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24 Dec


Valparaiso: Bright colors and good vibes

December 24, 2013 | By |

We decided that if Santiago feels a bit like L.A. (with D.C.’s metro), Valparaiso is San Fran. Big hills overlooking the water, bright colors everywhere, streets winding up hills in every which way, and a chill artsy energy. The downhill area is flat, but a lot of the good stuff is up in the hills, so you end up walking quite a bit or taking adorable ascensors – where, for $0.20 USD, you take a little outdoor elevator up the steepest sections. But really, it would be difficult to live here and not have toned glutes.

Getting here + Hostel Luna Sonrisa

Leaving Santiago, we were able to hop right on a bus and enjoy a comfy 1 ½ hour ride to Valparaiso. While we could have found a cheaper place to stay there just by going and looking around, with the extreme hilliness, our limited time, and the fact that we are traveling when Chileans are taking their summer breaks, we decided to reserve the day before we left Santiago. We took a cab straight from the bus station to the hostel, where we were greeted by a lovely staff and guests!

Our hostel, Luna Sonrisa (the smiling moon), is super lovely. We decided to pay $60 USD for a private room with a private bathroom (they didn’t have any private matrimomials with shared bathroom left). The hostel is great – 2 nice common sitting areas, free wifi as well as a computer for use, a really nice common kitchen with a beautiful large tiled table for food prep and eating in the middle, and a lovely breakfast included with delicious marmalades. Our bedroom was super comfortable and quiet even though the window looked out on the street, and the bathroom was lovely and clean. The only quirk was that our shower head was large so the spray literally filled the entire shower stall – there was no way to duck out of the water to shampoo or soap!

Tours 4 Tips

Our first morning, we went out with another couple from our hotel, Seattle-ites named Ryan and Naomi – side note, after meeting very few Americans in Bolivia, there are tons of us here in Chile! The four of us went to Tours 4 Tips, an amazing program in both Santiago and Valparaiso (we wish we had known about it in Santiago!) where locals or expats give you an English guided walking tour of the city for roughly 3 hours. We loved it and were happy to tip $10 USD / person.

Our guide was Austin, a super friendly, animated, knowledgeable guy who moved here 6 months ago and is a U.S. expat. He was in Buenos Aires doing post-graduate research when he fell in love with a Chilean and moved here. Not quite what you think of as the epicenter of fabulous gay culture, but it seems it’s the best that South America has!

The tour started in the Plaza Sotomayor (no relation to Sonia), where Austin talked about the history of the port, the diversity of cultures that came to Valparaiso and the timing of different cultures’ movement here, as well as how fragile Chile (and this area in particular) is to earthquakes and tsunamis. When the California Gold Rush started, ships en route from the Old World to Cali got waylaid here, turning this into a vibrant port town… up until when the Panama Canal opened and ships bypassed this lovely area. Also, the port area is built on a mound of landfill and extends out far more than it used to!

The port wealth and diversity means that the area has a lot of “firsts,” as well as a history of extraordinary wealth that fizzled out. Right near that main plaza, Austin pointed out a decrepit yet fancy building that was created to be a hotel and opened right around when the Panama Canal did. Sadly, it never lived up to expectations and now an old Italian lady lives in it alone with her cats. Also, the hills greatly influenced the city in more political times. Over time, the hills have been much less permeable to various forces and so have been a seat of liberalism and activism.

There are always a few Chilean warships in the harbor here. We overheard one guide saying that they were going to be used for the stellar New Year’s fireworks, but it seems that they are always here as a gentle reminder to Portenos (people who live in Valparaiso) of the military power. To note, when Pinochet took power, he led the Chilean military in an attack from the sea right here.

Also interesting, in the downtown port area, at one point they installed a giant modern glass building… after which there was a (successful) movement to designate Valparaiso a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has left the city with a mix of good and bad. On one hand, it brought in initial money, helps the city get a great boon from tourism and maintain the beautiful architecture and feel of the city. On the other hand, people can’t build or renovate if, for example, a building is destroyed by fire, plus the city is internationally indebted because the UNESCO money is actually a loan.

We also inadvertently popped into a German Lutheran church with an awesome pastor. Apparently built by German ship builders, the church is built as an upside-down ship! There are tons of signs of various immigrant populations here, and Germans seem to have a real strong showing across southern Chile.

Along the tour, we had a random dog accompany us for a while. He was sweet, but had a penchant for biting the moving front wheels of cars going downhill. The photos don’t quite do it justice. The tourists were super stressed out and stopped traffic trying to get him to stop.

We also got a lot of great info on the street art, which is gorgeous and super plentiful here… and so diverse! More on that later. We spent a while talking about Pablo Neruda, Pinochet, and the recent election (last week, Michelle Bachelet won the presidency by a wide margin). We chatted a bit about the ascensors (elevators up the steep parts of the hills). There used to be 20-some to access the 40-some city hills more easily, but now just 7 are operational. Apparently plans are in place to restore the others. We sampled alfajores, delicious sandwich cookies with manjar (caramel / dulce de leche) and coated in chocolate.

