Street art or graffiti??! Valparaiso and the way north

Published: July 28th 2009
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Facebook, sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it, especially when I'm sat in a hostel with free Internet and the person using it decides to spend 5 years uploading photos or, more annoyingly, flicking through someone else's when all I want to do is quickly check email..... grrrrr. This time though it meant I unexpectedly met up with Chantal and Jeremy, two friends I'd first met whilst squashed into a shared jeep on the way up to Darjeeling in India! I was just back from Easter Island, they'd recently arrived from NZ and I had no idea they were even on the same continent until I logged into..... Yup this one time I loved it!

I'd already spent a few days in Santiago before heading out to Easter Island and loved it, especially the Museum of Pre-Colombian art which, quite a few museums later, is still my favourite in South America. But I was keen to move on again, it happened that Chantal and Jeremy were also leaving and so the next morning found the three of us at the bus station haggling over the bus fare to Valparaiso.

A few hours north west of Santiago, Valparaiso is a port and a city of two parts. "El Plan", the modern flat part stretches along the coast and is home to all the shops and offices whilst rising steeply behind are several hills full of character with funiculars providing a nice alternative to a sweaty climb! Buildings here are brightly coloured, some decorated with cute window boxes, and the steep streets are paved with cobblestones. Huge murals adorn the walls of many buildings, some abstract, others depicting street scenes around the city and you get a great view out to sea, where we watched as the fog slowly rolled in, completely obscuring the huge cruised liner that was docked in the harbour below.

That night we hooked up with a German girl in our hostel and ended up going to a student bar with the waiter in the restaurant we had dinner at. As we zoomed down narrow streets, overtook on blind corners and squeezed into impossibly small gaps between moving cars, I did wonder if we'd actually make it! What Mr Waiter hadn't mentioned was that this bar was actually in Vina Del Mar... the next town along.... so with a beer in hand to steady our nerves and half an eye on the football match we'd come to watch (Chile were playing so the place was packed) we weighed up our options.... to get a lift back with this racing-driver-wanna-be or find a bus! In the mean time we got chatting to a group of American exchange students who warned us that buses were a no-go - a high chance of being robbed of everything.... including your clothes it seemed - so a few more beers and 90 minutes later we found ourselves back in the car rather glad that Chile hadn't lost!!

La Serena is Chile's third oldest city and there were two things I wanted to do here. The first was a trip to Isla Damas to see the Humboldt Penguins... yes I'd seen plenty of Penguins in Antarctica but these were different ones :0) Alas it wasn't to be - the winds were high, the sea too rough and the boat trips were cancelled. At least for the next 3 or so days and I didn't have the time to stay for longer. Another thing for the 'next time' list!

Fortunately my second 'must do' was far more successful!! I'd met a couple in India who'd travelled extensively in South America and said one of the best things they'd done was a visit to an observatory in the Elqui Valley. Which is how at 9pm one evening we came to be in a minibus zooming (does anyone in this country drive slowly??!) our way to the Mamalluca observatory. A combination of the clear atmosphere, stable climate and distance from city lights makes the Elqui Valley an ideal spot for star gazing, a fact reflected by the number of international observatories that have been built here, each with amazingly powerful (and very expensive!) telescopes. To visit those you need to be organised and arrange your visit in advance. Which is where Mamalluca comes in - its an amature observatory rather than a research observatory (the telescopes here just aren't powerful enough) so you can book a tour for the same day. The guides were enthusiastic and knowledgeable though and for us novices it was perfect! And I have to say it is one of the best things I've done in South America. I've never been into astronomy but like the rest of the group I listened, completely enthralled, as our guide gave us a tour of the stars, explaining why some seemed red, others blue and how what looked like one solitary star with the naked eye was infact 10 different stars when viewed through the telescope. We looked at the rings around Saturn but the highlight for me was the moon. Seeing it in the sky at night and then though a telescope... just, wow!

I spent the next day busing it up and down the Elqui Valley, through spectacular scenery that alternated between arid desert scattered with cactus and vast expanses of irrigated farmland - oddly the lush green of the farms contrasting against an arid background of mountains actually added to the beauty of it. And then it was time to head on again - Chantal and Jeremy were hot footing it all the way up to Arica and I was off to the Atacama desert.

Next up, Altiplano, salt lakes and flamingos... lots of them

Additional photos below
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29th July 2009

Oh man, these pictures of Valparaiso really bring back some good memories of back in February when I was there. I really loved that city, the graffiti is just amazing. You could walk for days on that hill, down alleyways and never see the same artwork twice.
30th July 2009

Hello from Atacama
Hey! Love the blog. I'm on here, too. I currently live in the Atacama desert in Caldera. It's a ways from San Pedro (which is where I'm guessing you're going) but I've been there and it's amazing! Enjoy!
22nd August 2010

I almost cry when I see your pictures of my beloved Valparaiso, I recognize many of the streets you took photos of. I live in Sweden but my family and my heart is in Chile. Wonderful pictures, I hope you enjoy and see all of the beauty that Chile has to offer!

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