Valparaiso, a town on the Pacific coast about 100 km from Chilean capital Santiago, is apparently a must-visit place. As such you have high expectations for it, since everybody says it’s so cool. Then you go an visit it and think out loud: what was all that fuss about? It is surely interesting with massive port activities. Our experience: it is the cerros, the colorful neighbourhood hills, that make Valparaiso interesting.
Viña del Mar on the other hand, is a town with a beach on the coast just next to Valparaiso. Otherwise, to us it seemed like the Canary islands or Ibiza to Europeans – somewhat worn out places to go on your break to seek sun, beach, party, chain restaurants and maybe a little jetset life on the side too. Sorry to say – Canary islands and Ibiza, such like Viña del Mar too, surely have interesting and exciting spots to see too, but the overall impression is normally still what counts. Still, here are our few highlights from both towns, which we still enjoyed a lot! Perhaps we were just spoiled with so many interesting and different sites on our round-the-world journey, but we were not too impressed, but happy to be able to visit them still.
Valparaiso’s bohemian cerros
The image we had of Valparaiso prior to our visit was that of a little bohemian rustic village by the sea. On the contrary, Valparaiso is far from tiny, but rustic and bohemian it surely is. We hear Valparaiso was originally established for to creme de Santiago and their holiday villas on the cerros, the hills overlooking to the sea. A good example is the house of Pablo Neruda, described better in the following. No wonder since the location is an ideal distance from the country capital Santiago.
Valparaiso is a port city with great port activity. The whole city is like one big bay area overlooking the port area. There are a few seafood restaurants byt the seaside, but otherwise there really isn’t a seaside area for recreational purposes. There is a main street on the coastline, but otherwise the coastal area is not suitable for strolling around. That’s one of the main things we disliked. Similarly, as the city is naturally spread towards inland, there are several blocks with no access to from the coastal street. You may have to several blocks to find a pathway, a stairway or a lift to downtown Valparaiso from the seaside.
Downtown of the city (literally, the lower part of Valparaiso) is rather spread between the main coastal street and the several cerros surrounding and overlooking the bay area. There are big avenues and parks, administrative buildings and commercial blocks. There are little squares with cafés and restaurants. And then there are backside alleys colourful, little wornout, sprayed, somewhat dirty and shady. We felt a little reserved and not at ease when walking these streets even on a bright daylight. Later we talked to a local from neighbouring Viña del Mar who confirmed our suspicions that the down part of the city can be a little unsafe. Guess that’s true for several port towns…
However, there are some nice parks with neatly taken care of gardens and equipped for families. For example, Plaza Mayor had a cute little tivoli and several toy and kid’s bike rental providers. And public toilets for just a little fee (not generally common). Just like in any other places we visited in Chile too, some of the parks are also equipped with sporting equipment at any user’s disposal.
And then, the cerros. The hills. Our all time favorites. There are about a dozen cerros in a half circle form surrounding the downtown are. Cerros can be quite high too, which means strenuous walk straight up the stairs for some hundred meters. Apparently there use to be cable cars running up and down to almost every cerro. However for some reason they were closed at the time we visited in February 2017. Looked like haven’t been running for a while either… So, you either walk up a couple hundred stairs or you take a cab and go around quite a ride (which is not bad either since taxi is quite cheap in Chile!). All in all, for some reason all the houses on the cerros seem to be painted in all different colours. Perhaps due to a similar reason than the coastal village houses in Italy: so that fisherman could see their own houses (and wifes) from the sea..?
Cerro Florida in quite the middle of the bay area is one of the most famous hills there is in Valparaiso. And that’s all because of La Sebastiana, the house of the world famous poet Pablo Neruda. It is a house the Noble prize winner poet (when he still was a Chilean ambassador) bought and turned into one of his favorite places to celebrate for example New Years Eve with big parties. Just like his house La Chascona in Santiago the house is nowadays a museum with a great audio tour around all of its five floors. Have to say it really was interesting as our 7-year-old son went thru the whole audio tour in English all by himself and he does not speak English… so the house really is a cool house with so many great details, interesting use of space and pieces of art. Photographing inside was prohibited, but out the windows allowed. This is a must see attraction when in town!
Beach place Viña del Mar
Viña del Mar is a town of about 330 000 inhabitants just north of Valparaiso. Originally this town grew around fishing village and apparently started to grow as Valparaiso needed to expand – and was lacking a proper beach. And this town definitely has the beach. Everything else was built around it. The beach area is filled with highrise buildings, apartment houses and some restaurants, malls and entertainment venues. Center of the town is actually on the left side of the river when coming from the mountain side towards the sea. Downtown area to us seemed quite worn out. It must have been neat and great once, but to us it reminded like popular places in Spain from the early nineties and this century. Nothing wrong with that, except that no renovation has taken place. Mostly visitors appeared to be elderly enjoying a warm place by the sea, party groups and younger couples visiting.
As the coastal line is hilly here too, Viña del Mar also has several cerros surrounding the downtown and beach area. We stayed just behind the sports park in Miraflor. Nice views from a great location, but quite poorly accessible as you would always have to take a taxi back after long walks and no energy climbing a hill afterwards. One Friday night we visited the beach with good intentions of going swimming and the beach was so packed with people you could not find a spot for a place to sit down! Plus the water seemed rather dirty from a distance.
One rather funny detail was an incident we encountered when trying to reach the beach: the street in front of an art deco Casino was closed due to Viña2017 festival about to start. Every year in mid February this town celebrates a musical festival that we had read about but did’nt know about before coming to the area. Apparently there was a big festival about to begin and with a gala night. That was closing all the streets. So there we were, looking at clearly something interesting, but that we no idea of. Later on in our travels in Argentina we watched TV and saw the Gala Viña2017 being the biggest musical event in South America… and during that gala night for example 1 million tweets were transferred with that hashtag!
Local busses run often and are very cheap. Switching between these two towns is easy – as was reaching them with a bus from Santiago too. A good stay on the coast if just visiting and cultural places and events, this is a perfect spot!
Dinner at our casa watching the sunset.