Valparaíso has a split personality, it’s a place of contrasts. The gritty puerto versus the artsy hills. The blinding sun versus the late-evening light that turns the colourful buildings into a watercolour painting. The cheap meals versus the fancy menus. Cheap Escudo cerveza versus pricey wine bottles.
Mostly, you will spend your time bajar y subir. Up and down the impossibly steep streets, watching for cars that someone manage to navigate the hills—this is not an exercise for the faint of hearts.
The puerto area and the Muelle Prat, downhill, bear all the hallmarks of any industrial harbour with working class heroes. The dirty bars where you can imagine Captain Haddock having a drink (or several) after days at sea. The slot machines hidden in dark smelly rooms. The narrow alleys that smell of human urine and dog poop. The left-wing posters encouraging dock workers to unite, fight and rebel because anger makes people work harder. This part of Valparaíso, the few streets downhill, along the coast, are flat and relatively easy to navigate but they are dirty and messy. After a while, you get used to the graffiti-covered walls and the dust. This is just the way it is. Embrace it.
And then there are the hills. You can either climb the steep streets or take one of the old ascensores, providing they are working. For 100 pesos (0.25 cents) or 300 pesos for the fancier ones, you will get to step into an old wooden cabin that will haul you a few streets ups. “Where are the buttons of the elevator?” Mark asked the first time we took it. “Not buttons here, it’s either up or down!” I explained.
There are dozens of hostels in the hills and many more hotels, the Bed & Breakfast kind—no giant Hilton-style building so far, although the way things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one being built on top of one of the hills one of these days. The walls are painted in bright cheery colours are there are murals depicting the city, cute characters and Chilean landmarks. There are also the not-so-inspired pieces of wisdom written here and there by drunk travelers, predictable messages of love, kind of funny observations, jokes.
Backpackers and travelers love the hills. Picturesque, unique, cozy are adjective you hear when people are sitting around (nobody speaks when climbing, trust me!). But the hill area isn’t that big, a handful of streets. Their natural appeal is reinforced by predictable gimmicks: the vegetarian restaurant, the guys selling Indian craft, the women dressed like hippies. There is broken glass everywhere because this is what you do at night in a port city: you drink. The city is a good metaphor of class struggle: downhill, sailors and harbour workers drink cheap booze and cheap beers in smelly bars; uphill, travelers drink fancy wine looking at the lights below. Two worlds that meet at the supermarket downhill when some need more beer and some need more cheese and ham.
The first hotel room we stayed in was tiny. There were two single beds we put together to make one big bed for the three of us. We didn’t have a chair or a table to put our stuff one so there was a giant pile of backpacks and clothes by the beds. No fridge so I had to run at the supermarket at 10:20 p.m., ten minutes before closing time, to buy yogurts and eat them kind of cold a couple of hours later. Then we moved to an hostel, a very old house with wooden floors, a piano and a jukebox. It was a bit noisy but relaxing.
We spent a few days going up and down, between the port and the hills, sleeping way too late and eating little because most restaurants were closed for mysterious reasons.
I think I belong downhill. Yet, the cerros are picturesque…