Visiting a Valparaiso

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.

Cheapskate Chile

I had been keen on fitting into our Chilean visit an opportunity to sample the local wine production. To that end, I undertook some research with the aim of sourcing a pleasant, reasonably priced vineyard tour. Such a thing seemed to be unavailable, with prices coming in at between USD 150 and USD 200 per person. I decided that this was more than I was willing to pay to spend all day on a bus being shuttled to three vineyards coupled with a visit to Valparaiso. Further investigation was required, blended with a little imagination.

My thought was that one need not visit a vineyard to taste wine. Perhaps a local wine bar might present a tasting that would meet our needs. I found that there existed, nearby, a place called the Santiago Wine Club. We made our way to their threshold and asked about tastings. They do not offer tastings but pointed us in the direction of Bocanariz, a wine bar and restaurant which would fit the bill. Even on Wednesday afternoon, there were “Reserved” signs on many of the tables and it certainly looked like the kind of thing we were looking for so we booked a table for the Friday evening.

Having used the metro to visit the museum of human rights earlier in the day, we were feeling quite pleased with our new-found mastery of Chile’s subway system. We had acquired the necessary electronic access card – called bip! and pronounced “beep” – and loaded the necessary funds to allow us to travel more widely across the city. This meant that when we researched further how we should visit Valparaiso and discovered that comfortable modern buses ran between the two cities, we decided that would also be added to our schedule, and pencilled in the excursion for Saturday.

The last bit of forward planning we settled on today was organising a hike. We could see the Andes from our living room window, so we had to get into them at some point. We tracked down a guided hike on the AirBnB Experiences section and made a booking for Sunday. The week ahead was becoming quite crowded and Wednesday had faded into history.

On Thursday, we undertook an unusual tourist quest and visited the Cementario General, the cemetery where are interred the great and the good of Chilean history. Almost all of Chile’s presidents are buried there, and it also houses the infamous Plot 29. During the Junta, countless murdered dissidents were secretly buried in this plot, the public becoming aware of it after a tip-off to the press.

DSC_0143 Many of the graves in this section still hold unidentified victims.

The cemetery claims to hold two million buried Chileans, and it stretches over many acres. We went and paid our respects to Allende’s grave, but also saw some interesting things that we certainly wouldn’t have encountered in the UK. The use, for example, of Mayan symbols seems incongruous in a Christian – predominantly Catholic – graveyard.

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And we were struck by the existence of crypts and plots for specific groups of workers. For example, there are communal crypts for Glassworkers and for Railwaymen. The one that leapt out at us, however, was this one:

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This is a plot dedicated to deceased circus workers – hence the big top theme.

As we walked towards the graveyard’s exit, we encountered a funeral on the way in. Naturally, we stepped aside and doffed our hats, showing appropriate respect. More respect than a couple of members of the funeral party who were engaged in animated conversation on their phones as they accompanied the cortege. The tolerance of the bereaved in ignoring this was admirable. If this were to happen at my funeral, you, gentle reader, have full licence to educate the individual forcefully in the value of common decency.

We departed the cemetery and returned to our Lastarria neighbourhood for refreshment and a wander.

There is a lot of street art around and this was an especially interesting work on a corner building just along the road from us. Street art was to be a theme for the next few days and we learned a lot about the works and the artists prevalent in Chile.



Facing up to the past

The military coup that occurred in Chile in 1973 brought General Augusto Pinochet to power and changed the landscape of political discourse in the country. Three years earlier, Chile had voted for its first ever Socialist President, Salvador Allende, who had introduced a series of social and financial reforms unpopular with many people and, more importantly, unpopular with an army that saw itself as underfunded and underpaid, particularly in comparison to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru and Uruguay, all of which had seen military coups over the previous seven years. Pinochet’s coup was tacitly (or explicitly) approved by President Nixon, who had already introduced economic sanctions against Chile as a bulwark against a perceived danger of South America falling into Socialism more broadly. The coup led to the death of Allende, 16 years of military rule, and the brutal suppression of any and all political opposition to the generals.

