I couldn’t stop thinking how similar Valparaiso was to San Francisco. It is a colorful city built on hills next to a bay, and walking around staring at the scenery is the highlight of any visit.
My first day in Valpo was cold and rainy, but I braved the walking tour anyway. Tours for Tips does a tour here as well, and although it was not as good as the one in Santiago it was still a fine introduction to the city: we learned about its history as a port town and how the Panama Canal had a negative effect on its economy, and the reason for all the colorful houses and street art. With all the hills, Valpo has functioning ascensors, basically funiculars they call elevators, that you can take up some of the more daunting hills. On our tour we got to ride one of these that has been around for 100 years. We also got to try a local treat, a cookie of two wafers joined by dulche de leche and all covered in chocolate, and a beverage. By the end though I was soaked and freezing, so I went back to my hostel to thaw with some tea before heading to Pablo Neruda’s house.
I have always found visiting homes interesting – blame it on my parents’ love of HGTV’s House Hunters – so this was a perfect activity for a rainy afternoon. It got even better when the ticket lady mistook me for a student and only charged me 1,500 COP instead of 5,000. I admittedly don’t know much about Pablo Neruda but after visiting his house I do know he had very unique taste. The audio tour was just okay, I got more information from the posters in the lobby, but it was nice to wander at my leisure through his quirky residence and admire his views over the whole city.
Day 2 was a big improvement in the weather; nice and sunny. I planned to wander around in search of street art, and when I opened up the door to leave my hostel, Julia (my new Aussie friend from Santiago) was standing there. Talk about perfect timing. So I spent the day with Julia and Paul, another Aussie from our hostel, wandering around the streets, the cemetery, and the water, admiring the beauty of Valpo drenched in sun.
We had heard that the view from a boat was incredible, so after a very filling lunch of empanadas (Chilean empanadas are huge, heavy on the onion, and include an olive and half a hardboiled egg) we went to the harbor to see if we could get out on the bay. After looking like lost tourists for a while we ended up haggling down a nice private ride for 4,000 COP each. There wasn’t much to the ride itself – we saw some sea lions and some navy ships – but it was just so nice to be out on the water in the sun, lounging on the front of the boat. It’s also a fantastic way to really see the hilly landscape of Valparaiso.
My last night out in Valparaiso started out innocent enough. We had a big dinner at a local recommendation and a few pisco drinks while listening to live music. Then we stopped by a party that some of the hostel employees had told us about, and things escalated. Didn’t I learn my lesson in San Pedro de Atacama? Pisco and house parties with hostel employees are a dangerous combination. What made this one especially bad was the need to catch a bus to Argentina the next morning at 8:00. The night was fun, but the morning was very rough. Let’s just say that somehow, after less than an hour of sleep, I was able to make it to the bus station and get a ticket to Argentina, onto which I clumsily spilled half my coffee, and the minute I was in my seat I fell instantly asleep before I could eat the empanada I had purchased as my breakfast. When I woke up, I was at the border crossing into Argentina.
Oh Chile, I love you and I hate you. You have some amazing places and I could see myself returning and staying for a while, but your pisco led to some nights and mornings that were unlike any others on my whole trip. So goodbye for now, time to explore the land of wine and fernet… Oh boy.
After spending weeks in small towns and natural wonderlands, I was a bit weary of heading to the metropolis of Santiago de Chile. I was loving these out of the way destinations; on my 24 hour bus ride between San Pedro and Santiago I had a lot of time to think, and I had come to the conclusion that maybe those types of places were where I should be in life. I’ve been living in big cities for the past five years, maybe I’m done with cities now, maybe my future will be more rural. So with these thoughts running through my head I got off the bus and onto the subway.
And to my surprise, I felt like I was home. I breathed a sigh of relief to be back in a functional city, on efficient public transportation that would drop me off a mere block from my hostel. In what world is a subway comforting? Whatever world that is, that’s where I felt I was that day. This feeling continued as I got out of the subway and walked the busy streets.
I liked Santiago. This may not be a popular opinion, but the parts that I saw were all positive (except for the abundance of pollution, that part I hated). The first thing I did was hike up Cerro San Cristóbal. I couldn’t help but laugh at myself – here I was thinking that I was happy to be back in a big city and the first thing I did was go for a hike on the biggest mountain in town. The hike was fairly vertical but not bad; it took about 30 minutes to get up the path and another 10 or so up to the statue of the Virgin Mary at the top. The view was spectacular. The whitewashed city is surrounded by snow-capped Andes mountains. To add to the visual contrast between nature and concrete, there were palm trees at the top. So you’re looking at snowy mountains, big city, and tropical foliage. It’s crazy in a great way.
