We arrived in Valparaiso (Plaza O’Higgins) just after 1pm and headed for the information desk to pick up a city map and attempt to ask some questions in Spanish. I would like to say we are getting better at having a conversation and being understood, but that might be me being hopeful (and the fact that he understood very basic English). We then walked round the block to get on a trolley (a tram, basically, which loops the city centre) for 270 pesos (40p) each. Again, we managed to ask the right questions (Cuanto Cuesta?) but not understand the responses we got, but it is the best (and really only) way for us to learn and hopefully pick it up.
We jumped off at Plaza Victoria (a big, open square with grass and stalls) and started the walk towards the hostel we had booked for the night – La Casa Azul Hostel. Valparaiso is known for its cerros, which are hills, so unfortunately the “short” walk to our hostel was more like a slow hike, lugging our backpacks up 4 flights of steps in the soaring heat. We buzzed the gate to our hostel to then walk up some more stairs, to meet with a flustered receptionist who didn’t have our booking (nor a couple who were patiently waiting) and didn’t have space for us. We were told to wait while they rang their administrators with booking.com, although if they had no available beds I’m not entirely sure what it would achieve having us wait.
Fortunately we had been picking between this hostel and another one – Aereos Hostel – and the lady kindly phoned them for us to check they had space for us before we made another journey in the heat, which they did. So we left, walked back (down steps this time, thank god) to the plaza to get back on the trolley, pay another 270 pesos and continue the way we were going (I think I would have cried if we were going back on ourselves) to get off at the last stop at Plaza Aduana. We then walked 5 minutes uphill to be warmly greeted at the doorstep of Aereos by Juan, the owner, and taken into an open lounge/reception area that smelt distinctly of marijuana. That may explain why they were so relaxed about taking our payment, about the time of check out, and us leaving our luggage. But to finally be able to take our bags off our backs 2.5 hours after arriving in Valparaiso and settle into our dorm room, which was a very reasonable 7,500 pesos (£9.50) for a 6 bed dorm room with breakfast included, was just wonderful. Keen to explore Valparaiso – and also really hungry – we set out on foot from Plaza Aduana and back towards Concepcion.
As well as the hills, Valparaiso is known for its Ascensors, which are basically carriages that go up the hills on a track to get you to the top (or back down again) so one of the typical tourist “sites” is to walk around, looping the cerros and checking out the ascensors, taking them as and when you want for a fee of between 100 and 300 pesos per trip. Oh and you also stumble across a lot of colour, with the numerous painted houses and the copious amounts of street art graffiti scattered around the city.
Now, it was actually really hard to follow our map and not every street had road signs, plus so much of it is up, down or around hills that it can become quite confusing and not always easy to find the very thing you are looking for, so we found that when we let go of a finding particular destination it was much easier to explore and enjoy, and take it all in. Our favourite area, or cerro, would be Alegre as it was compact and cute, adorned with graffiti and little craft or souvenir shops, and you would catch wonderful glimpses of the port and navy ships right at the bottom of the hills below.
I really believe that people see beauty in different things and, for Katie and I, we were drawn in by the crumbling colourful houses, by locals sat on a doorstep having a chat, by the run-down cars covered in dirt parked up on the kerb… this place had so much character, colour and culture.
On our way back down from Alegre we looped through Concepcion – another area, or cerro, that also has an Ancensor but, being the oldest of Valparaiso’s ancensors having been built in 1883, it is now out of service. I also picked up a Chorizo and Queso empanada for 1,000 pesos, which was tasty and the pastry had a great crunch but the cheese had all sunk into the pastry.
We then walked down to the main roads and started our walk back to our hostel to stumble across some kind of festival where local kids and adults were performing dances or taking part in open dances to live South American music. So we pulled up a pew and sat and watched for half an hour, taking in the energy and the joy of the dances.
Once back at our hostel we quickly threw on some warmer clothes and headed back to the bottom of the road to take the Artillera ascensor up the hill (300 pesos) at around 9:30pm as they stop running at 10pm.
At the top of the hill the sun had almost set, so we had views across Valparaiso as daylight was coming to an end and as the street lights glittered the landscape. Even the cargo boxes looked pretty at this time of night.
Kate hadn’t eaten dinner yet so we decided to pop into a cafe at the top of the hill before making our way back to the hostel and were immediately greeted with energy and warmth by the owner/chef and his girlfriend. We were the only ones in there and they were nearly closing so as we stood there trying to decide what to order they kept giving us tastes of their different homemade juices (which were amazing) and handed us olives to snack on as I happened to mention my love of olives. They were so enthusiastic and kind, and patient with us as we insisted on practising our Spanish rather than have them make it easy for us by speaking in the English they knew.
