Monday, July 18, 2011

Valparaiso- early April 2008

The day after the Villarica trek's soaked ending, I woke up thinking I was going to Mendoza, decided by midday to go to Santiago, resisted persuasions from my latest group to go to Valdivia, and ended up on the bus to Valparaiso. I had left Patagonia after about 2.5 months there. But before I reached my destination, there was an unpleasant surprise: I was careless enough to leave my camera in plain sight and fall asleep on the bus, and when I woke up it was gone. Fortunately, I had spent a good chunk of time uploading and backing up all my pictures just before boarding this bus, so nothing was lost. Except, of course, the camera itself. But I had found that camera anyway (that's a different story, though...).
Valparaiso (AKA Valpo) is probably the most “south american” city I had been to at that point: loud, busy, unorganized, blending many European/colonial, local, and just plain strange architecture styles, colourful, and most of all- full of life. It's strange that it's in Chile...
The city is heaven for picture-takers, and even I got bitten by the photo bug... it's just that from every single street corner you have a good angle either down or up. It is built on a bay surrounded by about 40 hills, each hill constituting a different neighbourhood, and most of them unconnected with the others. So basically you have to go down to the flat part (which is, surprisingly, the center of town) to go up to the next one. The height differences make the city have a staggering, vertigo-causing view: you can walk on a flat street and the next house will be a good 50m above your head. The houses themselves mostly look stacked on one another, they're very very colourful, built in varied styles, and once in a while there's a broken down or burnt house in the middle of two very well kept ones. In short, it's a big balagan (a mess, for non-Hebrew speakers...). 
The hills are built up with many alleyways, stairways, staired alleyways and the pride of the city: the Ascensores (or elevators, for non-Spanish speakers). The Ascensores are basically a one cart train on an inclined railway- they used to be the only way up and down, but now they're mostly tourist attractions. I wouldn't want to drive a car up or down one of the hills though- many many blind turns, and almost always on one-lane streets. Drivers are constantly honking before the turns, to avoid unwelcome surprises.
The city also boasts lots of street art and graffiti (most of it anarchistic, pro-communist and, oddly enough, anti-nazi. Salvador Allende's face is very prominent on the city's walls), and lots of mugging- all of them probably helped by the impossibility of patrolling all of the little alleyways. Other attractions include great seafood and the house of Pablo Neruda (a poet, and arguably the most famous Chilean in history), and it is considered a very young and vibrant city and the cultural center of the country. 
Next to Valpo is it's antithesis- Viña Del Mar. It's more or less the Eilat (or Cancun, if you're so inclined) of Chile- beaches, rich people, lots of hotels and ugly buildings on the seashore, and a Mcdonald's (and Pizza Hut, etc...). I have to say it I got immense pleasure out of the realization that it was the first chain restaurant I'd seen in more than 2 months. I spent a nice day at the beach, but let's just say that I liked Valpo more.
Valparaiso was the first place where I can say I spent a few days traveling alone. For some reason, I didn't really click with anybody in the hostel, or maybe our daily plans just didn't fit in together. I spent 4 days in the city, mostly just walking around, taking pictures, reading and writing. For lunch I would go to one of the two port-markets and eat either fish or seafood. And then I would walk around some more. I spent the evenings cooking with people from the hostel, and I can cite two half memorable anecdotes from these cooking sessions: planning on making a lentil stew for 2 other people and me, and it ending up feeding about 12 (they only had 1.5kg bags of lentils at the store nearby); and teaching 4 British girls how to make shakshuka, and- much more important and difficult- how to pronounce shakshuka. I spent a lot of time drinking with a guy called Chip, who had defaulted on some loans in NYC and was traveling around for a long time because he couldn't get back to the US (not that he necessarily wanted to...) and another guy, who on the third night turned out to be the hostel owner. He liked to keep a low profile, and mingle with the backpackers. I appreciated that.

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