Chile: Valparaiso and the Casablanca Valley (Part 1)

I didn’t have much time in Chile – only 3 days to be precise.

I was taking on Macchu Pichu and the easiest entrance to South America was with Qantas, direct to Santiago from Sydney.

As usual, my plans were … fluid. When travelling alone, I like to keep it casual. I don’t book a hotel room until I arrive, usually on-line. That’s not to say that I leave everything to chance: I always have a guide-book.

Of course, there is a lot of time for reading said guide-book in a jumbo jet as it flies over the Pacific Ocean. And somewhere east of New Zealand, I read about the city of Valparaiso, and became intrigued.

Valparaiso is a port city on the west coast of Chile, only a few hours from the capital, and is UNESCO listed. So it was decided – I would head straight there on arrival. Regular bus services make the trip, and if I could muster enough Spanish to find the bus terminal (terminale – not that difficult), I should be sweet.

It was not quite as simple as I had hoped – it never is. The conductor couldn’t understand my crazy accent for even the simplest Spanish words (even the ones which were identical in both languages), but I eventually found it. I bought a ticket, and found a seat on the nearly empty, but comfortable bus.

I found a window seat and settled in. I was tired after a long flight, and just wanted to be left alone. Unfortunately, the bus seats were numbered, and Chileans are scrupulous about sitting in their allotted positions, even when empty seats abounded, and I was chivvied out of my seat on more than one occasion.

The trip was only about 1-2 hours, though lovely rural countryside. Low, lush hills streaked with vineyards and huge haciendas. This is the Casablanca valley, and with a few days and a motorcycle, one could make quite the pleasant journey. Alas, I didn’t have that luxury.

Valparaiso is not like any other city I have been to. It is Chile’s most important port city, and long ago outgrew its tiny coastal plain. It had no choice but to cling like limpets to the steep surrounding hills. Like most port cities, it is deeply industrial and grimy, but has fought hard to maintain a certain charm. It will never be a town of luxury coastal resorts: that honour goes to Vina del Mar, a township only a few kilometres to the north.

By the time the bus arrived, the day was getting long. The bus terminal is on the coastal plain, not far from the docks, and a taxi would be required to find my hill-side hotel, the Ultramar, lest I require knee replacement surgery on my first day.

The taxi took any number of steep switchbacks through the narrow streets, before depositing me at my lodging, dizzy and disoriented. I could not be persuaded to say that the hotel is central: that would be a lie, but it is a lovely building, renovated beautifully, with a courtyard overlooking the ocean, serving cold beer. I was, it appeared, the only guest in residence. I had a hot shower, and fell into bed, looking forward to a day of exploring tomorrow.

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(Next week: Valparaiso: a city of ascensors and stray dogs)

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