After ordering and consuming our goods (Kate a salad and me a coffee, plus complimentary bread with the classic Chilean salsa Pebre, which is delicious and a standard complimentary snack offered with dine-in meals) we got into a conversation about the festival we stumbled across earlier and the type of dance being performed, and before we knew it we were learning the routine Cueca and dancing with them. They also taught us the phrase shouted at one another at the end, which, translated into English, is basically “motherf****r” but said fondly to friends!
They were honestly the loveliest couple and we were close-to-tears-laughing with them as we finally were leaving after 11pm when the tone suddenly changed as they asked us how we were getting back to our hostel. When we told them we would be walking down the hill they looked horrified, saying how dangerous it was at night and offering to drive us back to our hostel when they had closed up. We insisted we would walk so they then made Katie but her bum bag around her shoulders underneath her jumper and told us to come straight back if we felt unsafe. Talk about putting the fear of God in us! Having previously felt quite safe and relaxed, we stepped outside suddenly feeling very on edge and wary about every single person we came across, taking the bends down the hill at a very wide berth.
We made it back to our hostel in one piece and settled in for the night before getting up for our free breakfast at 9am, where we tucked into smashed avocado, melon, bread and dulce de leche. Juan kindly let us use his washing machine at his house across the street for free (we just had to provide washing powder) so we did our laundry before making use of the free bikes at the hostel to get around. We hadn’t booked our bus to La Serena yet so we first cycled back to Plaza O’Higgins to purchase our tickets, once again practicing our Spanish but being fortunate enough to have someone whom spoke English when it became tricky to deal with all our questions in another language.
We then cycled out to Polanco to take this ancensor – the only one that is actually an elevator – up the cerro for 100 pesos each. The most interesting part is the walk through the tunnel underground to get to the elevator, as although the views at the top are good they were not the best we have seen of Valparaiso. Although the highlight of this ancensor for me would be when Kate was trying to communicate with the guard about what we should go with our bicycles, using a combination of very broken Spanish and hand gestures to succeed in getting our bikes locked in the bathroom while we were gone. I did spend some of our walk down being unsure whether our bikes would still be there or if he would have sold them off in exchange for weed (a very popular and common thing in Chile, it would seem) but they were still there when we returned.
We then cycled back to our hostel alongside the water, hung up our wet laundry and dropped off the bikes, to then set back out on foot to the area/cerro of Carcel. A former prison site, we started by walking uphill in the wrong direction and only corrected ourselves when some kind local was curious as to why we were walking that way and stopped to see if he could help us. Help that, when struggling to communicate in different languages, I wasn’t in the mood for and didn’t have patience for; that is, until I realised he was right. So we walked back down part of the way and then walked the correct way up, following the map to try to find what might resemble an old prison cell, but to no avail. We once again learned that you can’t really have a particular destination in mind and, once again, it was when we gave up on this intention and freely walked that we stumbled upon some amazing street graffiti.
Oh and I also attempted my Spanish skills that afternoon in my desperate bid to search for some sort of frappe, or frozen coffee blended drink. I didn’t want an iced latte (cafe de hielo) but the blended kind, yet I had no idea how to say this in Spanish – nor did i know the word for frozen – so I attempted to explain myself using the words I did know, with the use of over-dramatic gesture, to communicate my needs to the amused waitress in the coffee shop. I ended up getting a drink that was blended with coffee and ice cream that was the runniest thing I have ever had that I threw half of it away (that’s probably a lie, though – more likely I inhaled the whole thing in 10 seconds flat, despite not enjoying it).
Back at our hostel around 7:30pm we spent the next couple of hours searching for a hostel for our time in Rio (during the carnival), collecting our dry laundry and drinking beers we had bought from the supermarket – I picked up two cans of 2.5% beers with hints of apple and lemon respectively. As the trolleys had stopped running by the time we went to leave, Juan kindly stood outside with us and hailed us a Colectivo – kind of like a taxi but you share it with others going in a similar direction and just jump on in one with space. Despite our driver not speaking Spanish we shared a common language through me wailing along to the Chili Peppers album he was playing, but he sort of ruined the atmosphere when we went to get out the Colectvio at the bus station and he warned us to be careful in this area, pointing at Katie with his hand in the shape of a gun and muttering “bang bang”. Right. Thanks.
With the fear of God inside us yet again, we waddled across the street with our arms linked and heads darting about to check the people around us (I swear this is actually what makes you susceptible to danger rather than prevents it) before grabbing whatever food we could find for dinner; would you believe it, empanadas. This time I had an average and lukewarm pino empanada, which is similar to what you would find in a Cornish pasty but it also had egg and two olives in this one! Honestly, 3 empanadas in 3 days and none have quite blown me away. But at least we made it for our 11:01pm bus to La Serena. Oh it’s going to be a fun night…