is incredible, some not so much, there are artists that have made a name for themselves and you can see their work both in Santiago and Valparaiso. Social and political statements are made through the characters that are repeated in different works. It makes for a day of picture taking as just when you think you’ve seen it all…
One artist started painting a piano onto a flight of steps in the town, he was caught by the police and arrested but once out of jail he went back at night to finish his work and was seen as the hero by other street artists. The piano stairs subsequently began to attract lots of tourists so rather than arresting him, the council pay him to come back and refresh the paint every few months!
Despite the initial bad press Valparaisio is a great place to visit, the colours, the food and the locals (that don’t hate tourists) are really friendly and happy to chat about their town. We certainly wouldn’t rule out going back on the way back up Chile in a few weeks.
A short train ride from Valparaiso is another town called Viña del Mar, which we thought might be worth a visit. It wasn’t. A town full of high rise buildings, expensive restaurants (not necessarily nice ones) and not a pleasant atmosphere. As it turns out some friends had the tyres on their car slashed there and were subsequently robbed so not the best town around. However the point of that story was that standing on the station platform at Valparaiso station the whole platform moved and we experienced our first earthquake! It wasn’t dramatic but it turns out there was an earthquake measured at 5.2 magnitude. The first one in seven days but one of 97 in the past 30 days. The locals on the platform didn’t even blink, Jamie and I will probably require counselling.