At first, everyone went according to plan.
And then… well, not so much.
In Santiago, I did the laundry, packed, slept too little, got up, and walked a few blocks to Starbucks. The security guard—yes, Starbucks has security guards in Chile, just in case you’d want to steal a jug of Frappucino mix—remembered me from the week before, where I had also killed some time at the coffee shop between apartment checkouts and checkins.
For an hour, I pretended I was in Canada, at my usual Merivale Road Starbucks. I finished an assignment, read El Mercurio, then I took a taxi to the bus terminal (the Tur Bus one, this time) to board one of the many, many daily buses to Valparaíso.
I got the front seat on the upper level. Expert trick, buy your ticket a couple of days earlier to score one of the four.
“Oh, tourista!” my seatmate said when I pulled the camera out of my bag.
Yes, Canada, no, been there before, gonna sleep during the ride, eh, dale.
I woke up two hours later in Valparaíso, in the chaotic bus terminal.
I gave the taxi driver the address of the apartment and I waited to see his reaction—a few streets are so steep that cars can’t go, a few hills are such a maze that even locals have no idea they exist.
He stared at the GPS for a minute or so. “Oh, right… so I take Alemania, Baquedano and then… it’s somewhere around, right?”
“Yeah, that’s fine. Let’s go!”
Ten minutes later, I was on the right street and I didn’t even have to look for the right house because the owner was calling the Spanish version of my name. The place was actually better than I had expected with everything I needed or could possibly need—“and that’s the emergency lights, in case of an earthquake. Oh, and pull the door hard, the last earthquake damaged it a bit.”
In Valparaíso, when you’re uphill, there’s only one way to go—downhill. Typically, you have the choice between extremely steep streets, a labyrinth of interconnected stairways (escaleras) and antique elevators/funiculars (ascensores).
From my street, I could see the entire city, the port and the ocean. I quickly found a long and twisty stairway that took me all the way to Plaza de la Victoria.
Once at the bottom of the escaleras, I looked up and around. The stairway was pretty hidden, in a back alley. Going down was the easy part, both physically and because I could see the lower part of the city.
“Better come back before it’s dark,” I told myself in my inner, solo traveller voice. “There’s absolutely no way I will find the right stairway at the first attempt, and subsequent attempts are better be made during daytime.”
It was already 4:30 p.m. but I didn’t feel tired after sleeping on the bus. Plus, new place equals excitement and Valparaíso is quite unique and pretty.
I walked to the port, then I climbed Cerro Alegre and Conception, wandering around and occasionally stumbling upon places I knew—oh, the hotel where we stayed last year! Oh, that mural, we had the picture of it on the fridge for a year!
I went downhill again to go shop—most businesses and all the supermarkets are in the lower part of the city. The plan was to bring groceries back to the studio, then maybe go out again to grab some takeout in the touristy area, about two kilometres from my place.
Everything just took longer than planned—story of my life and probably story of yours as well. The supermarket and the streets were packed—end of the month, end of the week—and everything was slow and jammed.
And by the time I reached Plaza de la Victoria, roughly at the bottom of my hill, it was past 8 p.m. and it was most definitely dark. Shit. I wasn’t sure how safe my cerro was and I had my camera with me, plus a paper bag full of grocery—not really the best gear to go look for a steep stairway uphill.
“Okay, I’m caving in. I’m taking a taxi.”
Ah, ah. There were plenty of taxis around the plaza, but as I quickly understood, they were colectivos (shared) running fixed routes, like buses. They could save me the climb to the top of the hill but I had no idea where they would drop me off. Wandering around uphill looking for my street was the same as wandering downhill looking for the stairways to my street.
Oh, fuck it. Plan C. I decided to walk to the busy Plaza Aníbal Pinto, a major intersection between the nightlife district, the port and the rest of the lower part of the city. I’d buy my takeout and hopefully get a proper taxi from there.
On top of that, I was freezing. It’s cold in Valpo at night, and I was still wearing my shorts and tank top, perfectly suitable for daytime when it’s really hot but definitely not warm enough now.
While my fried rice was being fried, I went to the minimarket to buy water. Suddenly, I had an idea. I looked at the guy behind the counter, who was standing here 12 hours a day, overlooking the plaza.
“Do you have any idea where I can find a taxi?” I asked.
“Take a colectivo, it’s cheaper.”
I explained my problem. I wasn’t trying to save energy, I was just unfamiliar with my cerro and I needed to be dropped off at the exact address.
“Uber. In this case, we all use Uber.”
“I… ahem, I don’t have a phone.”
He looked at me, bemused. Now was not the time to add that I had never used Uber either.
He grabbed his cellphone.
“Let’s see… what’s your address? Okay, 3,200 pesos. A seven-minute wait… wow, that’s long.”
“No, no, that’s perfect! Seven minutes is nothing!”
Especially when I could be wandering around Valpo for the rest of the night, looking for my cerro.
“Want it now?”
“I have to pick up my food next door.”
“Whenever you’re ready!”
This dude was my guardian angel.
I came back a minute later. “Red car, L48. Also, you gotta say you’re Gustavo… well, that’s me, right, cause it’s under my name. The driver’s name is Alejandro.”
That Uber thingy is weird. I’m sorry, but it is.
And so, a few minutes later, “Alejandro” and his red car picked me up and drove me all the way to my Cerro Mariposa, on the right street.
I still had to buy water, so I dropped everything at the studio and explored the area a little bit. Just two streets up, I heard people cheering. Something going on?
There was a small stadium and the door was open. I stepped in. The bleachers were packed, the ground was covered with what looked like toilet paper and the crowd was cheering, booing, clapping hands, throwing stuff… I walked closer to the field. Who was playing?
A bunch of teens. It sounded like one of these Brazil versus Argentina World Cup Final games, but it was “just” the local team. Wow, Chileans take football seriously!
Yes, Valparaíso is an interesting place…