And so our path winds on, figuratively of course but in this instance quite literally also. Those who have taken the road from Mendoza to Valparaiso (or Santiago) will recall quite vividly the meandering highway that greets those upon entering Chile. It seems the people responsible for this particular stretch of tarmac fully embraced the idea that there is little point to descending or ascending a mountain in a calm gradient – but rather the quickest way down would be to construct a road boasting twenty-something tightly packed hairpin corners stretching all the way to the very foot of those snowy peaks we had just crossed. A bizarre but interesting introduction to Chile!
We heard from other travellers we had met along the way that Valparaiso was a destination not to be missed in Chile, a city that conjures all manner of adjectives, both good and bad. The city played its part in the California gold rush as the primary exporting port for Chilean wheat bound north up the Pacific, as well as other goods from all over South America which needed to make their way towards America’s west coast. Unfortunately for Valparaiso, its merchants and their business
deserted the city thanks mostly to a devastating earthquake in 1906 (particularly devastating for Valparaiso since the entire city is built on steep hills, hence the San Francisco comparisons) and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, rendering the port all but useless from an international maritime trading standpoint. As with all such areas that have housed societies’ elite and experienced short lived financial success, what is left behind is a mixture of interesting streets and buildings; grand but aged mansions which in subsequent years have been inhabited by all manner of interesting beings.
We opted to stay in the area of Cerro Concepcion overlooking the port and most of the city itself. In our taxi from the bus station, we were welcomed into the heart of Concepcion with cobbled streets and lots of street art and graffiti, a sight not unlike many of the cobbled streets in Santa Theresa, the area where we stayed back in Rio de Janeiro. However, there seemed something a little more distinctive about Cerro Concepcion, which with its corrugated metal structures for houses adorned in mismatched, colourful paint (which we later learned was left over’s from paint used for ships
in the dockyards below) it provided a little glimpse of what La Boca in Buenos Aires may have been in the not too distant past before it endured as a tourist magnet. As a refreshing alternative, Concepcion is a living, breathing area; a bohemian pocket of energy in a vibrant city.
The graffiti of Cerro Concepcion alone necessitates its own account. Around every corner is a unique story, a tale to be told on each brick. On some corners we saw different odes to beloved former President Salvador Allende, a hero in the eyes of the nation who on September 11th
1973 took his own life rather than live in shame under the US backed Augusto Pinochet military coup (and terrific decision that turned out to be from the good ol’ US of A!). Wandering down another alley, we saw a particularly provocative depiction of a woman stripped down to her underwear, legs wide open and arms wrapped around the back of her head, the name of which we later learned was El Pollo al Treladore, or “The Chicken by the Nightstand.” This particular image we later learned makes light of those bosses who leave work during
the day for a lunch time liaison with their secretaries, a supposedly common occurrence in this city. Our personal favourite were the large words “Tiene Problemas?” inscribed on one particular corner accompanied by a noose dangling ominously from a street lamp above – we didn’t need to know Spanish to understand the meaning.
In order to take in the sights beyond the nooks and crannies of our own neighbourhood, we decided to attend the ‘Tours4Tips ’ walking tour of Valpariso, a voluntary setup where someone from the city takes tourists around the more notable areas and some of the less well known also. As the name suggests, once the tour is over, you tip the guide based on how much you gained from the experience. We got to learn various things about Valparaiso including about Monumento a los Heroes de Iquique, a revered statue commemorating a story about the Bolivian-Chilean war, were once upon a time, a now famous Chilean Naval Captain daringly jumped aboard a Bolivian vessel along with a number of his crew, only to be slaughtered soon after! This heroic/naive act galvanised a nation and subsequently resulted in the ‘big push’ which earned Chile
victory. ‘To the victor go the spoils’ I believe is the saying, and in this case, the Chileans discovered the area of land confiscated from Bolivia, which is now northern Chile, had incalculable amounts of copper beneath the surface, resulting in Chile becoming perhaps the most economically stable South American nation in recent times (leaving Bolivia land locked and now the poorest of South America’s countries). No wonder the statue is revered!
Overall the tour was a good experience if you want to learn about a city in only a short space of time. We finished the day in one of Valparaiso’s more vibrant local bars, where we found families eating unhealthy portions of steak, cheeseburgers and ‘Completo’s’ whilst excitedly watching the Copa Libertadores on the television. The ‘Completo’ as I’m sure you are wondering, is a large hotdog filled with onions, tomato salsa and guacamole and topped with a hefty serving of mustard, a heart-attack in a bun which I had to try. Like all foods which endanger your health, it was delicious!
The following morning we caught a bus for Santiago. A comfortable bus ride (where the speed of the vehicle is
displayed on a digital monitor throughout the journey – safety first!) and a comically dubbed Hollywood movie later and we were in Chile’s capital city.
We checked ourselves into Aji Hostel, in the city’s eastern district, where we found our accommodation teeming with guests. It was not hard to explain the reason for this, as the hostel offered free dinner along with breakfast and naturally the crowds flocked! If you have endless energy to meet new people and party, whilst being able to pinch those pennies, then this is the hostel for you. We are by no means anti-social but we probably draw the line at fifty people cramming themselves into a small living room just to get a free dinner (yes, we were two of the fifty and we perhaps naively expected the place to be a little quieter!).
Santiago as it turned out was a rather dull city, gray of buildings and sky (a smog which apparently engulfs the city all too frequently). Since we would only be spending one full day in the city, we had heard that the Human Rights Museum was very interesting so decided that we would take
in the museum amongst other things in the city. The museum itself was indeed fascinating; housed in a modern structure and boasting four floors all dedicated to explaining the horrors that took place under the Pinochet regime, one which was ignored for too long in the western world. Whilst many of the displays were in Spanish, there were many videos with English subtitles to watch, each representative of a different period of the regime. Despite the lack of English on some of the displays, the museum is one of the more interesting and engaging we have been to and definitely worth a visit.
The remainder of our day was spent wandering around the central areas of the city, including the Plaza de Armas, a social place for local families to come and relax or take in some of the street performances taking place (or for chess enthusiasts to pit their wits against other players in intensely contested games).
I’ve no doubt we could have spent more time in Santiago and taken more from the experience but it seems that much of what makes Chile special is found outside of its cities, in the likes
of the Torres del Paine, a place we both really wanted to visit but giving the frigid temperatures at this time of year it seemed our timing for this particular destination was off. Instead, we found ourselves excited to continue our travels up north into the driest desert in the world, a place where weather conditions and the like are much less of a concern in terms of timing...
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