On my flight to Chile, I met Gaby, a lively social worker from Valparaiso. She started smiling at the smallest of excuses, and it looked like it was hard for her to stop. She didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak any Spanish, but we managed to exchange numbers, and have a staccato conversation, through the magic of technology, hand waving, and friendly smiles. I told her I would call her when I got to Valparaiso, which wouldn’t be for another month or so. My plan was to fly from Santiago to the north of Chile, where I would spend a few weeks, and then make my way back slowly by land to Valparaiso.
It took less than one day for my plans to change completely. At my hostel in Santiago, I met David, who was traveling north towards San Pedro by bus and walk. David was a 40-year old from Spain who was traveling the world at the behest of his dying mother. I related with his desires, so I decided to betray my flight plan and join him. It was thus that I found myself in Valparaiso within three days of landing in Chile.
I had booked an Airbnb, my first, hosted by a reticent twenty-something called Lautaro, and his mom. When Chile was taken over by a dictator in the seventies, their family had been forced to flee to Sweden because his father was a rock musician. They had returned to Chile when things had calmed down, somewhat, because they loved their country. Their house was on top of a hill and my window looked over the hills that the city was built on top of.
The next day, I did what I do in every city that offers it: take the “free” walking tour. These tours help me get an idea of what to look for in a city, because I’m usually unprepared, and have very little idea what to do when I get somewhere.
The english tour in Valparaiso had only five travellers that day: a german couple, a woman from Holland, a woman from Australia, and me. The Australian had just done the Torres del Paine circuit in the south, and she really got my hopes up for how much I would enjoy it. I remember her telling me that the hike was really hard, and could not be done without a guide. This was her second (or third) time in Chile and she intended to keep coming back. Each trip, she would spend a month in a different part of Chile. This seemed like a great way to travel, even though I didn’t have enough money to keep flying to-and-fro from India. The two germans were nice, and I kept running into them over the next few days.
We drank pisco sours and ate empanadas; that was our introduction to Chilean food. Empanadas remind me of samosas in that they are dough wrapped around a filling. Every country in South America seems to have its own opinions on how to cook them and what they should look like. Chilean empanadas are usually deep fried, and the traditional filling is minced beef with a boiled egg, one (!) olive, and one (!) raisin.
There was a dog that got attached to us on the walking tour. At the end the tour, she bit a man who was looking for his daughter because he happened to pass in the midst of our group!
From all the history that I learnt on the tour, all that I remember now, is that Valparaiso is the major port in Chile. Some government offices, but not all, have been moved here and the whole town has been built up over very steep hills. The roads do go up to the top of the hills, meandering their way around because the hills are too steep for cars. However, there are also steps if you want exercise. If you don’t want exercise, or the hills are part of your commute, there are ascensors, which are basically rickety wooden elevators on a railway track. These ascensors are now tourist attractions; it is fun to go up on them and pretend to be scared at the sounds of century old wood creaking against more-than-a-century old track, but I don’t really see what the fuss is all about. It is cheap and convenient, though.
For a late lunch that day, I had a traditional chilean sea food soup called Caldillo de Congrio. It’s usually made from the congrio eel, which is found only in Chilean waters. The one I had contained some other fish, not that I would have been able to tell the difference. The soup was not delicious, but it was comforting. Valparaiso seemed to offer to me real, honest Chilean food. But the cuisine itself hadn’t impressed me much. The Chileans have great produce (at least five different kinds of avocado!), and great meat too. So much opportunity, and all they’ve done with it is make crappy sandwiches with unreasonable amounts of mayonnaise (completos, they’re called), and fries with meat. Awesome drunk food, though.
Sure, you could argue that if I had spent some time exploring, I would have found great local dishes, and I did have great fish just a few days later while walking to the next down. But I will say this: I’ve never felt as unimpressed by a country’s cuisine as I have in Chile. The seafood was good, the chorillana (fries with meat and onions and stuff on top of it) was good when drunk, the empanadas were okay, and nothing else was great. The only dish that stands out in my mind today is the salsa pebre, a sauce made just like normal salsa, but much spicier, and with local chillies.
What Valparaiso is really famous for, however, is not its food. It’s the street art, that lives and breathes on every corner of every street, most stairs, and almost all walls. As the city grew and the street art became more and more popular, graffiti was popping up everywhere (except for that one white ship-shaped house whose owners keep fighting a losing battle with what I presume they think are vandals, always painting over the graffiti), so the government commissioned professional artists to come and paint all over the city. The results are very, very impressive. There’s a grandmother and a kid that keep showing up in different places with different expressions and toys, there are politicians shaped like animals, odes to love and peace and happiness, stories and authors, and characters and crazy imaginings. There is one street that is an open air museum, which has street art painted by famous international painters. Just walking through the city, looking at the street art, and pausing before ones that spoke to me, was enough for the city to win me over. “I could live here,” I wrote in my diary.
