Travelogue: Viña del Mar & Valparaíso, Chile

It was a brand new day in Chile. After the excitement of my arrival in Santiago, I woke with a much better outlook and, lucky for Fecking Frannie, my murderous rage had completely dissipated. Expecting the tour driver to know about my change of residence, I was surprised when I was still hanging out on the sidewalk waiting 15 minutes past the scheduled pick-up time. When a familiar-looking van drove past for a second time with the driver looking inquisitive, I took a gamble and flagged him down. Turns out no one from the office told my new best friend Marco about the change! Thankfully he was persistent and did two laps.

Disaster averted, we set off to the west. I introduced myself to Helen and Graham, the only other people on the tour that day – turns out they’re from Sydney! Halfway around the world and it was a van full of Aussies. Marco drove us out of a quiet, weekend downtown Santiago and we hopped on the freeway. It wasn’t long before we left the industrial surroundings of the city fringe and entered the gorgeous, undulating wine country in Casablanca. Vineyards were interspersed with private properties, and the further we drove, the more agricultural plots we saw. Marco, originally from southern Chile, was a wealth of knowledge and he educated us in all sorts of subjects which related to our surroundings, from art to mining, farming to politics. Apparently Chile is the second largest producer of avocados – no wonder I loved it there!

We passed a strange sculpture on the way down the hill to the coast which looked like an unfurled roll of toilet paper! Marco promised a big reveal from the other side on the way back out of town. As we wound our way down the switchbacks and steep streets amongst the French and Italian-influenced architecture, the Pacific Ocean came into view. Valparaíso wrapped around to the left and extended out on a small finger of land, while Viña del Mar sprawled up the coastline on the right. It was easy to see how this area used to be the major port for ships on the west coast as they made the passage around the tip of South America; while the Panama Canal changed the journey, Valparaíso was still clearly a vibrant passage for trade.

The vibe along the boulevard in Viña del Mar brought me right back to Nice, with its surprising similarities to the French Riviera. I think it was the tall, elaborate condo structures fronting onto the seaside. After a quick stop at the beach, we hopped back in the van and toured around town. The variety in building design was befuddling, with
some simple homes mixed in amongst those which could pass for castles or consulates! We paused at Museo Fonk to see one of the few Easter Island statues which left the island as a gift, rather than contraband. What an impressive structure! Marco navigated back up the hill to a beautiful lookout which offered panoramic views of both cities, including a number of sports stadiums and race tracks.

With a memory card full of pictures, we crossed town on the coastal road and after a long morning in the vehicle, we stretched our legs on a walk to lunch. Talk about castles! Marco had organised for us to dine at Castillo del Mar, a restaurant housed in a gorgeous, old stone building overlooking the sea. I was our table’s best Spanish-speaker (hilarious in itself), so I was extremely proud of myself when all of our food arrived as intended. With a belly full of delicious, fresh seafood and entertainment in the form of a magic trick from the house magician which ‘guaranteed me happiness’ for the year, I was a content tourista.

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The winding road by the ocean took us across city lines, into Valparaíso, and along the way we passed an engineering university which looked like Hogwarts! Downtown felt much bigger than I expected and you could tell it was thriving. The majority of the buildings were in good repair, the streets were full of pedestrians, both locals and out-of-towners, and commerce was in full swing down at the dockside markets with official stalls and unoffical street vendors. Marco dropped us at the port and we wandered through the crowds, shopping, snapping pictures, and soaking in the bustle of activity, while he had a yarn with some of the other tour drivers. A few bemused shop-keepers later, I had my first set of souvenir purchases in hand – I knew how to ask what the price was, but then I struggled to understand the rapid stream of numbers in their replies!

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Once we reconnected with Marco, he drove us just up the hill from the main square and navigated the narrow, cobblestoned streets of one of the nearby neighbourhoods. Us three Aussies navigated the area on foot for a while, and I was stunned with the huge variety of artwork in the community. There were murals on walls, mosiac designs in the sidewalks, and almost every house was painted a bright, interesting colour. In fact, the variety of hues chosen reminded me of the homes in Cinque Terra on Italy’s western coast.

img_0042After a quick stop in the small bodega for some cold drinks, we begrudgingly piled back into our transport for the drive home. Marco, being the awesome guy he is, swung by a few interesting landmarks on the way back through town: a market which was over 100 years old and still being run in the original structure built for the purpose, and a mini L’Arc de Triumphe-like monument given to the town by the British to mark their 100 year anniverary of independence. As we exited the area, we passed the unusual sculpture from the other side and it became apparent the toilet paper was actually an abstract whale!img_0046

Our little temporary family said our goodbyes as Helen and Graham were dropped at their hotel. Marco looped back around to my tower and he inadvertently helped me find a spot for dinner as we wove through the side streets. Once I dropped my gear, I wandered back down the nearby road to the cute little cafe I’d spotted. I entertained yet another Chilean with my Spanish and ate a delicious meal out in their open-air dining area while I journaled and enjoyed some top quality people watching.

All in all, day number two of my big adventure was full of all the right kinds of excitement. The little stops on this part of my trip were never meant to be ‘enough time’ in those cities, more of a preview. Now that’s I’ve seen it, I’m officially in love with Chile! Place number one added to my enormous travel wishlist thanks to this holiday. Best get back to work to paying for the next one…

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