One of the best things you can do when you reach a new place is to get outside, walk around as much as possible and just immerse yourself. Valparaiso is probably one of the best places to do this in South America. A port city just an hour outside of Santiago, Valparaiso is everything you expect a port city to be. Stepping out of the bus station right into the middle of the mayhem it’s loud, bustling, kinda stinks and is confusing. Street vendors have taken over most of the footpath and shout at me from all directions as I walk by. They are selling everything from electronics to live chickens and look at the tall gringo walking past with a mild interest and then go back to hawking as I pass.
I’ve decided to pass on the cab to my hostel and have a few kilometers to walk from the downtown bus station to the old town which is famous for being one giant mural. Navigating the minefield of street markets takes a few minutes and then after finding my way to the waterfront avenue it’s relatively smooth sailing. The walk takes me through a university, the beginning of another protest (see Santiago) and the historical district.
If you’re unfamiliar the draw card for Valparaiso, apart from being an interesting seaside city, is its incredible street art and architecture. The artwork is centered on the historical district and standing at any vantage point you can look out over a city that just explodes with pastels. It’s not an average grey seaside town. Every single house, building, power box, lamppost and stairway is painted with a different base colour. On top of this base coat the local and international artists have unleashed their collective imagination in the form of graffiti and street art.
Without a doubt the best way to get your head around the meaning and ideas behind the graffiti is to take a free walking tour and have a professional explain everything. The meanings range from political to abstract and whether you’re an art expert or not it’s easy to see that there is some serious talent behind the work. What surprised me the most is how significant every bit of work was in its own way. The art representing life during the fascist years and several that are dedicated to past locals seemed to be the group favorites.
If the artwork starts to blur into one, lining the hills around the city are also a lot of old mansions which belonged to the wealthy merchants of the past. Most of these have been restored and are either restaurants or hotels now. Probably out of a backpacker’s budget but they are still free to visit.
Later that day with a few drinks under our belt a group of us from the hostel decided to find out if the rumours about Valparaiso being a mad nightlife city were true. In a word, yep. The main road running through the bar/nightclub district (Cumming Street) was shut down and had turned into a thumping street party. Everyone was mingling with the big group of gringos, there were street performers and buskers adding to the atmosphere and most importantly there wasn’t anyone there ruining the fun. At some point during the night a group of the locals take us to a nightclub nearby and we stay there until sunrise. The street party probably isn’t a common thing but it’s a great spot regardless because most of the bars have live music on the weekend for all tastes.
The atmosphere of Valparaiso makes it a great weekend or weekday getaway from Santiago. The smaller size of the city makes the locals a little bit warmer and they are happy to show you around or invite you to join whatever fun they are having.
Finally if you’re an empanada fan, at the bottom of Urriola Street there is a place that does upwards of 70 different kinds and they are all delicious.