“Valparaíso, how absurd you are…you haven’t combed your hair, you’ve never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you.” – Pablo Neruda
Valparaiso is colourful, vivacious, chaotic and a little surreal. It’s grungy, a little wild and the life of the party. Only 115km from Santiago though, this port-town has to be seen to be believed.
Try as I might to sum it up, sometimes you just come across a description that fits perfectly. This is Valparaiso to a tee…
Poets, painters and would-be philosophers have long been drawn to Chile‘s most unusual city. Along with the ever-shifting port population of sailors, dockworkers and prostitutes, they’ve endowed gritty and gloriously spontaneous Valparaíso with an edgy air of ‘anything goes.’ Add to this the spectacular faded beauty of its chaotic cerros (hills), some of the best street art in Latin America, a maze of steep, sinuous streets, alleys and escaleras (stairways) piled high with crumbling mansions, and it’s clear why some visitors are spending more time here than in Santiago. – Lonely Planet
Colourful houses perch precariously, crammed in next to each other on the port hills. Funiculars shuttle locals and tourists alike whilst those that choose to amble the streets are rewarded with incredible works of art, found in the most unlikely of places.
It’s a bit of a mess but it sure is beautiful!
To find your way around this unique city we suggest you join a walking tour to help get your bearings. The city is fabulous but there are some areas that you probably don’t want to venture into. Joining a local first will help give you the confidence to head off exploring on your own after the tour.
Good news travels fast and after a few people recommended Valpo Street Art Tours we planned our day around making it to their afternoon tour. If we weren’t so jet lagged we’d have preferred to join their 10.30am tour (leaving us the rest of the day to explore) but sometimes you just can’t fight your internal body clock so the 3.30pm tour was the one we decided upon.
The tour itself was absolutely fantastic. Eddie, our guide, was full of knowledge and passion. He shared with us everything we could hope to learn – from the origins of graffiti in New York City in the seventies to the uniquely Chilean spin locals put on it now. We came away with an understanding of the materials and processes involved in making this amazing works of art and a massive appreciation for the artists that pour everything into their projects.
Is Valpariso Safe?
It’s fair to say the port area doesn’t offer visitors much – it can in fact be a dangerous part of town. By all means, make sure to visit the city but keep your wits about you, as you would anywhere. Try to avoid walking on the flat parts of town when it gets dark and limit the amount of cash you take with you. Don’t wander the city with your camera around your neck (unless you’re on a tour as they’ll ensure you only visit the safer areas) or your phone sticking out of your pocket.
We comfortably walked from the bus stop to the meeting point of our tour – it took approximately 30 minutes and we felt more than happy doing so.
Once it got dark though we hailed one of the local buses which took us directly back to the bus terminal. Doing so is easy – just stick your arm out on the main road and jump onto any bus… they all head in the same direction. You’ll pay 280 pesos for the pleasure and be there in a snap.
Chances are, walking would have been fine but why run the risk?
Getting from Santiago to Valparaiso
Getting from Chile’s capital to Valparaiso is a relatively straightforward process, even with minimal Spanish. We used this helpful transport guide to get there but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll summarise the journey.
Though there are several spots from which you can catch an intercity bus, it’s easiest to do so at the last bus stop in Santiago city which is also conveniently a metro stop. You’ll find Pajaritos on the red line, most likely in the direction of San Pablo.
As you exit the metro, simply follow the signs towards the ‘Bus Transfer’ area. Once there, you’ll find the ticket counters directly in front of you and the buses to your right. The main providers that run this route (Turbus and Pullman) do so every 15 minutes or so and there were plenty of seats available when we were there so there’s really no need to book in advance.
At the ticket counter we’d suggest asking for one of the following depending on your needs:
“Un boleto de vuelta a Valparaíso, por favor” – a return ticket to Valparaíso please.
“Dos billetes de ida y vuelta a Valparaíso, por favor” – two return tickets to Valparaíso please.
“Un boleto a Valparaíso, por favor” – a ticket to Valparaíso please.
Or you can do as we did and have your request pre-programmed onto your Google Translate app as back-up. As it turns out, my accent is indistinguishably off so being able to flash my request up on the screen was invaluable (just turn your phone to the side to display it in an easy-to-read size).
Tickets can be purchased one way or return but they are cheaper if purchased at the same time. We found a one way trip to be 5,700 pesos each but the return portion was only an additional 3000-and-something pesos (sorry, we threw out the ticket – silly us!)
If you do opt for a return ticket, you’ll be given an open-ended one. When you’re in Valparaíso and are ready to head back to Santiago you’ll just need to approach the ticket desk, pass them your ticket and ask for
“La próxima salida por favor” – the next departure please.
Just don’t forget to get off again at the first major stop, Pajaritos (pronounced pa-ha-ri-tos) ready to catch the metro back home.
Valparaíso is unlike anywhere else we’ve ever been. It’s gorgeous, a little crazy and undoubtedly real. This city doesn’t try to hide who it really is, instead it embraces it and we’d encourage you to do exactly the same on your trip to Chile.