The following day, I met Gaby for lunch, and in the evening, her friends and David came along as well. We drank and danced and ate chorillana. Everyone other than me spoke in fast Spanish. I liked that everyone kept smiling and trying to talk to me, but also that they weren’t putting too much into translating for me. We met a few times over the next few days. I made chai for them and they fed us hungry travellers a home-cooked meal. But what was incredible was that, four days ago, I was wondering how I would cope with traveling alone in a country without a plan or a common language, and here I was now, drinking, and dancing with the locals!
One morning over the next few days, I visited Pablo Neruda’s house. He had multiple (three?) houses, mostly to separate his mistresses. I didn’t know much about the house or about him, before I went, except that he had won the Nobel prize for literature. It turns out he was quite a character, perfectly clear in what he wanted from life. His poetry – from what little I read of it – was amazing. The imagery in his poems is absolutely astounding, if always a little melodramatic when it comes to love. He was a diplomat, a poet, a writer, had a wife and two mistresses, and was also famous as a great host for parties. He is almost universally adored in Chile.
The house in Valparaiso is built over five floors, each floor housing artefacts and antiques from all over the world, playfully, but carefully scattered. The whole house feels like a place that would make you go have a beer (or, in Neruda’s case, wine or whiskey) with the owner.
Notwithstanding my opinion about the food, I took a cooking class, and that was a lot of fun. It was just three people (the german couple from the walking tour, and me) learning. We learned how to make pisco Sours (which we promptly drank of course), salsa pebre, avocados stuffed with chicken for starters, pastel de choclo (a corn based baked dish), and traditional beef empanadas. All of it was very tasty, and we finished with fruits with honey.
I left Valparaiso after five days, walking to the next town, Vina Del Mar. I know I landed in Santiago, but I think Valparaiso was where my journey through South America actually began.
[Based loosely on real incidents, but names have been changed, events have been played down or exaggerated, and characters mixed with each other, to avoid too much resemblance to the real people involved]
“Why don’t you dance with her?”, E asked him and pointed at G, who was already dancing. D looked over awkwardly at her. She looked at E, her eyes saying “What are you doing?”, and then smiled in D’s direction. They both looked shy. I don’t think their eyes made contact.
“And you?”, E turned toward me, her hips swaying to that irresistible Quechua rhythm.
“Oh no, I don’t dance”, I said and and picked up my beer, to indicate to her that I was comfortable where I was, in my seat. D and G were dancing in step now. She was teaching him the Quechua steps, and it did look like he was learning, albeit at a slower pace than anyone with any sort of talent. The song stopped and they separated, still awkward.
“Play us something from Bollywood”, one of the girls said. D thought for a bit, walked to the laptop and put on a song. He said the dance from the song is pretty famous, and the actress was Miss World at some point. The two guys dancing are father and son in real life, and in the movie, they’re thief and policeman.
“Teach us”, E exclaimed, as D was pointing out a step where the two guys were pulling their hands one by one in front of their eyes, while shaking their hips.
D looked at me. I started shaking my head, but before I was done, I found myself being pulled to standing.
For dinner, we had Chilean salsa with tortillas, guacamole, canned beans, and eggs. The food was accompanied by beer and free-flowing conversation about travel, politics, life goals, relationship goals, and everything else.
The next morning, as we were walking to Vina Del Mar, D thanked me for translating through the night. “It’s crazy. Four days ago, I was wondering how I would deal with not knowing Spanish. Then I met G on the plane, and she invited me to meet her and her friends, even though we could hardly communicate during the flight. Chilean people are awesome!”
“These girls weren’t real locals, you know. In Indonesia, when I was working on the farm, I would have lunch with the labourers . I couldn’t speak with them, and they couldn’t speak with me, but they still shared their food with me every day. We would sit in a circle, and smoke weed, before going back to work.”
“Just because they aren’t poor, doesn’t mean they’re not locals”, he said.
I sighed. “Those girls, they don’t represent real Chilean culture. To meet real Chilean people, you have to go to the farms, to the villages.”
“I don’t agree,” he said after seeming to think about it for a bit. “The farmers are real Chileans and these girls are, too. You’re a real spaniard, right?”
I was about to say something, but then we were both willingly distracted by seagulls flying to catch the entrails of fish thrown by the fishermen and women at the wharf we had just reached.
Valparaiso is only two hours (maybe three?) from Santiago. So fly into Santiago and take a bus. Getting bus tickets is a challenge if you don’t know Spanish, because different counters sell tickets to different places. From experience, I can say it’s not too bad, though. Just go to a counter, say “Valparaiso”. If they nod, it means yes and you give them money. If they give you change, you gave too much. If they start saying something pointing at the money, you probably gave too little.
Public transport in Valparaiso is okay, I guess. I think the bus only goes up and down the road by the sea. The most common mode of transport is the “Collectivo” which is a shared car ride with a predefined route. Kind of like a bus, but shaped like a taxi. They are safe and seem to run all night. The number on top is accompanied by a list of stops along the route, though you can ask to be let off anywhere. If you don’t know which number to take, just use Google Maps. My driver took me all around the city before I showed him my phone and he understood where I was trying to go.
Accommodations are aplenty in Valparaiso. Hotels and hostels have sprung up everywhere. You can find all kinds: cheap, artsy, party, peaceful, luxurious and so on.