After our near-week stay in Santiago, we decided to head to see a bit more of Chile. The fact that Chile’s such a long and thin country means there’s quite a distance to many other towns and cities of interest (especially the erupting volcano that Dan wanted to see) – but two on the coast, Valparaiso and Vina Del Mar – are just an hour and a half away from Santiago by bus. (With buses almost every fifteen minutes to both, they’re also very easy to reach.)
Valparaiso was once known as the “Jewel of the Pacific”, and was an incredibly important port town globally before the Panama Canal was built (and ships no longer need to use the Magellan Straits), with it also seeing an influx of European immigrants during the early part of the 20th century. It subsequently fell into decline and visiting it these days, you can certainly see a town that’s seen better days – although it’s still very charming, not least because of its colourful houses and artistic graffiti. (Two parts of it – the Old Town and the port area – are also UNESCO World Heritage sights.)
There’s an incredibly laid-back vibe through much of it, almost to the point where you start wondering where everyone is! The town is also very famous for its funiculars, although from 21, few remain in operation – I’m not even 100% sure how many. (Different online reports say different things; our hostel host pinpointed five on our town map, although that only covered central Valparaiso.) We took one called Ascensor Concepcion (for 100 pesos each) which is the oldest one still working, having been built in 1883 – let’s just say that it’s incredibly rickety, and I’m glad it only went 50 metres up!
One of the main sights in the town is Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s house (well, one of them) La Sebastiana, which unfortunately was closed due to a strike the day we were there. We got to see the gate in front of his house, though… The town is best enjoyed by walking up and down its many hills, especially reaching the higher levels to take in the spectacular views below. Vina Del Mar – across the bay – can even be seen in the distance.
After a night in Valparaiso – at the incredibly comfortable and friendly Camila 109 hostel (what a breakfast! What a view!), we hopped on a metro to Vina Del Mar. The metro lies on the same route as the train that used to go all the way to Santiago (a shame that it still doesn’t) and for almost all of the way to Vina Del Mar, it does the very un-Metro-like thing of being above ground, travelling right along the sea.
Now, let me tell you about a slight kerfuffle we had upon reaching Vina Del Mar. I decided to Google Map the address of our guesthouse before we left Valparaiso, so we would have a vague idea of where we would be once exiting the closest Metro station. Upon reaching the town and said Metro station, we were pleased to flag down a taxi relatively quickly. Dan told the driver the address, and he paused a second before saying yes and popping the boot for our backpacks. That he had a woman sitting in the passenger seat was a little weird – but maybe she was a friend? His wife, accompanying him for the day? A stranger, very eager to chat? – but we ignored it, being the tourists that we are. That we were then flagged down by another woman who got in completely baffled us. But we then soon realised we weren’t in a taxi but a colectivo – a kind of shared taxi that operates a certain route, which passengers can hail and use to travel any distance on that particular route. He dropped us off and told us that the cross street was “San Jose” – which, of course, didn’t mean anything to us. Getting out our (pre-downloaded) Google Map, we found the driver had taken us in the opposite direction to where we wanted to go, and nowhere near where we wanted to be. (To explain our taxi/colectivo confusion – taxis in Chile are black with yellow roofs, and sometimes a small taxi sign. Colectivos are black with big signs on their roofs showing their route number. We just hadn’t taken in that last detail.)
We huffed and puffed a little (or actions to that effect) and set off trying to find a taxi – only to find that taxis don’t operate in Vina. Well, they do (I think we saw five the whole time we were there) but it seems you have to call one – which makes a change from most towns we’ve been to in South America, where a taxi passes by you almost every five seconds. With no taxi prospects, we walked all the way in the hot sun to the bus station (with our heavy backpacks, no less!), a place certain to have taxis. And there were. We were perplexed for the second time that day in a vehicle when he starting taking us all the way back to where we’d just walked from…can you guess why? Yeah, Google Maps was totally wrong. Thanks Google Maps. I bet Apple Maps would have worked, and Apple Maps is rubbish. So, the colectivo had taken us just around the corner to where we actually wanted to go, Google Maps had wronged us, and then we cursed the lack of taxis on the streets of Vina Del Mar.
Once we’d got past all that and reached our friendly guesthouse, we took a walk up Avenida Peru, one of the main roads right by the sea, with victorianas (horse-drawn carriages) plying their trade. Beyond this is one of the main beaches in town – and boy, was it packed! Definitely holiday season in Chile. We stopped off for a café helado (me) and juice (Dan – but only because he thought the waitress had said there was no more ice cream. No more ice cream – what a thought?!).
The next day we explored Quinta Vergara park (reached by another funicular – what fun!), a smallish park featuring trees from various far flung places across the globe. It’s also home to the arena that hosts the very famous Vina Del Mar Song Contest each February – Elton John is to perform this year, donchaknow! (Not in the actual song contest – I believe they also have world-famous artists performing inbetween the competition elements.) We went up to the Arena which was open for people to come in and take photos, and saw assorted workmen busy creating something on stage. I don’t know exactly what Elton’s got planned for his set, but it’s going to involve lots of sawn wood!
We also saw another Vina Del Mar classic – the flower clock! It’s just the clock face made of flowers (to Dan’s disappointment) – the actual hands and mechanism are not flora based.
We headed to get in our beach time afterwards – only to find the sea was insanely cold! That’s something to do with the Humboldt Current, which means the sea off the coast of Chile is always cold in summer. I went swimming in the Adriatic in May last year when the sea temp was about 17/18C – cold, but workable for a little swim. Here, it must have been around 13C – no good! That didn’t stop the Chilenos (and Dan) from taking part in the “getting thrown about in the waves” game. Red flags were flying at the beach so no swimming was really allowed – people instead amused themselves by standing in the water (around waist deep), waiting for the strong waves to throw them back onto the beach (usually partaking in some dramatic screaming), before repeating the whole process. There must have been hundreds of people thoroughly enjoying this game!
Being on a beach was definitely a birthday first – as was going to casino, which we visited in the evening. Well, we went into, walked around the (packed) slot machine area, briefly watched some of the blackjack tables, took a quick look at the Chile – Argentina game (Sudamericano Under-20 Championship)* playing on the TV screens and left. I wasn’t about to start gambling for my birthday!