Pearl of the Pacific

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
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Trip End Jun 08, 2006


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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Back in Santiago, after a memorable trip to the Easter Islands, we toy with whether to push on with our travels further north, or visit the world heritage city of Valparaiso.

We find out more about the city from our guidebook, and the more we read the more convinced we become to take a daytrip to see it for ourselves. The city promises colourful houses built on to steep hillsides with chugging 100 year old ´ascensores´ to help alleviate the pain of walking steep streets.

From Andrew and Pauli´s flat in Providencia, Santiago, we take the metro to Pajaritos (370 pesos or approximately GBP0.37) where we jump immediately on one of the frequently departing buses to Valparaiso (4700 Pesos or GBP4.70 roundtrip).

The bus journey is very fast and smooth and by 11am we have arrived in the bus station in Valparaiso and I am asking the bus driver where we are on my basic map. Its a bright sunny day, but not that warm and we feel surprisingly cold in our T shirts. We try to walk in the sunshine to help keep warm. The city is Chile´s second largest and has a buzzing dynamism coupled with a run-down appearance making it feel very vibrant and on-edge.

Our first stop is to visit another of the houses of Pablo Neruda, this one called San Sebastian. On the way we pass a wide square where there is an antiques market in full swing. I see there are lots of possibilities to add to the large amount of junk we already have in our house in England.

We enter the business district which seems to be full of dark overbearing 150 year old buildings, of the sort you might expect in Batman´s Gotham city. One bank building I see is almost black from the grime coating the huge blocks of stone. It has enormously high ceilings and frightening carved figures holding up a ballustrade. This is not the Valparaiso I was expecting and it leaves me feeling cold and vulnerable. I learn from our guidebook that the reason for rise of the city´s fortunes, and the development of the imposing business district, was that prior to the building of the Panama canal, it was the principal port for movement of goods through the Americas. After the canal´s completion it has never really recovered economically.

We turn off down a narrow alleyway and jump in the first ascensor of the day, squeezing through an ancient iron turnstile, paying 150 Pesos (about GBP 0.15) each for the ride. The machinery is truly Victorian in character, everything covered in grease and rust. An old man who looks like he´s been around as long as the ascensor operates the big levers from a tiny control room. The lift has enough room for about 7 people inside and lurches violently as we start up the hill, whilst a second ascensor, tied to the same wire rope, begins its decent. I look at the track below and see lots of loose bolts, cracked wooden supports and misaligned rails. It looks as though UK´s now defunct Railtrack have the maintenance contract.

We arrive at the top where we step out to witness a sudden change in the architecture: colourful red, blue, and green houses, sunshine on corrugated iron facades, and narrow winding streets and stairways. This is more like the Valparaiso I was expecting. There are views over the densely populated Valparaiso hills and down to the sea, where we can see lots of boats including Navy vessels in the harbour. We find an old man wearing a beret enjoying the sunshine from the porch of his house, and I ask him how we can find the house of Neruda. I get a tirade of slurred Spanish back but I do manage to gather the general direction, and the fact that it is ´muy lejos de aqui´ (very far from here).

We set off further uphill in the general direction indicated and enjoy looking at the characterful houses around us. Some of them are really run-down, rusted, warped, and cracked, but still manage to look good somehow. Another dark little man loitering outside a tiny shop gives us further directions confirming we are on the right track.

Fifteen minutes or so after emerging from the ascensor, we suddenly arrive outside Neruda´s house. This one is called La Sebastiana, and was where he lived with his second wife. We enjoyed seeing his house in Santiago, La Chascona, so much that we wanted to see this one aswell (See entry for 4th February 2006, Santiago).

Unlike the house in Santiago, we are free to wander around this one without a guide. Neruda wanted it built on the hillside where he would have the best possible view over the city. The house was built on a number of levels and he occupied only the upper ones, the lower ones being lived in by friends. As with La Chascona, the house is full of artifacts collected by Neruda during his travels or given to him as gifts. The light in this house, and the astonishing views makes it a truly spectacular home. There is a wonderful sense of space, and I like the fact that Neruda´s homely decorations are things that he liked, not necessarily things of value. I really like his taste though.

Rachel and I spend quite some time mulling over the books in his study, and looking at some of his poems translated into English. I find it hard to extract meaning from the colourful language and obscure imagery.

We head back down the street from Neruda´s house, passing by a large church where a coffin is being brought out solemly by some black-clad gentlemen. We jump back in the ascensor and head down into the dark underworld of the business district.

We pop out in a little square where the Lonely Planet guide advises us there is a place ´good for lunches´. Cafe Riquet certainly lives up to its billing: I consume a tuna salad with toast, a bowl of chicken broth with bread, a glass of white wine, grilled fish with a huge portion of chips, a thick creamy slice of homemade pineapple gateau, and a cup of freshly ground coffee, in the large dining room that doesn´t look like it has changed much since the 1930´s. The price for the menu of the day: just 3000 Pesos or about GBP3.00. The waiter is really friendly and helpful and is wearing a white jacket and black bow tie. I give him a big tip.

After spending a good couple of hours working our way through lunch, we wander back out on to the streets of Valparaiso and decide to explore more of the hills using the ascensores. For a couple of hours we meander through narrow streets looking at the strangely coloured houses and admiring the wonderful views. Many of the areas we pass through seem to be rejuvenated and undergoing a bit of a renaissance. There are houses that would not be out of place in well-off San Francisco suburbs.

Going into the last ascensor of the day we are warned by the old man operating the levers to be wary of pickpockets. We get out on a hill just a stones throw from one of the blooming areas to be met by rubbish on the streets, roaming packs of dogs attacking passing cars (fortunately not people), and grafitti everywhere. We take a few snaps of some young girls decorating the side of a house. After wandering down a couple of alleys that feel a little bit too narrow, run-down, and threatening, we decide to head out. It certainly seems this area could be prime site for property investors.

After all the walking around we are glad to jump back on the comfortable bus back to Santiago. We relax and dream about the hills of Valparaiso, remarkable for their characterful houses that seem like they are perched in heaven above the ominous darkness of the business district below.
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