That’s a lot for a country to deal with, especially when you consider that a great many Chileans at the time were supportive of the military regime, while being largely unaware of its excesses. In an attempt to address the issues of this period, Chile instituted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (6 years before the same process was used in South Africa). The Museum of Memory and Human Rights was inaugurated in 2010 and tells the stories of many of the victims of the regime while also examining propaganda techniques and the control of the media that the generals used to manage the narrative. Famously, the national stadium was used as a detention and torture centre during this time and it is estimated that over 40,000 Chileans were detained here at some point.


This is a difficult, but important museum to visit.



Scream if you wanna go faster

Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to visit many different countries, sometimes for pleasure and sometimes for work. The corollary to this is that I have also had the misfortune to experience many different approaches to best practice among the world’s taxi-driving communities. Nothing prepared me for my drive from the airport to the centre of Santiago – not even India.

We arrived from New Zealand on Monday, three hours before we left. The international dateline is a confusing thing. Already befuddled by this, we were treated to an immigration process worthy of Heathrow at its finest, as we spent 90 minutes waiting in line to present our credentials to those worthy men and women who guard Chile’s borders against an influx of mountebanks and ne’er-do-wells. After eventually negotiating the border, we changed some money so that we had walking about money in Pesos and avoided the many unofficial drivers to ensure we booked an official, fully licensed Santiago taxi to get us to our AirBnB.

Our driver proceeded to demonstrate his Formula 1 credentials as he weaved between and across traffic at high speed with millimetres to spare. I spent the ride with a fixed smile on my face, radiating to Ishbel a confidence I did not feel on the inside. I was delighted when we reached our destination and departed the cab with unseemly haste.

We were booked into a flat on Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins in the city’s Lastarria district. The entrance to the block was unprepossessing and the door didn’t open fully due to some hinge problem which also produced a painful, grating screech as its lower edge dragged along the floor. Despite the unpromising first impression, our sixth floor flat turned out to be lovely. We had a large living room with a small kitchenette in one corner, and a snug bedroom. Perfect for our needs.

Google maps was, once again, our friend as we located a nearby supermarket and launched a sortie to acquire necessary supplies. Tea and milk. We also bought ingredients for a simple relaxing meal. We decided to eat in as we couldn’t make up our minds as to whether or not we should be jetlagged. The bottle of Carmenere helped.

The following day we had a relaxing start to the morning. With lots of tea, despite the barriers thrown in our faces by science. Santiago is at about 600m elevation above sea level, which means water boils at 98°C (150m = 0.5°C). This means we don’t get quite the full infusion necessary for a perfect cup, but it was adequate.

Replete with tea, we decided to start our exploration of the city slowly and visit the most local tourist attraction to us: Bellas Artes – the National Museum of Fine Arts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There were some quite striking works on display in here, and we started to get our first taste of Chile’s determination to meet head-on certain sensitive eras of its past, from the Conquistadors to the Pinochet regime, through art and other media.

The building itself was very impressive, and we were also able to see an exhibition with a splendidly punny name: From here to modernity. I can only assume that the old movie ‘From here to eternity’ had a literal translation as its Spanish title.

After the gallery, we had a walk around the neighbourhood to get our bearings and came across a park slap bang in the middle of it. Not so much a park as a miniature hill that climbed steeply straight up from street level to be topped off eventually by a shrine. This was the Cerro Santa Lucia. By this time, however, we had gone several hours without a cup of tea so headed back to the flat to rectify that situation and to play our instruments for the first time in a few days. There were clear signs of rustiness there, so we spent  while trying to improve our respective techniques.

Eventually, we headed back out to the park to ascend the hill and see what the view was like from the top.

IMG_2320 Flights of stairs led to the peak, but they would have been condemned and shut down had they been in the UK. The uneven steps and low barriers added an unnecessary element of excitement to the climb but the view from the top was magnificent.

After this, we once again called into our local supermarket. We ate at home again, despite the siren cry of the many restaurants within walking distance. We decided we needed to do some planning and wanted to book a wine tasting tour.

A quiet evening and some research was the plan to end our first full day in Chile.