You know how we love a guided walking tour when we arrive somewhere new.
It’s a wonderful way for us to learn about a place we’ll be spending time in, of the history and social structures. And we see things we’re unlikely to if we just wandered around with a map (although we do love that too). Interacting with a local guide and with other travelers in the group is a fun and informative way to spend a few hours.
Tours 4 Tips, the group that guided our Santiago walking tour, also runs tours in Valparaiso (known as Valpo to the locals). We really enjoyed our experience in Santiago so it made sense for us to go with the same operators in Valpo. The guides wear a red & white striped t-shirt just like “Where’s Wally”. Kinda cute theme and it means that when you arrive at the meeting point they stand out and you just head over to join the group. The fact that we were promised a free tasting of a favourite Chilean cocktail did not in any way sway our decision to go with Tours 4 Tips.
We set off with our guide Ignatio, and as he headed us past deserted buildings he said that wealthy and prominent businessmen owned the massive homes with entire families all living there together. Some of the homes take up a whole block.
Valparaiso’s prosperity started to decline after the Panama Canal opened in 1914. Shipping traffic was greatly reduced, as there was no longer a need for ships to stop in at Valparaiso when transiting between the Atlantic and Pacific.
Once the port slowed down the wealthy families just abandoned the city, leaving the beautiful buildings to decay from neglect and earthquake damage. We were really saddened to realise that the homes will one day be torn down, as there is no money available to restore them.
The port still operates as the Chile Navy base as well as a cruise terminal and a very busy port for wine and produce exports, with lots of activity day and night.
During our wanderings around the lower levels of the downtown streets, the city offered up some really interesting architecture and we did get a sense that Valparaiso is in fact a functioning and vibrant city.
Then it was time to make our way to the top of the hills, and not by foot thank goodness. It didn’t take long for our rickety bus to come along and our group bustled in with the locals. They’ve seen gaggles of enthusiastic tourists before so I don’t think we were much of a spectacle to them.
Next thing the bus driver had us careering up ridiculously steep hills and then down and around treacherous turns. If we weren’t so excited to be seeing brilliant graffiti and outstanding views across the city we’d have been a bit on edge. We also figured (fingers crossed) that he knew what he was doing so we just hung out the window taking photos.
Finally at the top of the hill and out of the bus we hit the road (literally because the footpaths were a bit dodgy) and spent the next couple of hours wandering along cobble-stoned alleyways, steep staircases, past houses and buildings showing off vibrant bohemian street artwork like we’ve never seen before. The entire place really is an open-air art gallery, with most of the works often having hidden gestures and meanings.
Fabulous arty stairways.
We also got to snoop through fences into beautiful back yards.
Street art in Valparaiso came about during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet where local artists created wall murals in public spaces as silent protest to the oppressive and tortuous regime. The government painted over the artwork and almost straight away other works appeared. Since the end of Pinochet’s rule, the street art has really taken off, and artists come to Valparaiso from all around the world so they too can add their unique style.
Nowadays, the local government encourages and supports the street art scene and even commissions particular pieces around the city. Unfortunately there are those throughout the world that love to tag.
In most South American cities the hospitals, cemeteries and prisons were originally located on the outskirts of town and in the case of Valparaiso, at the top of the hills. Ignatio took us past the historical Cemetaria, and he told us that in the early days there was no cemetery in Valparaiso. People would just bring the dead bodies up to the top of the hills and throw them in amongst the forests.
We spent some time visiting the former prison site that, during Pinochet’s time, was used for torture and killing political prisoners. Ignatio spoke in detail about how the nearby residents were emotionally affected by the grizzly sounds and sights coming from the prison. The original stone munitions building still stands, it was used to store gunpowder and weapons by the government during the dictatorship.
Since those days the prison has relocated further out of town, and now after standing silent and empty for so long the building and grounds of this former tragic place have been transformed into a green and inviting cultural precinct. However, the locals are not really willing to spend time there because of the horrors that went on in their city, still those memories linger.
All along the way a local street dog joined us. When we boarded a bus the dog left us there, and then as soon as we got off the bus another dog would be there to keep us company. As in Santiago, local residents and shopkeepers care for the dogs and Ignatio told us that these dogs just love hanging around on the walking tours. There will always be a bucket of water left out for the dogs and we never saw any dogs appearing particularly hungry.
Back downtown we all boarded a funny old trolley bus that took us back to our starting point at the square.
Then Ignatio took us to a century old former palace for that promised free tasting. As the group waited for our highly anticipated treat we had time to admire the once the glorious home of an affluent trader. Although now a neglected shell, some of the rooms are occupied as offices, including a space rented by Tours 4 Tips.
As Ignatio offered around the tray of shot glasses he told us this mixture of cheap red wine and cola is what Chileans drink at the end of the night when they’ve run out of the good wine. We weren’t too sure about the mixture, but I’m pretty sure that “back in my day” I’d have gone for it. So just to relive my reckless youth I put my hand up when a second cup was offered. Quite tasty actually.
We realise now that Che Guevera rode the streets of Valparaiso back in the day, and in fact we really must watch Motorcycle Diaries again so we can grab a snippet of where we spent a wonderful few days. Wishing had more time.
When we left our group we were starving so decided to head partway back up the hill to a Belgian cafe that Ignatio recommended, for food and bevvies. Pisco sour for me, Belgian Leffe for Dave. Plus a brilliant plate of antipasti. Nice.
There was so much to Valparaiso that I just can’t explain in one little blog post. Our photos and my words really don’t do the place justice, so hopefully you can just take my word that Valparaiso is a really amazing city with surprises around every corner. Let us know if you decide to visit, we’d love to talk about it.
Thanks for following along. You’re welcome to leave a comment if you like 🙂