OYOP: Valparaiso, Chile
We had a day long journey from the desert country of San Pedro de Atacama to the coastal city of Valparaiso. We first took a two hour bus ride to get to Calama, where we then took an hour and a half plane ride to get to Santiago, Chile.
Arriving in Santiago, Chile almost felt like reverse culture shock. What were all of these people doing walking the streets wearing modern clothes and silver and gold jewelry? I had to stop myself when I thought “gosh, all of these Chilean people are so rich”, and just be reminded that it was a change in perspective. Santiago and its people are so diverse and modern I could have blinked and tricked myself into thinking I was on a bus ride through Montreal, Canada, or even a coastal city in California. There were skyscrapers, billboards and traffic lights, but there were also tents of traditional markets, hills, and Spanish speakers. Where were we? This was definitely different than the South America we had experienced so far.
We were at the TurBus terminal in Santiago waiting for our last leg of this trip, a two hour bus ride to Valparaiso, when a teenager approached us, tore off a piece of notebook paper, and handed it to us. I automatically assumed it was going to be a sales pitch or other request for money – we had been approached in so many different ways in Peru and Bolivia to buy small services like shoe shining or listening to a child singing a song- but this was different. This guy approached us because he’d drawn a sketch of us waiting at the terminal and wanted to hand it over for us to keep. It was pretty good too, and we were quite flattered to freely accept this impromptu art.
I took a last glance at the drawing, put it away and thought, “I’ve never had so many people be so kind to me for no reason as I have the last couple months.” Then, upon second thought I realized I’d probably just never taken notice of it before.
It’s so easy to take more notice of what we are scared of, nervous about, looking forward to, or what we are regretful of, instead of just taking notice of what is right in front of us. I think that’s what has felt different for me in spending this time abroad. It is becoming easier each day to just let the experiences travel through me and to make the best of them. I’m not worried about what might be new or different, because it all is, and I’m not overly excited or overwhelmed by what is happening either. I am just taking in the present. It was a funny time to be thinking this as we drove into a city that was so utterly different than anywhere I’d experienced before.
Arriving in Valparaiso, Chile on a Saturday night felt like leaping out of real life and into a music video for The Beatles’ White Album. We were suddenly enveloped in sights of endless walls of graffiti, street artists on every corner and crowds of people skateboarding, and we were surrounded by the sounds of hundreds of people at an outdoor music concert. The taxi driver dropped us off next to a long alley staircase painted in reds, yellows, and blues that would lead to our hostel. We headed a short way up the staircase when we were blockaded by a group of 15 or so chain-smoking, bottle-sharing, free-loving Chileans, who didn’t let us pass through without cheek kisses, slurred flirtations, and pressures to stay and pass around the bottle. This was clearly going to be an interesting city.
Our hostel, which we booked because it was listed as the 2015 hostel of the year in Valparaiso, looked like the perfect place for striving musicians to squat in for months working on an upcoming album. It had deep red couches, large communal spaces, psychedelic rock music playing, and it smelled of burning incense. It wasn’t exactly our normal style, but why not dive right into the culture of the city? Plus, it had wi-fi faster than we even get at home. We arrived late the first night, but we were so excited about the wi-fi connection, that instead of going to bed after 12 hours of traveling, we picked up some cheap Chilean wine and stayed up late to take advantage of the extremely rare opportunity to stream a movie from the hostel. It was such a treat.
We spent the next day strolling the streets of the neighborhood that we are staying in, Cerro Concepcion, the adjoining neighborhood, Cerro Alegra, and the harbor. The streets in these two cerros, or hills, wound up colorfully painted staircases, turned into narrow cobblestone alleyways, and wrapped around old buildings with no particular rhythm or rhyme. With every few steps, you could get lost in a breathtaking mural, a vibrant array of colors, views of the harbor, or views of the rows of colorful houses sprinkled along the hillsides throughout the city. It was easy to see why the famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, was inspired by this beautiful mess of a city.
We took a free two and a half hour walking tour with a company called Tours for Tips to learn more about the city. We took it in Spanish to practice the language and learned that Chileans speak faster and with a thicker accent than Peruvians and Bolivians. I was surprised this tour was on par with the one we took in Cusco, Peru and very similar. It included a free ride on one of the funiculars that are spread throughout the city to get up and down the large hills, food and drink samples, local music and of course, great scenery. It ended with restaurant and sightseeing recommendations. We asked our guide a lot about “Chilean Seabass” as we call it in the US. Here, it not only has a completely different name as the fish is not even in the bass family, but our guide was surprised to learn we call it “Chilean”. It turns out it wasn’t in season and isn’t that cheap here even though it’s named after Chile, but we did find some absolutely delicious salmon ceviche near the harbor.
On the following day, we explored more of Valparaiso on foot. We walked to Cerro Bellavista, where the aforementioned poet lived. We walked through the business district and in many parks. It turns out there are parts of the city that look completely like any other city and are not at all like the multi-colored, graffiti-dominated areas we had explored the day before. But even these “normal” areas had their quirks.
We turned onto a small alleyway off of a main street, packed with workweek traffic and locals coming in and out of office buildings, to duck into a small eatery called the Casino Social J Cruz for their famous chorrillana, a traditional Chilean dish with fries covered in meat, onions, and egg. We walked in, and the owner, a stout, unsmiling, strong woman pointed to where we were to sit. We had a feeling that we shouldn’t disobey. Instead of bringing us a menu, it appeared one didn’t exist, she came up and said “chorrillana for two”. We said “one please, to split”. She said “chorrillana for two.” We used the best descriptions we could in Spanish like “the smallest” and “individual” and “only for one.” She shook her head as if in utter incomprehension and repeated “chorillana for two.” Her husband came next to her with his arms crossed and his greased black hair freshly combed back, and stood with a look of intimidatation, so we meekly obliged. As we waited for our chorrillana for two, we marveled at the restaurant. It was a hoarder’s treasure chest, with collections of Stein beer mugs, fireman helmets, masks, time pieces, water pitchers, insect magnets, and most interestingly, tiny wallet sized photos of strangers covering every free space of wall in and around all of the other collections.
The restaurant filled up, we continued to look around, and the greasy haired husband continued to comb his hair using the reflection of a glass case holding more knickknacks, as he loudly belted out 1970s Spanish tunes that were playing from the tv of the same decade in the corner. When our chorrillana arrived, I am not sure it was chorrillana for two, it could have been chorrillana for four. We slopped up as much as we could of the perfectly crisp fries in the gravy of the stewed meat, but we didn’t come close to finishing.
I gasped as I saw the bill, 8,000 Chilean pesos, at $11 this pile of fries and meat was the most expensive meal we had yet on the trip. But there was no arguing with what could have been the Chilean mafia. We gave our most cheerful “muchas gracias!” and continued on our way, so full we were barely able to walk back out onto the sunny, hilly streets to continue to explore.
We spent some time in a popular park where businessmen took their lunch break, couples embraced each other on park benches, and families with small children practiced bike riding or kicking around the soccer ball. We practiced some yoga in the park. I have been slacking on my yoga practice, but, while daunting, it was fun to stretch and have James spot me in inversions while hanging out in the park. It really feels like we are part of and blend into the local landscape of a city when we hang out in parks or otherwise take part in the local life as we would be doing if we were in our home city.
We are off next to Vina del Mar, another coastal town only a few kilometers from Valparaiso but it is a beach town, which I mistakenly thought Valpariso was, and it will be our first beach of South America.