After taking as much of the hostel breakfast as possible, I set off today for Valparaíso (and, spoiler, am there now, in a very cold and empty dorm). The rather futuristic Santiago Metro was easy to navigate: for any metro fans out there, it’s very similar to Copenhagen.
**Specific useful information for anyone who needs it** From the Plaza de las Armas, I went Line 3 to the Universidad de Chile, then line 1 to the Universidad de Santiago. The Turbus / Pullman station is in front of the station and buying a ticket was easy **
As you draw away from the urban sprawl of Santiago, the landscape forms dry, ochre mounds, which loom on either side of the road. An occasional settlement breaks up this dusty horizon, and it would feel alien to any European traveller. My journey was enlivened by the presence of my fairly sweaty male bus companion, who spoke in very fast Spanish as I gazed and swooned at the scenery.
Once in Valpo (yes, I abbreviate perfectly good city names now that I’m a global traveller) I found myself a bit flustered in the crowded bus station, and accepted the first taxi I saw. If I were a better traveller / person, I would have boldly stepped upon a ‘micro’, the mini-vans that zoom around the centre. The taxi man actually shaved a good 2000 pesos off the cost of the journey as I was ‘tan simpatica’ (she boasts shamelessly); was it the unwashed hair or the listless exhaustion that did the trick?
Bags deposited in Hostal Voyage, I wandered around the attractive white streets nearby and, over iced pineapple juice, formulated a game plan in the (highly pleasant) café at the Museo de las Bellas Artes. It was then that I realised that the ascensores (extremely steep lifts connecting Valpo streets) were not just an amusing relic, but an integral part of travel in the city. I looked over the side of the ascensor ‘El Peral. I called my parents. I delayed. And then I finally paid the 100pesos towards my funereal contributions, and embarked.
Reader, it was obviously fine, they’ve been operating for a century. Still, I was glad to have reached firm ground once again. Firm, urine-scented, rainbow downtown Valparaiso hit me in full throttle, and I felt quite overwhelmed as I walked through the centre. There is a certain edge of danger and poverty – homeless men drinking in the streets, lack of street signs, cars and micros almost knocking you over at every turn – but it is so full of life and art that you feel a great tingling sense of energy that expands as you move, from the grand colonial streets to the unmarked street vendors and past the outstanding street murals.
As I reached the top of the very steep hill where the neo-classical Museo Maritimo Nacional sits, the air began to clear, the noise to drain away. From this vantage point I could see the vast amphitheatres of the bay, surrounded by blocks and blocks of high-rises, houses, and shops.
The Maritime Museum was rather attractive: over two airy white floors, with a central terrazza and wooden floors, it seemed to be about to set sail into the harbour that lay just beyond. Exhibits were varied and interesting & it made for a comprehensive explanation of Chilean naval history (though without mentioning the theft of the Bolivian coastline…).
With a brief plunge back into the colour of the Barrio Puerto, I re-ascended to the Museo de Bellas Artes, and spent a couple of hours looking at the small collection of European & Chilean works there. The best were paintings of the 19th century Valparaíso port, depictions of a clean and orderly area which was unrecognisable from the dirt and life of my first day.
Day Two !
Spent 20 minutes in the empty dorm staring at the same page in my guidebook. Would I make the trek to Isla Negra, a remote rocky outcrop which holds one of Neruda’s three houses? The guidebook made it sound a mere hop/skip/jump away, but TripAdvisor told me it was actually an hour and a half on the bus – not to mention getting to the bus station, or waiting around there. After a lot of over-tired back-and-forth, I eventually rejected this 3hr-round trip. Instead, I set off to La Sebastiana, his weird Valparaíso home.
It took a substantial and confusing climb up through the city to reach my destination, plus several interventions by locals, and I found myself relieved to see a large tour group going into the house. Constructed to appear like a boat, its bright block colours jut out over a wide view of the bay below.
Inside, Neruda’s space is spread over six floors. Each is inhabited by an eclectic population of paintings, objets d’art, books and much else besides: the eccentric interiors all watch over the port through floor-to-ceiling windows with panoramic vistas. My favourite floor was the third, where the Egyptian blue salon holds a private bar filled with magnums of champagne and brandy, and a circular fireplace sits at the centre. Nosying round a small selection of his books in the top floor bedroom also piqued my curiosity – he clearly had a bit of a thing for Nancy Mitford.
Walked through the Museo a Cielo Abierto before getting very lost (it is a VERY CONFUSING LAYOUT and Rough Guides frankly did NOT prepare me for this!). Walked up and down and around in circles before realising I had to go on the ascensor down into town.
Took a sandwich-centered pause before going into the Museo de Historia Nacional, in the very pretty café there. The Museo itself was reassuringly like the British Museum & I enjoyed a couple of hours there wandering around the stuffed animals and pretending to read about different microclimates.
Considering my intellectual explorations completed for the day, I re-ascended to Cerro Concepción and languished in a posh colonial café for a couple of hours, where all around me elegantly descended into cheerful intoxication. I made friends with a man, around 75, who sat in crisp linen looking over the sea: he had lived in Valpo all his life, and had owned a shipping company. Now he enjoyed meeting new people as they travelled through his city. As the conversation drifted to a natural conclusion, he paid my bill and wished me well. It was as if I had briefly stepped into the pages of a book.
To end the day I chose to visit El Internado, a bar a few minutes away from my hostel. There I met some other travellers, and also two Pisco sours, so I don’t really remember what else happened. Learning experience = spirit measures not so strictly controlled in Chile as in the U.K.