Planted in the heart of Chile's slender coastal land, with the natural wilds of Patagonia stretched underneath and unreal moonscape deserts to the North, uniquely charming Valparaiso is fast becoming a worthy destination all of its own.
Scaling the sinuous hillside alleyways towards Pablo Neruda’s former home, unsure whether to focus your gaze on the surreal murals surrounding you, or the breathtaking Pacific panorama playing out below, you could almost begin to believe everything you see is somehow just a figment of the eccentric poet’s imagination.
Perhaps that’s just last night’s potent blends of pisco talking, but it’s easy to liken Chile’s cultural capital to a great canvas, such is the extent of its ever-evolving graffiti covered landscape. The truth is it’s much more fun than that – this place is more like a painted urban playground.
Certainly the city’s most infamous night befits the hallucinatory feeling created by all that artwork on show. If ‘Valpo’ sometimes feels stranger than fiction that could definitely be said of what came to pass in 1855 when, battered by torrential rain, the civic cemetery succumbed to landslide and sent human remains tumbling down on to the streets below.
This rather gruesome turn of events was immortalised in mural form by local crew El Kolor Distinto, it’s one of the largest and most impressive pieces you can find, and perhaps the highlight of Valpo Street Art’s excellent GraFreeTi tour. Probably the best way to get a feel for things is with one of their two hour guided walks, which will only cost you the generosity of your tip.
We learn how the scene evolved under the influence of Mexican muralism, an artistic movement which drew on socialist ideologies having developed after the country’s revolution, through painters like Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
Graffiti has always been a crucial form of protest against political oppression but under the dictatorship of General Pinochet pieces were quickly removed or painted over. After a return to democracy in 1990 street art in Chile flourished and is now cherished by residents, it’s commonplace to see barrios close their own roads for block party painting sessions.
Meandering up and down the city’s many cerros by staircase or funicular rail is the best way to explore, Valparaiso is built upon more than 40 hills so get ready to stretch those glutes. Many of the steps have been decorated either with pottery mosaics or paint, it seems every surface that could be drawn on or decorated has been given some creative attention – no matter the material. The level of detail achieved on rusted walls of corrugated metal proves the ingenuity of residents.
Focus your attention on the adjacent Cerros Alegre and Concepcion where you can explore some of the most colourful streets and a wealth of independent shops, bars and restaurants. You’ll also find most of the best options for accommodation in the area, from vibrant youth hostels to chilled boutique hotels.
Back on level ground, Plaza Sotomayor contains some of the country’s most impressive European-influenced architecture, dominated by the ornate but imposing powder-blue Edificio Armada de Chile. Be sure to check out the regular pop-up markets here too, offering an opportunity to pick up artisanal handicrafts, and also bear in mind many of the free walking tours in town use the square as a meeting point.
Valparaiso’s most famous resident was the aforementioned Pablo Neruda, late poet and national treasure, who by all accounts lived a life ebullient enough to personify this unconventional port. A visit to his old house, La Sebastiana, now a museum and monument to his life’s work, is a must – if only as it offers the best vantage point to survey the undulating scenery surrounding. In fact the original architect picked the spot for that very reason but never finished his job, one which Neruda took on himself with gusto.
Each floor is filled with artefacts collected by a serial hoarder and dreamer, from the ideally situated armchair he nicknamed the cloud to a built-in-bar to which only Neruda was allowed access. The building is a testament to his whimsicality, which has helped inspire the people he left behind to become such an incomparable community.
This gritty port wasn’t built on just pen and brush strokes though, far from it, back in the early 20th century, trade between the Pacific seaboard and Atlantic markets had transformed Valparaiso in to a pivotal stop off point on the long journey around the foot of South America. The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 kicked off an irreversible economic decline. This is still a vital port, but not in a global sense. Most would argue what’s been lost in prosperity was recouped far more in cultural wealth.
There’s plenty of invention to get excited about in the dining halls across town too. Seafood lovers are of course in the right place to taste the freshest of produce and a trip to the market and surrounding restaurants yields delicious results, keep an eye out for paila marina, a delightfully fresh seafood broth.
Chile is understandably protective of its enviable crop of fruit and vegetables, anyone who’s ever tried to take a banana over the border could attest to that fact, though despite that abundance of fantastic produce perhaps the most ubiquitous culinary offering is the humble empanada. One of a next generation looking to make better use of what’s on offer, chef Javier Ortiz runs supper clubs with his team from a stunning hilltop setting overlooking the city.
“We like to use organic ingredients and have suppliers all over the country dedicated to finding the best ingredients” Javier tells me whilst dexterously folding blush coloured, freshly made beetroot tortellini around chunks of Patagonian lamb “from this produce we try to create new flavours.”
Our aperitif certainly fits the bill, a pisco sour of sorts with egg whites replaced by avocado (or ‘palta’ as the pear shaped fruit is called in these parts) to create a creamy but punchy concoction – vegan and undoubtedly one of your five a day too, surely the healthiest way I’ve ever found to get sloshed.
After delicate crab filled courgette parcels and that succulent lamb pasta we enjoy more excellent Chilean produce, Aysen salmon fillet perfectly seared, that flakes gently to a rosy pink centre. A coriander tuile and perfectly executed golden, crisp potato dauphinoise show off more of the young chef’s talents.
Another big part of the operation is keeping guests well lubricated, with perhaps Chile’s most famous export, fine wine. Each course is expertly matched by sommelier Franko Fernandez Godoy with delicate fresh flavours and full bodied boldness where required.
The highlight, a dangerously drinkable blend from the nearby Maule Valley of Cabernet Sauvignon alongside Carmenere, a Bordeaux grape that has found its fame in Chile, which is now the principal producer of the grape. If the sign of a good wine is that some of it gets spilt on the tablecloth then this stuff more than passed the test.
Spirits are raised further still by a delicious little chocolate and orange mille feuille, before a nightcap of yet more pisco cocktails ensures a rather raucous end to proceedings. The old house creaks like a place with a thousand stories to tell, be sure to book a night there alongside your supper if you can.
Don’t rest just yet though, after dark the corners really come alive as residents take to the streets, bottle in hand, to find a perch and share a few swigs before congregating around overflowing bars and clubs. They’ve all fallen for Valparaiso, one fling with this city and you might just be hooked too.
Tim enjoyed a supper club with Chef Javier Ortiz and his team, for more information and to book click here.
Tim spent the afternoon with Valpo Street Art, for more information about their tours click here.