Ahhh, Chile. Another landmark country in my prolific travel career. Certainly one of the most distinctively contoured countries in the world, Chile’s impossibly long skinny shape represents a gigantic finish line for me. It is the 60th country I have visited, and it signifies the accomplishment of my long-held dream of visiting 60 countries before my 30th birthday. Chile is also the final destination of our trip and, most fortunately, one could not ask for a finer place.
Just when I thought the trip was winding down, I arrived in Neruda’s “Ocean’s Sweetheart”–Valparaiso, and found myself completely blown away. For me it was love at first sight, and I felt my mind struck suddenly to life once again. Within moments of wandering its intriguing alleyways, I found myself completely enraptured by the chaotic charm of this port town. Just like the unexpected gem of Panama City that awaited us at the end of our Central American trip, Valparaiso has proved to be another jewel, an extraordinary city that ranks solidly among my favorites.
Valparaiso is a bohemian city, full of poets, artists and dreamers. The town itself is stunningly situated atop a series of hillsides that tumble down into the vibrant blue ocean below. The city comprises ancient mansions, brightly colored houses, and a divine complex of cobbled paths and rambling staircases. It is a place abundant with the same kind of enchanting beauty one might find while peering down a hidden canal in Venice. The architecture is reminiscent of the faded grandeur of Havana Vieja, Napoli, or Casco Viejo in Panama City. It’s a place so picturesque, each new twist and turn seem to reveal the perfect photograph.
Although Valparaiso is a place where beauty and charm come first, it is not like such places as Venice and Cartagena in that it hasn’t been taken over by tourists; it is a real city full of real residents. This town has remained authentic in a way few places with such beauty are allowed. Tourists don’t rule the streets of Valparaiso, artists and madmen do.
Let me retrace my steps in getting here. After leaving Mendoza, Argentina, I took an eight hour bus ride across the Andes to reach Valparaiso. The moment I left Argentina and crossed the remote, mountainous border into Chile, I began feeling a profound change come over me. It felt as if I had finally broken free from some strange, bleak stasis that had haunted me throughout my time in Argentina. The freshness and vibrancy of the Chilean landscape made me feel as though I had miraculously stepped into another world.
Once across the Andes, the sky cleared to a cloudless, brilliant blue. Flowers were blooming in abundance, and the distinct freshness of Spring was in the air. I suddenly felt rejuvenated and refreshed, as if I were a dying plant that had finally been watered and placed in direct sunlight.
I arrived in Chile less than a week after their Independence Day, yet a sea of Chilean flags still flew proudly from every home. Freedom still seemed to be the theme of the day. Once I arrived in Valparaiso, I beheld before me a city that immediately brought to mind Napoli, Italy. Of all of the cities I’ve seen in Central and South America, Valparaiso is unlike any other. A city like this would seem more fitting in Sicily or Malta.
After having traveled through the mundane, modern cities of Argentina, Valparaiso’s class and style seemed all the more accentuated. I felt as if every place I’d visited since Rio de Janeiro ought to be burned to the ground. Argentina and Uruguay seemed cast in a gray light like pieces of abstract wreckage. I had enjoyed my time in those countries, but it was now, in Chile, that I remembered that I live for the places that blow me away. Rio had done that, now Valparaiso was doing that too.
Throughout our trip Eric and I have searched the nooks and crannies of each place we have visited, always looking for those little details that speak to our personal taste and vision of the world. Things like crooked roof tops, enchanting back alleys, blind accordion players, and silhouettes in windows. For all of the patches of magic we found in other places, it was here, in Valparaiso, that I found a kingdom.
Although Eric and I had agreed to spend time traveling alone, Valparaiso was one treasure I could not keep to myself. I immediately sent him an email declaring: “Valparaiso feels like Napoli.” I knew this single phrase would get the point across. Eric knows me well enough to know that I would never use an utterance like “Napoli” lightly. Such terms are sacred to us and have taken on a nearly religious connotation in our travel vocabulary.
After all, Napoli is the place where Eric and I first experienced traveling together, nearly three and a half years ago. The idea had come to us, more or less in passing at work, that we arrange to meet up in Italy for a few days before embarking on separate trips. After arriving in Napoli, we immediately found ourselves caught under its spell. It was during those brief powerful days that the seeds were planted, not just for this Central and South American trip, but for the very foundation of our friendship. The bonds and promises we made back then built the bridges we’ve taken all the way from Napoli here to Valparaiso.
Eric emailed me back and said he would arrive in Valparaiso in three days. I ended up spending those next three days enjoying the town with two girls I met at the hostel. They were both sweethearts that were traveling alone through South America. One of them was a twenty-year-old Swedish girl named Martina. She ended up telling us a heart-wrenching story about a bus accident she survived mere weeks ago in Patagonia. Apparently, the bus she was on collided with a truck, killing both drivers as well as one other person on board. She said the surviving passengers were then stranded on the side of the road for the next 10 hours before another bus was able to pick them up.