And, of course, we had the obligatory pisco sour – a special treat anywhere in Peru or Chile (the two countries battle over who invented it!). I’m wondering when pisco is going to hit the NYC market!

Of food and markets

After the tour, Mitch and I went to the central market. (To note, when we say that most of the good stuff is up the hills… the port, market, supermarkets, clubs, and banks are all down the hill.) The market is lovely, well-stocked, and vibrant, and of course, much better priced than the supermarket.

The upstairs of the market has a ton of restaurants, where we ate lunch and shared the “jardin de mariscos” (“seafood garden”), which meant that for $16 USD, we stuffed ourselves silly with shellfish, then had a little digestif that tasted vaguely of butterscotch.

We didn’t eat out all that much, but we were pleased as punch with a little boulangerie up the hill from our hostel, which has a multi-cultural empanada situation – spinach and blue cheese in a big phyllo pastry triangle. We also had a great lunch one day with a ceviche and an amazing corn-quiche (pastel de choclo, or literally corn cake) thing.

Mandatory stop at the 80’s gay club… plus a sweet tie

After dinner, we went out for an 80’s dance party at a gay-friendly club called Mascara. We got there at 12:15am, so the party had yet to get bumping. Across South America, nightlife seems to get going well past midnight, often not until 2am. Thus, our travel schedule hasn’t allowed for much nightlife – but the time change and sunlight in Chile are keeping us energized much later!

There were 80’s music videos, a bad sound system, and a ton of really enthusiastic Chileans. (The Latin dance hips may have escaped Chile, and with the Pinochet history, apparently culture here is just getting around to the 80’s.  So we saw signs for an upcoming Megadeth concert in Santiago and various 80’s music trends are all the rage.) We met a fabulous gay couple who seemed high on E and loved Mitch, and a lesbian couple who loved us both, screamed with excitement for every song and insisted on giving Mitch a tie when he complimented one of the girls on her style. (It is a really sweet Nightmare Before Christmas tie – although we intended to just offer a compliment, not take her tie!)

Sum total: Chileans are super excited and super friendly, even if we can’t entirely understand their Spanish accents or their English accents (especially in a loud club).

Around town – Art, Art, Art

The next day, we packed up and took a walk to La Sebastiana, the Pablo Neruda house. En route, we saw great art and city views as well as an exercise park that was adorable and fun. La Sebastiana had quite a wait, so we decided to not go inside (we had also heard zero positive reviews of the tours of the inside).

We walked down to the Museo a Cielo Abierto (the open sky museum), where a bunch of the first street murals are mapped and have placards. The art there isn’t as good as the epic murals on the buildings now, but it was exciting to see 20-year-old murals! (For the most part, muralled walls get respected by graffiti taggers, so buildings invite artists to create murals all over the place.) And, it is awesome to legitimize early street art in this way. For fun and the sake of art, some of the placards have been painted over – street artists are street artists!

We also took a trip to the Museo de Bellas Artes at the Palacio Baburizza, which is a fine arts collection in a crazy building. Some crazy immigrant who made it rich had the building constructed with some fancy tidbits like the very first hot shower in Latin America (so we are told), but had paranoia or some such and only actually lived in the basement. But he took frequent trips to collect fine art, and his collection is now the permanent collection of the museum. Most of the paintings didn’t really excite us, although there was a fantastic one of snow that was positively radiant. And the house itself made the visit totally worthwhile.

A fond farewell

After a few cloudy days (including the summer solstice on 21 Dec), the sun came out before we left the town and we were able to go out for one last walk around to see the beautiful architecture, urban layout, and street art. Then, we caught a city bus toward the bus station. The city bus was impressive – the driver managed to simultaneously make small talk as well as change (for different priced trips/tickets), while careening down hilly urban roads.

The 15 hour bus ride from Valparaiso to Puerto Montt was lovely and uneventful. When we had arrived in Valpo, we found out that there were only 3 seats left on the bus we wanted to get from there to Puerto Montt so we snatched up 2 of them (not a bad idea to buy in advance). They only had semicama buses, but the seats were comfy, there were pillows and blankets, 2 (repeat, 2) clean bathrooms (at least clean at the start of the journey), and even a morning snack. We had heard the Chilean buses were great – but it was still a very pleasant surprise!

Now, onward to the Lakes District. Our 4 days in Santiago and Valparaiso have given us a great taste for Chilean urban life, and we’d love to come back to explore more. But for now, nature beckons!


  1. Howard Weiner

    Valparaiso looks wonderful! It reminds me of Seattle as well as SF. How fabulous for you both to experience so many places this next year. I wonder which will be your favorite?? xoxo

  2. Rendall

    Valparaiso is definitely on my list of places to go. Our mutual friend Nicolina from The Free Art Society organized the painting of a number of the elevators of Valparaiso (mis-categorized as graffiti in this article, but it gives some background to them: )

  3. Sarah Richards

    Happy Christmas to you both! Have just enjoyed catching up on your latest adventures and look forward to seeing your Antarctica photos!

    • Mitch & Jewels

      Thank you for the good wishes! Let us know if you & Steve feel inspired to do any Asia trekking in the next year. 😉