We had enjoyed tasting wines without travelling to a Chilean vineyard but it would be difficult to see Valparaiso without travelling to Valparaiso. But Chilean transport infrastructure had the answer for us: a bus! Those who know me will testify to my general antipathy to bus travel, but needs must and, still trembling at my memory of the cab ride from the airport, I had no intention of driving in Chile.
Saturday was the day set aside for this adventure as we roused ourselves early and made for the nearby Baquedano Metro station. From here, we travelled westward to the penultimate station of the No. 1 line, Pajaritos. Exiting the station, we arrived immediately in a bus station thronged with people, all buying tickets to various points across the country.
Valparaiso was our aim and we were not to be diverted. There were three bus companies offering tickets for the route and I chose Pullman, simply because it boasted the shortest queue. I mimed the requirement for two return tickets and, miraculously, purchased the correct thing, allowing us to cover the 160km each way for a sum equivalent to GBP 10 per person.
My ticket window mime must have included the phrase “First Class” as that was where we were seated once we boarded the bus. The road between the cities appeared to have been constructed by ancient Roman engineers as it continued on its way largely dead straight, laughing in the face of geographical hindrances. An interesting innovation was a display board in the passenger cabin which showed the speed at which the bus was travelling and informing passengers that the bus was being monitored remotely and excessive speed was reported directly to the Chilean Ministry of Transport. That may explain the steady 97 – 99 kph we maintained for almost the entire journey. The bus was very comfortable and I would not hesitate to recommend this method of transport to future visitors.
Prior research had indicated that one could take a taxi or bus from the Valparaiso arrival point to the city centre. But it was only a half hour walk so we decided that would be the best way to get a feel for this new locale and off we strode. Off we strode straight into a Saturday street market, where all kinds of fresh food and shoddy goods were available. Remember that this is a port town so there was a lot of fish available. Fish that would certainly have been fresh when the stalls were set up that morning, with rudimentary (or no) refrigeration capabilities. The smell of the market was…striking. We weren’t sure if the caged rabbits were intended for a hutch or a pot, and didn’t stop to ask. We successfully negotiated our way towards quieter streets and made it to the city’s main square, Plaza Sotomayor.
On one side of the square is the Queen Victoria Hotel, where we stopped for a coffee and to plan our day here. We decided that we would take one of the free English language walking tours which started here in the square which turned out to be an excellent decision. Our guide, Yasna, showed us a lot of the city we wouldn’t otherwise have seen and clued us up on a lot of its history.
The city grew in importance as a port as a direct result of the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th Century. For Europeans looking for a piece of the action, there were two options: sail to the US Eastern Seaboard and make the treacherous cross-country journey, or sail the entire way to California which, pre-Panama Canal, necessitated a trip round the Horn. Valparaiso, it turns out, is roughly the halfway point to California and an ideal staging point for ships to take on additional supplies for the journey. The city thrived and a number of the Europeans bound for California decided instead to settle here. Fortunes could be made without digging mines.
As a port, it was also the hub for the Chilean Navy. This branch of the armed forces was one of the first to act during the 1973 coup, taking over all of the local and national government offices in Valparaiso and imposing military rule. In fact, the former Town Hall remains a naval building to this day.
Yasna also told us that Valparaiso means Valley of Paradise, and that it is such a common place name that there are 16 places with the same name scattered around the world. I later tried to verify this and it turns out there are actually 29. And only 21 Glasgows.
The city suffered a major economic downturn with the opening of the Panama Canal and even its role as Chile’s main port has been subsumed by San Antonio to the south. It has undergone a post-industrial revival and its main source of income is now tourism, as cruise ships now dock here on a regular basis.
Valparaiso hosted a street art festival in 2013 which was intended to be a one-off event but has become a permanent feature, with many of the world’s best known graffiti artists having works scattered around the city.
We also took one of the ascensores – the lifts that transport locals up and down the steep hillsides that surround the flat port area. Actually, we took the Queen Victoria lift. There really were a lot of Brits settling here in the 19th century. So many, in fact, that, upon exiting this lift, one can see the first non-catholic place of worship built in South America – an Anglican church. The church was constructed while it was still illegal to practice any faith other than catholicism but because of the number – and wealth – of the anglican immigrant community, authorities turned a blind eye to the structure, on the understanding that it did not include any external signs of being a church, so no steeple, no bells, and no cross.
The tour was excellent, and lasted over three hours. We tipped well at the end as we certainly felt that Yasna had earned it. Tours for Tips do a nice job and you should sign up for a walk if you find yourself in Santiago or Valparaiso.
After the tour was over, we refreshed ourselves with a beer before taking one of the trolley buses back to the main station and settling once more into our comfy Pullman seats for the trip back to Santiago. By the time we arrived back in our own Lastarria neighbourhood it was quite late, so we grabbed a late meal at a bar just around the corner from us called Culto. We hadn’t properly appreciated that they had a rooftop outdoor restaurant, nor that they were quite so devoted to excellent British music but we enjoyed both.
Although, for the first time since Japan, we felt cold. As the equinox approached, autumn is on its way here in the south.