Many day-trippers venturing to the coast from Santiago, Chile, find themselves in Viña Del Mar. But the neighbouring seaside town of Valparaíso, or Valpo, offers a far more authentic cultural experience. What I found in these colourful hills makes the top of my favourite vacation destinations list!
A rich sunset over the port in Valparaiso
1. Million Dollar Views Over Valparaíso
After greeting my host, Rodo, the first thing I did was peer out the window at the downhill runway of rooftops leading my eye to where the sea meets the sky. Valpo is made up of 42 hills, or cerros, which curve around the bay, and due to building height restrictions there are few high rises to block your view, unlike the neighbouring mini-metropolis. At the end of every day I would visit the rooftop terrace and watch the sky paint itself with the most incredible palette. My camera roll soon filled with the Valparaíso skyline, as no two sunsets were ever the same. Day after day I was stunned that this ocean view could be as richly coloured as it was the day before. I asked my host family, the expatriate neighbour, even the foreign exchange students, and we all agreed it is a sight that never fails to impress.
Dancers in Avenida Argentina Markets entertain shoppers.
2. Local Markets Of Avenida Argentina
Rodo suggested I visit Avenida Argentina on the weekend to see the local markets, “You can find anything and everything,” he claims. Valparaíso is not a tourist town, it’s a thriving population of locals going about their daily business. This means the local street market is not filled with nauseating tourist tokens and gift stalls. What I found when I hopped off the trolley bus on the main avenue was a rich variety of locally grown fruits and veg, clothes, dog collars, phone chargers, and even construction hardware. My host was not exaggerating, you really can find everything on Avenida Argentina!
The piano stairs, an iconic work of street art.
3. Expressive Art and Wild Constructions on Every Street
Valparaíso has more street art than any other city I’ve visited in South America. But the creativity and artistic expression of the locals extends so much deeper than the wild murals which line the winding walkways, or paseos. There are few restrictions on property development outside of height limits, firewalls, and earthquake resistance. This means there are many home renovators in Valpo for whom wood is their canvas, a screw-driver their brush, and recycled materials their paint. Here you can find houses and shopfronts rendered in straw and mud, with milk carton roofs, and glass bottle windows with bamboo trim.
A batucada drummer in a community street parade.
4. A Culture Which Values Local Community
Each Cerro in Valparaíso is a neighbourhood of like-minded locals who all appreciate the beauty of their unique hillside town. The houses of Valpo are surrounded by art — they’re painted with colourful expressions and they are creatively constructed to gain an inspirational view of an ever changing canvas in the sky. The hills are inhabited by local artists, not just in visual media — there are poets, musicians, and dancers moving to the neighbourhoods where they can be appreciated for their craft. After a long work week these talented locals pick up their drums, put on their dancing shoes, and carry their home brewed beers to the paseos for a celebration of their inspiring culture. I was fortunate enough to live amongst warm families where I was welcomed to watch a movie at the street cinema, to join the batucada band, and take a seat at the community dinner table.
The many hills of Valparaiso as seen from the coast.
5. Plenty of Easy Options to Get Around Town
You can get to Valparaiso by bus, there are many companies doing this route as often as every 10 minutes from Santiago’s Terminal de Buses Pajaritos. Tickets with Turbus, one of the most prolific bus companies in Chile, cost $3000CLP, that’s less than $5US! If you, like me, don’t speak much Spanish, you can purchase tickets online and show the bus driver the QR code you’ll receive in an email. Getting around in Valparaiso is just as easy, the historic trolley buses, or troles, run back and forth from Avenida Argentina to the port terminal. From the trole route you can stop off at Plaza Sotomayor, the main square of Valparaíso where twice daily you can join a free walking tour run by Tours4Tips. If you don’t feel like walking uphill you can take one of the many funiculars, a vintage elevator, to watch the sun set over the city. If you wish to take a bus further up the cerros, use Google Maps to see every bus route and timetable! To make things easier for those of us who can’t navigate the language barrier the prices are written on placards in the front window of every bus, funicular, and trolley bus, A ticket to almost anywhere in the city costs less than $500CLP, that’s less than $1US. Valpo had so much to offer, it felt like home, and I didn’t feel the need to see if the grass was greener elsewhere. But for those with wanderlust, you can hop on the Metro, a subway that runs along the coast line from Viña Del Mar Botanical Gardens all the way to Playa Ancha, to see how the neighbours live.
Relaxing in a hammock on the terrace with the million dollar views.
6. The Best Lunch At Cafe Pitra
Don’t expect to see any big chain fast food restaurants here, the locals vote with their wallets and whoppers are out! Instead you will find many small yet professional cafes on almost every corner. If you’re on a budget, have specific dietary needs, or are just looking for the best lunch in town, I recommend Cafe Pitra! They offer daily menus for meat eaters, vegetarians, vegans, and those on a low calorie diet. For under $5000CLP, about $7USD, you get 3 delicious courses, all home-made, and a drink. They’re open weekdays from 11am until 5pm, but it’s a popular spot with locals, so avoid the lunch hour rush if you don’t want to wait an hour for a table like I did!
See the sea of colourful Valparaiso houses.
The twisting paseos of Valparaíso are like a city wide gallery of street art and creative architecture for which there’s no admission fee. You don’t even need to pay for a guide to find your way to the best viewpoints, just walk uphill to see a sea of painted houses overlooking the Pacific Ocean as it mirrors the sunset hues. Be welcomed to the most inspiring neighbourhoods in the world!