“By the time I got to Mendoza I’d had nothing to eat for almost 30 hours, ” she told us. “So I went to a restaurant and ate a rabbit steak.”
“A rabbit steak?” I asked, to make sure I’d heard her correctly.
“Yes a rabbit steak, and the man who served it to me gave me a discount because I told him of the accident.”
Although their sweet smiling faces and interesting travel tales were a pleasure to be around, I found myself still anxiously awaiting Eric’s arrival. I knew I had jewels to cast before him and couldn’t wait to see the beauty of Valparaiso ring his bell. I was giddy with the knowledge that the “travel magic” he had first tasted in Napoli, still had tricks to pull out of its hat, even this late in our Central and South American travel adventure.
Three days later Eric arrived, and our first day in Valparaiso together turned out to be one of the most beautiful and epic of the entire trip. We started off the day by taking a leisurely stroll along a twisting residential road high in the hills. We were en route to visit the poet Pablo Neruda’s house and looking at our map, when a gentleman with a bag of groceries passed by. He and I happened to make eye contact, so I simply said “Hola.” He smiled and walked a few more paces, then paused for a moment before turning around and walking back our way. He then asked us if we needed directions.
“Buscamos para la casa de Pablo Neruda,” I replied.
Although he spoke rapid Spanish with a thick Chilean accent, we were able to gather that we were right down the street from Neruda’s house, but he informed us it was closed today. He also mentioned that his girlfriend worked as a tour guide there, so that’s how he knew it was closed on Mondays.
The gentleman who stood before us had prominent facial features and a mass of wild, curly black hair. He was dressed in a light sweater and wore a certain style of pajama-like pants that Eric and I have found common among hippie and bohemian types in South America. He spoke with a great deal of intensity and leaned in close to our faces when he addressed us. He told us his name was Patricio and that he was a local artist and wood worker. Then, to our surprise, he invited us to walk with him to his house to meet his girlfriend and have coffee.
We were at first taken aback a little by this totally unexpected act of kindness being offered from this intense, mysterious stranger; but after only a moment’s hesitation, we agreed. After all, Naruda was dead, and even the museum that occupied his house was closed for the day. It seemed fitting to be meeting a living, breathing, Chilean artist.
We followed Patricio down a side street before arriving at his humble home. Constructed of old wood and corrugated steel, it was a kind of shanty house, typical of Valparaiso. As he opened the door we were greeted by his energetic young dog Farfalle. His girlfriend Deane was still enjoying her morning off by sleeping in, but was soon roused from her bed to meet the two strangers in her living room.
Deane greeted us with a smile, and we soon discovered she spoke excellent English. We found ourselves spending the next three hours hanging out with Deane and Patricio, and they turned out to have been the ideal locals for us to meet up with. They told us all sorts of interesting things about Valparaiso, and Chile in general, all of us speaking a mix of Spanish and English, and they even taught us some priceless Chilean slang.
Patricio told us about his artwork and how he sculpts his works from old antiques and objects he finds in the streets of Valparaiso. Of the artists I have met and read about in my life, Patricio had what seemed to me to be the authentic demeanor, disposition, and personality suited to true artistic geniuses. He had that certain intensity about him, and he had an artful, distinctive way of doing even the most mundane of tasks. I truly felt as though I were with a Van Gogh or Dali while in his presence.
After a few hours of hanging out in their house, Patricio and Deane took us out for a tour through the labyrinthine hidden passage ways and random staircases that cover the hills of Valparaiso. During this time we visited an incredible ancient cemetery and also visited the ruins of a prison dating from the 1800′s. Visiting the prison was an amazing experience because the city of Valparaiso officially turned the site over to the local artists to paint and make studios out of.
“This place was once full of sadness and punishment, but now it has transformed into a place of beauty and freedom,” Deane explained to us.
It all turned out to be a most memorable visit, and since that time we have hung out with Patricio and Deane almost everyday. They are truly the most hospitable people we have met on our trip. They are always eager to invite us to eat at their house and join them in whatever activities they have planned for the day.
Eric and I did eventually end up visiting Pablo Neruda’s house a few days after meeting Patricio and Deane. Deane was working that day, so we had a great time wandering around the five-story house of the Nobel Prize winning poet. The domicile was still full of interesting personal artifacts belonging to the poet and was still in the condition Neruda left it when he died in 1973. Although photos weren’t allowed inside, we did get a few of the exterior.
A final highlight of Valparaiso was riding it’s strikingly unique, antique funiculars, called ascensores. It is hard to visualize Valparaiso without them as they are so distinctively characteristic to the town. Constructed between the years of 1883 and 1916, there are 15 different ascensores throughout the hills of Valparaiso that are still functioning, providing fun and interesting alternative ways to ascend the hills.
Valparaiso, the “Jewel of the Pacific,” has certainly turned out to be one of my favorite places in the world. Just wandering through its beautiful streets makes every cell in my body sing. The kind of energy that exists in a city like this is powerful enough to affect everything from the way the blood flows in your veins to the serotonin levels of your brain.