Like, I can clearly see the cloud of marijuana smoke floating over the city, and I think I smell like alcohol even though I don’t drink. I can’t find a fucking piece of cake that’s not a “kekitos mágico” or other cute euphemism indicating that clearly, homemade treats sold in the streets are made with more cannabis than chocolate—an additional clue is the fact the seller is usually smoking a joint and completely stoned. There are more botillerias (liquor stores) than restaurants and I feel out of place without dreadlocks and tattoos.
Every single hippie and drunk seems to have settled in Valparaíso.
I mean, the city has always been a hippie hotspot. I’d list it along places like Panajachel in Guatemala, Ko Phi Phi in Thailand or any small town on the Australian East Coast. I like hippie places, they’re usually relaxing. But I’m not that kind of hippie who smokes pot and drink beers—I have zero interest in marijuana culture and I’m not saying that just because my mum is reading, je t’aime maman.
We arrived on a Monday night, which is usually a pretty boring shit-the-week-just-started night in most of the world, and I was a bit surprised to see that in Valparaíso, it was apparently a let’s-get-high-and-drunk night.
Hey, I’m not judging. I get it. It’s easy to lose track of time. Most of these folks probably thought it was still Saturday.
Besides, I was clearly in the minority here with my assessment, because after breaking up a tiny protest Plaza Aníbal Pinto, I overheard a Carabineros de Chile saying, “Todo bien, es una noche tranquila.”
“If that’s a quiet night, I can’t wait to the weekend,” I laughed.
Mind you, the carabineros may not have the full picture. See, they are driving around the city, but smoking and drinking is best done sitting on the many colourful (and urine-soaked) stairs where their vehicle can’t go.
The previous years, I had already noted the huge gap between “uphill” and “downhill.” Uphill is where you find the viewpoints, the lovely streets with the colourful buildings and murals, where you can eat a fancy dinner and sleep in a boutique hotel. Downhill is dusty, gritty and blue-collar cheap, you have to make sure you don’t get hit by a bus on Calle Blanco or step in dog poop.
This year, I also noticed a bit difference between the two main barrios of Valparaíso. Barrio Puerto, the port neighbourhood, is almost entirely for tourists and hippies, with regular folks and most businesses seem to have moved towards El Almendra, the flat district further east. In Barrio Puerto, the result is a weird mix of foreign tourists taking pictures of every single mural, panhandlers, hippies and other characters, while in El Almendra you can see regular folks and the usual mix of street markets, malls and small businesses.
Eh, it’s still Valparaíso, it’s pretty uphill and port activity is fascinating—I saw trucks being loaded onto giant cargo ships, for instance.
But even for an alternative, cool city, I find it dirtier and grittier than it used to be. There are dozens of stray dogs and dog shit everywhere, there’s garbage everywhere—it doesn’t seem to be picked up often, I saw leftover New Year Eve party stuff…—and a strong smell of urine in most small alleys.
I think my biggest complaint was the food. Outside fancy restaurants uphill, there aren’t many options available. That we knew. But now, most places seem to cater to people who get the munchies—think anything fried, hot dogs and sweets. I just couldn’t find anything that tasted good! I’m not new to Chilean food, and I’m not that picky either, but even sweet stuff bought in bakeries were… just not good.
Since bakeries and fast food places were a disappointment, I ended up buying street food, much like everyone around. I skipped anything with marijuana as an ingredient as well as sushi—it just doesn’t feel right to buy raw fish from a guy who sells rolls stacked in a Tupperware—but I bought my empanadas from vendors who sold them on homemade ovens at street corners.
Seriously, that was the best option around. At midnight, I was hanging out on Plazuela Ecuador waiting for some dude to show up with a supermarket cart and empanadas in a toaster.
It was still fun, though, despite the lack of edible food and a funky hotel shower—think hot water for two minutes and then cold water, ah ah, good luck rinsing that soap!
When he wasn’t begging to check out gambling machines, another local addiction, Mark rediscovered the “alligators,” i.e. the elevators. “That’s the best alligator ever!” he shouted after a short ride in the Ascensor Reina Victoria. “Can we do more alligators?”
And then, of course, we had those late-night walks where he did the slide at the top of the Reina Victoria Acensor—I did too, it’s one of these Valparaíso quirky things!—, we saw sea lions and funky murals.
Because yeah, Valparaíso is still kind of cool.