We arrive in Valparaiso on Sunday, in the late afternoon after about 6 hours of bus (of course we did not know that you had to go through Santiago and no, we did not stop in the capital!). We stay at the Hostel La Casa Azul, very original, sonething between vintage and modern style, it's perched at the end of one of the city's countless stairways.
Immediately we go for a walk and the first impression is really disappointing! Everything is closed, well today is Sunday but to be the most famous city in Chile is really strange! There is no one on the street, the buildings are decadent and there is garbage everywhere. And we have to consider that its historic centre has been declared a World Heritage Site since 2003.
Luckily the next day we decide to join a tour organized by the association "Tour4tip", whose initiative is to known Valparaiso by people who lives and loves it. Then you'll pay in proportion to how much you liked the tour. Nice initiative, isn't it? So we spend 3 hours with Andrea, our guide, an university student, funny and passionate, that makes us see the city with her eyes. She's very proud to be a portena girl (a person who lives in a port city). She tells us that Valparaíso is today the second port of Chile, after San Antonio. Before the opening of the Panama Canal, in 1914, it was the first accessible port after Cape Horn, so it was a must for the Europeans who were heading to California in search of gold.
It seems that the city was baptized by an Italian sailors who, seeing these beautiful places, called them "The Paradise's Valley". After the opening of the Panama Canal, of course, being able to halve the trip, no ship made the longest route to the south, so Valparaiso gradually became a decadent and neglected city.
Valparaíso's urban development was strongly marked by geography and its location: the bay on one side and the steep hills on the other have forced the man to an innovative architectural construction, with the coloured buildings climbing like ivy on the hills around, with an amphitheatre arrangement.
When Valparaìso was a port of fundamental importance around the middle of 1800, its population doubled in a few years and while the wealthy European traders lived at the port, on the flat part of the city, the sailors, on the other hand, lived on the hills. They were poor people and built their houses with pieces of recovery and with the plates of the boats repainted of various colors.
But what characterizes the houses and any building of the city are the murals, or the street art, it's meaning the art of painting on the walls drawings, messages, poems. The first graffiti began to be seen on the walls of Valparaiso around 1970, in the era of Pinochet's dictatorship, used as expression against the regime.
Many murals that invade the city are anonymous, instead, others ones are of famous artists, first of all Inti, "Sun" in the Quechua language, Chilean artist of Valparaìso who through his works wants to emphasize the cultural identity of his country.
Andrea tells us about the Cerros, which are like neighborhoods, about art and history. The city is distributed over 42 small hills, called Cerros, which can be reached with ancient funiculars, or, walking or doing the stairs: Valpo, so friendly call, is all a up and down city that keeps its inhabitants healthy. Among the most beautiful we remember Cerro Concepción and Cerro Alegre, to walk around enjoying the views, stopping to taste some empanadas, getting lost in the alleys and relaxing among the artisan stalls.
Our expert guide suggests us some places where to drink the Chicha morada (a slightly alcoholic Chilean beverage) like a real Chilean, and she conquers us offering the best alfagores (typical South American sweets) of the city. Her eyes show us her pride to live here and to share with people not the top ten to do as tourists, but the love for small things, for history, for the most significant corners for the Chileans, to get closer to know them better. We leave her a good tip because she really deserves it!
We don't completely change our mind about the first impression we had, but at the end of the day we have a different view of Valparaiso, as an old sailor who is never tired tells the stories of his glorious past.
The photos are of the author.