Valparaíso, a Giant Fire and Full Buses

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Rule number one of travelling: expect the unexpected.

That January 2, we thought we were taking an easy, predictable day trip. The goal was Valparaiso, a city where we had stayed twice already, a one-hundred-kilometre bus ride from Santiago. This time, we didn’t want to stay overnight since accommodation is scarce and expensive. The plan was straightforward: hop on a bus, arrive two hours later, enjoy the picturesque hills and murals and hop on a bus back to Santiago.

The first part went just as planned. Even though we had gotten up later than expected, we caught the noon Turbus to Santiago, scored the front seats in the double-decker bus and enjoyed the scenery. Bonus: Mark is actually easy to travel with now and he loved the two tunnels through the mountains.

“Should we check what time the last buses leave?” I suggested when we arrived in Valparaíso.

The bus station was packed but I wasn’t surprised. Valparaíso is one of the spots where Santiaguinos spend New Year’s Eve and predictably, everybody was going home to the capital.

Santiago agotado” the sign said on the window of the bus company that just brought us to Valparaíso.


I asked anyway. “Are there any seats left for Santiago? Like, later in the day?”

Nope. Agotado means agotado—or “full,” in case you didn’t get it by now.

There are buses almost every hour to Santiago so we hadn’t expected that issue. We asked other companies—same, all the buses were full.


We stood there, like idiots. There are worst places to be stuck in the world but still, we had nothing with us but a day bag.

Just outside the bus terminal, we saw several “unofficial” buses leaving to Santiago. Phew. A collectivo would be plan B, then.

Not that worried anymore about the ride back, we walked to Plaza Sotomayor and started climbing Valparaíso’s steep hills and do all the things people do in the city—checking out the murals, avoiding the piles of garbage, take shortcuts and get lost.

Soon after, we heard the loud sound of a siren.

“Tsunami,” Feng joked.

“Giant monsters coming,” I added so that Mark would climb faster (it worked!).

We reached several viewpoints, took pictures, bought Mark the classic ham-and-cheese sandwich and took more pictures.

“Uh… I think I know why we heard a siren,” Feng said.

He pointed to one of the hills. On a clear day like this, the giant cloud of smoke was unmissable.

A fire.

A big one.

The grey cloud became orange, then red and the strong wind was blowing the column of smoke towards us. Every few minutes, we were hearing the sound of firetrucks coming to the rescue. The sun turned yellow, then red. On one side, the sky was blue. On the other, it was a hot infierno.

It was one of these moments where you see stupid tourists taking pictures of a major disaster and think “eh, get out, idiots!” Of course, this time, we were the dumb tourists. We were safe where we were, though.

By the time, we walked down back to Plaza Sotomayor, it was clear that it was a major fire. The bomberos were jumping on every vehicle they could find, including SUVs.

We left the fire behind us and took the subway to Viña del Mar, where we had planned a stop at the beach. But again, we needed a ride home and when we asked around at the bus station, we got lucky and scored a couple of seats in a bus leaving at 6 p.m. Sorry Mark, no time for the beach.

The three of us squeezed on two seats and headed back to Santiago.

It’s only later that evening that we learned it had been a massive fire and it was all over the news. Poor Valparaíso…

Boarding the bus in Santiago

The road to Valparaíso

The road to Valparaíso

The road to Valparaíso

City centre of Valparaíso, down the hills

Mural of Valparaíso

The port of Valparaíso from the hill

Mural of Valparaíso

Mural of Valparaíso

Climbing the hills of Valparaíso

Climbing the hills of Valparaíso

Lunch break for Mark

On the hill of Valparaíso

Mural of Valparaíso

Hill of Valparaíso

Hill of Valparaíso

“Feeding a dog doesn’t cost much”

Bad parking on the hill

Fire starting on a hill in Valparaíso

Fire on a hill in Valparaíso

Fire on a hill in Valparaíso

Meanwhile, all quiet in the port…

Sun and smoke

Going downhill

Sun red with the smoke

Plaza Sotomayor, the bomberos are using any vehicle they can to help

Plaza Sotomayor, the bomberos are using any vehicle they can to help

The fire from Plaza Sotomayor

Muelle Pratt with the fire in the background

In the Valparaíso Metro

Terminal de buses de Viña del mar, packed

Squeezing in the bus back to Santiago

The fire makes headlines in Santiago the following day


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. I saw the news on BBC about this, and immediately thought of you, since you mentioned earlier that you guys were heading there. Glad to hear you are safe!

    If I remember correctly, this is the second fire in Valparaiso that became newsworthy within the past 5 years. I visited it back in 2011 and now wonder what changes have occurred due to these fires.

  2. The road to Valparaiso has a gorgeous scenery. Everything I like! The fire though, not so much… I hope there weren’t any casualties 🙁

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