Published: August 27th 2011August 4th 2011
Colorful, wonderful and wild--I was in love with this amazing city! Artful murals cover walls that accompany miles of stairs and occasional funiculars that rise vertiginously from the chaotic waterfront plain of the business district to the city's ubiquitous, peaceful, painted hills.
Art is everywhere from the murals, house colors and fluttering laundry to musicians and mimes on street corners and theater groups and puppeteers in the parks. The city was a visual feast, and I took lots of photos on the gloriously sunny and Santa Barbara-like,winter-warm days.
However, Valpo, as its known, is also a somewhat dangerous port city. Fortunately, unlike several friends, I was never pickpocketed or scammed, which of course, led to me love the city much more than they.
I was there most of June and participated in street protests and a fabulous fiesta, attended great concerts and even saw some foreign and classic films; I timed my departure to coincide with the end of the Star Wars marathon.
Normally, I also visit a city's museums, but most were closed and being renovated due to damage sustained in the February 2010 earthquake in Concepcion, quite a bit south of
here. While in Valpo and other coastal cities, I was awakened at least once a week by tremors.
In fact, I was here only because of the actively seismic nature of this county. I had intended to return to my beloved Bariloche, Argentina, but it had been covered with ash from the eruption of Chile's Peyuhue Volcano. Major change of plans--I decided to explore central Chile.
My time in Valpo was magical, and equally so was my arrival. I was whisked there from Santiago by my friend, Oscar, whom I'd met on the Navimag ferry through Chile's Patagonian fiords. We traveled in his big pickup with his two Santiago roommates, Marco and Paulina, and I was reminded of how fast and easy car travel is.
Oscar's parents had a beautiful, 4-bedroom vacation apartment that spanned two streets on Cerro Bellavista, and we spent a great weekend there. Most of the time,we spoke Spanish. At first, I was pretty lost when these fast-speaking Chileans chatted together, but by the second evening, I was thrilled to notice that my ear had caught up, and I had caught on.
One afternoon, we went to a ship-shaped restaurant where I
had a juicy crab and cheese empanada, the only one I was ever to like in Chile (they're generally too dry and doughy for me since I'm not a bread fan). We also visited friends in nearby Vina del Mar, the expensive Sunday flea market, and the colorful mercado/market which had excellent fruit and veggies, even in winter.
When my friends went back to Santiago, I stayed on, enjoying a house all to myself, then moving into a room in the Hotel Polanco, a century-old, Belle Epoch, renovated mansion. Because I agreed to stay a couple of weeks, the manager Orlando let me pay $10/night--sweet. He also kindly spoke Spanish slowly and clearly enough that we could have great conversations on politics and philosophy. I was home.
Climbing Colorful Hills
I spent endlessly entertaining days exploring the sinuous, labyrinthine streets in the cerros (hills), wandering from one to another, with each cerro having its own character. Cerros Alegre, Conception, and Bellavista were particularly colorful with murals, galleries, visual and performance art, and many bohemian touches.
The Nobel Prize winning poet, Pablo Neruda, had a house, La Sebastiana, high on Cerro Florida, with sweeping views of the city and
the harbor. Like his other two homes, this had a nautical theme and a labyrinthine feel from the main rooms on a floor that had been designed as a huge birdcage, up the steep staircases to his sea-facing bed, to his writing studio in the top of the tower.
The first floor had extensive trilingual (Spanish, Portuguese, English) exhibits and photos of his life, as well as a video of him being interviewed. Best of all, we were allowed to wander freely rather than being imprisoned on a fast-moving tour. While others whipped through the place in a half an hour, I spent hours drifting around and feeling the place and peppering the helpful guards/guides with questions. Later, I attended an exciting chamber concert in its cultural center, and walking down from the hilltop, visited the murals of Cerro Bellavista's Open Air Museum.
Also fascinating were the grand, century-old buildings of the business district and the busy harbor that was home to a fishing fleet, tourist boats and the Chilean navy. It was here that I realized that the word armada
(which I had only known from Elizabeth I's 16c defeat of the Spanish Armada) simply means navy
The Jewel of the Pacific
This unique city had been known as “The Jewel of the Pacific" in the 19c when it was a major stopover for ships going around Cape Horn or through the Straights of Magellan between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Many European immigrants stayed and enriched the city as I learned in a great exhibition at the city's cultural center on Sotomayor Plaza.
The city faced decline as ships bypassed it as they went through the Panama Canal. However, its residents mounted a campaign to revive the city in the 1990s, and got it named a UNESCO World Heritage Site based upon its "improvised urban design and unique architecture" and the brilliantly engineered funiculars that helped residents and tourists mount the steep streets.
Unfortunately, only 8 of the original 29 funiculars were still running when I visited. Posters in hilltop neighborhoods called on residents to urge the city to repair these vital means of transportation. Fortunately, I only needed the funiculars for entertainment.
My hotel was on the plain, on the charming Plaza Victoria and Calle Condell, the main street. From my third-floor balcony, I heard not only the city's prodigious traffic, but
also the many demonstrations and parades that passed below my balcony. As all over Chile, thousands of students marched for months, demanding free, quality higher education. Hearing them pass on the street below, I always ran down to join their organized ranks.
San Pedro Celebration
One evening, I heard the sounds of a marching band and found a parade led by cadets from a military academy, followed by hand-carried floats of the Virgin Mary and San Pedro (St. Peter), the protector of fishers, and this coastal city's patron saint. Groups of church fraternities carried tall candles and were followed by indigenous musicians and dancers. It was the celebration of San Pedro's feast day, June 29.
The next day there was a too-early-for-me mass, a parade to the harbor, and a day of celebration. While my friends back home were enjoying the colorful costumes of the Solstice Parade, I was reveling in the colorful costumes of indigenous dancers. For hours in the plaza at the harbor, groups took turns dancing and paying their respects to Maria and S. Pedro. Finally, the statues of these two were carried onto a fishing boat which headed out, followed by scores of boats, to
bless the harbor.
Interestingly, the last dancing group was of children on stilts dressed as sea creatures--fish, sea lions, gulls, dolphins, and octupi. Other children with attached boats captured some of the fish while the rest continued to swim. Then, the big, evil boats of the industrial fishers came, pulling all the creatures down into their nets. The passion play ended as the little fishers freed the creatures, drove away the industrial boats and left everyone cheering. So, a bit of good political education for children and crowds.
As June and the Star Wars marathon were ending, and I'd taken day trips to Neruda's home in Isla Negra and to Valpo's sedate sister up the coast, Vina del Mar, I decided it was time to leave. I would catch an overnight bus to La Serena and the Elqui Valley and meet up with the legacy of Gabriela Mistral, Chile's first Nobel Prize winning poet, in whose Santa Barbara house I'd lived for three years. My adventures continue.
There are more photos below