Valparaíso is one of those places that travellers rave about as a cool place to visit. We had heard and seen a lot about the city but it predominantly centred around the insane and amazing Red Bull Cerro Abajo (literally translated as downhill) urban cycling race that is held on the steep streets each year. Sadly the race was held one week before we arrived in town, so we didn’t get to watch it live but we did discover that Valpo definitely deserves its reputation.
The port city is sprawling, chaotic, eccentric and colourful (literally). Its ~300,000 inhabitants are spread out over 42 tightly packed hills (cerros) and valleys, making the city’s topography a little bit crazy. Downtown hugs the flat coastline and is arranged in a regular grid pattern, but the majority of the other neighbourhoods rise up onto the surrounding 400m hills through a sinuous maze of narrow streets. There are also several funiculars that allow pedestrians to move between the valleys and hills more easily. They are mostly around 100 years old and look like garden sheds on rails, definitely one of the interesting quirks of the city.
Valparaíso is also renowned for its chill vibes and incredible street art, the latter contributed it to it being awarded UNESCO world heritage status. However we had also heard stories of it being a dangerous city for tourists and it generally being quite rough. When we arrived our first impressions were that it was a gritty, rough-around-the-edges kind of place (though admittedly we did ride in on some questionable back roads) and our hostel warned us of a few areas not to stray into as gringo tourists. Thankfully our experience of being there was totally awesome and we never felt like we were in a ‘dangerous’ city when walking, getting the bus or the trolebus.
Our first night in Valpo we stayed in a hostel right in the tourist centre of town, Cerro Alegre (happy hill), but for the following 3 nights we had our second experience of the trip using Couchsurfing. Sebastian was an amazing host and gave us some great recommendations for things to see. He also taught us how to cook sopaipillas, a Chilean pumpkin bread that you deep fry, and an incredible sweet sauce containing molasses, cloves and cinnamon to go with them. Staying with him made our time in the city really memorable. Using Couchsurfing, Warmshowers or Airbnb to find accommodation is turning out to have so much added benefit over staying in a hostel or hotel as the local knowledge you get from your hosts is invaluable. It’s normally a great way to practice speaking Spanish too!
We spent the majority of our time in Valpo just wandering the streets looking at the graffiti. The scale of some of the murals was super impressive but just the amount of street art in general was incredible. It felt like every time you turned a corner there was more impressive works to look at. Pictures do it more justice than my ramblings though.
There is art everywhere you look and so much of the work is seriously impressive, especially as a lot of it is on a huge scale. We also think that there is a deeper meaning behind some of the artists’ work, in particular the mural of the man with the Chilean flag on his tie, which he is pulling at as though it is choking him. Any thoughts?
While in Valpo we took a train to neighbouring Viña del Mar, primarily to replace Ben’s bike tyre and buy a few other things for the bikes. Despite the two cities being of roughly equal population and geographically they are essentially joined together they could not be more different. Viña is super clean, orderly and very modern feeling with its straightforward grid layout and high-rise buildings. It was an enjoyable afternoon there walking on the beach and visiting the many awesome bike shops but the city itself definitely lacks character in comparison to Valparaíso.
Leaving Valpo was definitely a little sad, not only because we had been staying with some great people and it had been a brilliant few days but also because it was our last major cycling destination in Chile (at least for now). Our trip is now about to detour off the well-cycled Andean route and we are heading almost due east all the way to the Atlantic coast. The first time on the trip we will have been away from the Andes. From the early planning stages of the trip we wanted to visit Iguazu Falls and as that involves crossing most of Argentina we decided to make it a more worthwhile detour and see Uruguay, southern Brazil and Paraguay on the way.
So our next few thousand miles will be a bit different to what a lot of cyclists do in South America, but from what we have heard from people we have met on the road it should be an awesome ride. First though we have to leave Chile, and it sounds like there is a small hill in the way. Next stop: Paso Los Libertadores.
See you on the other side.
Ben and Steph