We flew back to Santiago from Mendoza, and immediately hopped on a bus to Valparaiso. It’s about 1.5 hours drive from Santiago, and couldn’t be more different as a city. It’s arty and bohemian, it’s gritty and has a brilliant vibe; it’s a university town (with 15 universities, no less!) and an artists’ town, and consequently, the unemployment rate in late 2009 was 16%.
We stayed in a B&B on Cerro Alegre, one of the hill suburbs that look down on the city. We were welcomed like family by the young owners; every morning, Rene would speak to us in Spanish only (he’d gone to college in the US, and his English was flawless), to encourage us to practise more, and his wife would speak softly to my growing belly.
In Cerro Alegre, we wandered the twisting, narrow streets, discovering quirky shops, bars and cafes tucked into hidden corners.
Every street offered up an amazing array of street art and graffiti, some of which can only be described as beautiful. We stumbled upon a little Thai restaurant, serving the most authentic Thai food we’ve tasted outside of Thailand.
We went to the Manos Maestras market where we were impressed at the talent of local artists selling and exhibiting their handmade wood carvings, jewellery, textiles and ceramics. I went back for a second visit, and came away with a number of little treasures.
The city was an interesting place. We watched a gang of street dogs chasing cars; they were like teenage boys, egging each other on, playing chicken with the traffic, snarling insults at passers-by. We enjoyed café y tortas in the Plaza O‘Higgins, having navigated the smelly, dirty back streets near the port, and we rode the ancient, rattling ascensores up and down the hill to save our legs. It was colourful in parts, and drab in others; the vibrant hill suburbs seemed a world away from the gritty downtown areas.
We caught a bus to Con Con, about 30 minutes from the city, and wove our way to a local beach, having no idea how far or where we exactly needed to go. We watched a dramatic sea rescue, featuring life guards, the navy and a rescue helicopter, but weren’t able to ascertain what was actually going on.
And we ate at a local seafood restaurant that didn’t feature in any guide books or internet recommendations, Caletta de Membrillo, which turned out to be an absolute treat. We ate fresh fish while looking over the sea (the building is on a jetty, with the upper floors jutting out over the water), and chatted to Nelson and Sergio, old friends who were onto their third bottle of champagne, at two in the afternoon! We hid in embarrassment as Sergio encouraged a busking band to serenade and congratulate us many, many times on our nino/nina.
I fell in love with Valpo, and wish we’d spent more time there; however, Santiago and our flight home to New Zealand were calling, so we had to make the most of our few days there. In the words of this street artist: