Valparaíso, a 90 minute bus ride from Santiago, is like a downmarket prostitute living next to more refined and glamorous neighbours. Compared to Viña del Mar a few miles along Chile’s coast, she’s shabby, filthy and good for a laugh. Once one of the most important seaports in the world, it’s no wonder sailors and pirates kept coming back for more.
I took a bus from Santiago to this ramshackle port and fell instantly in love. Higgledy-piggledy houses, each more brightly coloured than the next, perched on steep hillsides overlooking the Pacific. A world away the smog and sterile malls of the Chilean capital, Valpo – as it’s affectionately known – was a jumble of architectural styles and peeling paint.
A short walk from the bus terminal stood the Cardinal Market. Traders spilled out onto the street, selling fat carrots, courgettes and fresh herbs out of boxes and shopping trolleys. Shouts of ‘Bueno, bonito, barato!’ (good, nice and cheap!) filled the air as housewives haggled over the size of their pumpkin slices and snoozing cats guarded the tomatoes. Inside, stray dogs salivated over strings of chorizo dangling tantalisingly out of reach and flies buzzed around the vats of olives and slabs of goat’s cheese.
I followed my nose up to El Rincon de Pancho on the second floor, a restaurant favoured by locals who come here for the fresh fish specials. I nabbed a seat by the window and dunked bread into a huge, steaming bowl of mussels, clams and prawns in a sizzling fish stock. I munched happily as hawkers tried to sell me calculators and nail clippers and troubadours sang sea shanties at my table for a few coins.
The downtown area teemed with life. Old-fashioned grocers measured freshly-ground coffee into little white packets and shoe-shiners worked up a sweat as they polished. Hotels offered rooms with double beds and video at an hourly rate. The metallic sound of cranes loading up ships at the dock was a reminder that this is still very much a working port town. I kept expecting to see Popeye arm-wrestling Bluto around every corner.
Away from the noise and clamour, it’s Valpo’s hills (Cerros) that make the city famous. Antique funicular elevators creaked and clanked their way up the steep inclines to the labyrinth of streets and pretty houses above. I took Ascensor Concepción up to Paseo Gervansoni and spent a contented afternoon getting lost among the narrow allies, admiring the painted murals and sneaking glances over my shoulder at the shimmering sea below.
Chilean friends had warned me of the dangers of wandering the hills at night. Having lingered rather too long in the craft shops, boutiques and cafés of Cerro Alegre, I suddenly found myself alone in the gathering gloom on a badly-lit staircase with a man drinking wine from a tetra pack ahead of me. With rising panic, I clutched onto my rucksack. “Where are you from?” he rasped as he lurched towards me. My heart sank. “Manchester, England”, I mumbled. “Manchester! What about Ronaldo? Can you believe that he’s going to Real Madrid for 80 million? What a traitor”. We nodded in agreement for a moment, before he asked me if I liked Valparaíso. “Very much,” I smiled in relief as I continued on my way, “very much”.
After checking into Hostal Caracol on Cerro Bellavista (where the spacious dorms and outdoor bbq area made up for the indifferent service), I headed out for an old-fashioned knees up. First stop was Casino Royal J Cruz. With a strong smell of chip fat and wall to wall glass cabinets laden with trinkets and oddities, this friendly restaurant was like an mad old lady’s living room, albeit with graffiti on the tablecloths. A favourite haunt of students, the plump, smiley waitresses were only serving one thing – Chorillana – a huge plate of chips, onion, scrambled egg and fried beef. It may have looked like a heart attack waiting to happen, but by God it was tasty.
A block or two away was Cinzano, a legendary night-spot where locals dress to the nines and shimmy away to the live music on the tiny stage. The waiters were grumpy and there was more beer sloshed on the floor that in the glasses but the atmosphere alone made it worth a visit.
The next morning I climbed Cerro Bellavista to pay my respects to one of the cities most famous ex-residents, Pablo Neruda. Described by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language”, Neruda’s quirky hilltop house is now open as a museum. It’s an impressive piece of real estate. There on the top floor, with a sweeping view of the bay, sat the old desk where he penned much of his Nobel prize-winning verse. Neruda loved this city, writing in his ‘Ode to Valparaíso’: “Crazy port… Never time to put your clothes on.. Death has caught you naked with only a hat, and a name tattooed on your belly”. It’s a fine way to describe this fur coat and no knickers kind of town, whose residents, like the place itself, are a little rough around the edges but well worth getting to know.
There are no direct flights to Valparaíso from England. Flights to Santiago from London cost from £690 return in December and take about 18 hours depending on airline and connections. Regular buses leave Santiago for Valparaíso from the Pajaritos Bus Station and cost around 7,000 return. The journey takes an hour and a half. A double room at Hostal Caracol (Hector Calvo 371, Cerro Bellavista. Tel: +56 32 2395817 www.hostalcaracol.cl). costs 26,000 pesos or 8,000 for a dorm bed. For a room with a view, Zero Hotel (Lautaro Rosas 343, Cerro Alegre. Tel: +56 32 211 3113 www.zerohotel.com ) has suites for 169,000 pesos. The Gran Hotel Gervasoni which has been beautifully restored has rooms from 102,000 pesos (Paseo Gervasoni 1, Cerro Concepción. Tel: +56 32 223 9236 www.hotelgervasoni.com).
Spring and Summer are the best times to visit (October to March) and the New Year’s Eve firework display over the bay is legendary. Book hotel rooms well in advance for Dec 31st and beware, prices go off the scale. June is the rainiest month and it can be cold and cloudy during the winter (June – August).