I spent the afternoon wandering around the city. The pedestrian park and paths by the river struck me as feeling very Parisian. I stopped for lunch at the Mercado Central, home to tons of seafood stalls, where I had a delicious seafood stew and local Chilean beer for very cheap. The people who worked at the stall were so incredibly friendly. We had a broken Spanglish conversation about where I was from and if I liked Chile, and they even gave me little gifts of a tiny mug depicting San Pedro and a Valparaiso magnet. Such friendly people.
That afternoon I did the Tours for Tips walking tour. This is just what it sounds like: the tour itself is free, but you tip your guide at the end based on enjoyment, budget, or whatever other reason you have. It’s entirely up to you. This afternoon tour was a general overview of history of the city and I thought it was fantastic. Our tour guide Antonia was so knowledgeable and another example of the friendliness I’d come to experience in Chile. I have recommended this tour to everyone who’s going to Santiago. I learned a lot about the culture and history of the city and country, from the military coup in 1973 to what on earth Coffee with Legs is. It even ended with a local sangria-like beverage.
I’d met a few cool people on the walking tour, so we decided to check out the nightlife of Bella Vista, supposedly the hip fun neighborhood. What we learned was that there is no nightlife on a Tuesday. It was still cool to get to know Julia and Andrew over a few beers and dulce de leche-filled churros, and we made a plan to meet the next day for the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights).
It was good we decided to do this together. It’s a fascinating museum that focuses on human rights violations during the military regime from 1973-1990. It tells about prisoners, torture, disappearances, protests, and ultimately the end of the dictatorship. It is a lot to handle; I don’t recommend going if you’re hungry or tired. It’s a bit mentally and emotionally draining, but it is entirely worth going to.
We rewarded ourselves with a local lunch of a hot dog covered with avocado and tomatoes, and some market shopping. We said our goodbyes and I made my way to a late afternoon bus to Valparaiso.
I left Santiago with a very positive feeling. I had a good mixture of cultural, historic and social activities, with a healthy dose of wandering around. I ate some good local lunches and some decent included meals as well; my hostel Chilli Hostel Santiago had both breakfast and dinner included! It will make for an interesting entry into the “meals included” photo project I’ve been doing. Not only was there finally fruit again with breakfast, but I had a dinner of spaghetti one night and quiche and rice the next. Not a bad deal!
Add San Pedro de Atacama, Chile to the list of places that I almost didn’t leave. Much like Minca and Baños, San Pedro is a small town in the middle of nowhere with a plethora of outdoor activities. I’m sensing a theme.
I arrived in San Pedro after the Salt Flats high on the nature that had just surrounded me for three days. San Pedro was an extension of that wonder – more desert, lagoons and volcanoes that looked like another planet. It was amazing to continue seeing this unique land, but it also meant that most of the attractions in San Pedro were repeats of what I had just seen in Bolivia. So I went for the two new, and in my opinion best, activities.
Night one I did what they call the Astrological Tour, aka stargazing. My timing was good since it was still early in the moon’s cycle so we could see more of the sky. We were taken out of town, far away from any lights, and out onto a wooden platform in the middle of a field. In the center of the platform was a large high-power telescope. Through this we were shown individual stars, groups of stars, different colored stars, stars that sparkled like diamonds, and planets. The highlight was supposed to be clearly seeing the rings around Saturn but due to its position in the sky it was pretty blurry; I could just barely make out the rings. After a hot chocolate break our guide used a Burning Man-strength laser to point out galaxies and constellations. Because we’re in the southern hemisphere the sky is so different from what I grew up with. I had never seen the southern cross, nor had I seen the two smaller galaxies that accompanied the Sagittarius leg of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Did you know the Milky Way has 8 arms but we can only see two from Earth? It was a very educational, and beautiful, night.
The next day was my adventure day. I went Sandboarding, and I absolutely loved it. I have added to my potential future plans becoming a sandboarding instructor in San Pedro de Atacama. Sandboarding here is literally strapping on a snowboard and helmet and riding down a massive sand dune. The walk back up to the top is a pain in the ass, but every run down was a fresh reminder of why I wanted to go back up. With each run I got progressively higher up the dune, ending with a steep, fast descent to the canyon floor. It. Was. Awesome. It didn’t hurt that the view was pretty incredible too. This is definitely one of my favorite things I’ve done this trip so far. I also had my GoPro strapped to my helmet so I’ll hopefully post a video soon.
After sandboarding they took us to this overlook for sunset and pisco sours. Of all the sunsets I’ve seen in the past 3 months, I think this one might be on top. It was breathtaking.
The rest of my time in San Pedro was spent hanging out with awesome people – on my sandboarding adventure, other guests at my hostel, and the hostel employees and owner. I’m not surprised that people who visit San Pedro never want to leave; I was almost one of them. That Saturday night I ended up out at a local house party with some of the hostel employees. It was a long night with way too much pisco but it was a ton of fun. The next day I nursed my hangover at the hostel, eating lunch with the same group from the night before, and I saw how this could actually be my life. It was sad to leave that night, but like other places before I didn’t say goodbye, only that I would return one day.