From the moment I checked into my Santiago hostel, everyone kept telling me I had to make a trip to Valparaiso, a small but colourful coastal city less than two hours away. Everyone bar the hostel owner that is.
“Valparaiso is too dirty for me,” Ivan told me one night over a
glass bottle of red wine at the hostel barbecue. “It used to be nice but not anymore.” With Valparaiso being famous for it’s street art, I assumed he just wasn’t a fan of the graffiti, kind of like how it is in Shoreditch; the younger generations adore it’s look, whilst many of the older generations don’t appreciate it.
But two days later, after arriving and checking into my Valparaiso hostel, I discovered exactly what Ivan meant. Before you embark on a walk into the colourful hills of Valparaiso, you first arrive in the Plaza de Armas, and quite frankly, it’s filthy. Whilst the old buildings and barred windows give it a rustic charm, the overflowing rubbish bags, littered floors and packs of stray dogs, do not. Even as I headed up into the hills where my eyes gazed in amazement at all the incredible street art, they kept getting pulled back to the litter all over the ground which was kinda ruining the art for me. Every house and building looked like it had missed bin day for the past three weeks.
Valparaiso is often described as Chile’s very own San Francisco, with it’s drastically steep hills, dock of colourful boats and because it used to have funicular rails, which look like cable cars (although there is only one fully working car remaining in Valparaiso). But as I wandered through the dirty littered streets of Valparaiso, I found myself hoping that San Fran looked nothing like this place. I walked up the curved hills, took in the art, went for a coffee and explored a playground, but nothing was blowing me away.
The second thing I had been told about Valparaiso was that its night life was one of the best in Chile. With only one night in Valparaiso planned in, I wanted to make the most of it. I started by drinking on my hostel balcony around 8pm, and I made zero friends. Great. Then I headed out to the Plaza des Armas at about 10pm which was super quiet, especially for a Saturday night. Next I headed back up to the hills I had been to earlier, this time to scout out a bar or a club, but it was mostly restaurants, mostly quiet and I was mostly bored. I took myself to two different venues for a cocktail, and then ended up strolling around until about 1am. But after everything that happened on my arrival in Chile, I didn’t feel confident being out and about on my own, especially at that hour and so I headed back to my hostel and went to bed.
I woke up in the foulest of moods. I kinda felt like Valparaiso had been a waste of my time. I didn’t like the place. I didn’t see what everyone else had obviously seen, plus I hadn’t met anyone and both my hostel and the night life had been a big disappointment. I decided to stick to my plan to check out that day and I booked myself onto a night-bus that night that would take me to my next Chilean city.
With an afternoon still to kill in this disappointing place, I decided to check out the Valparaiso Street Art Walking Tour, a free tour – also known as a Tour for tips – that offered a two hour walk with a guide, looking at the street art.
And this is when I learnt that sometimes it’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know!
Enter Diego – the tour guide!
Diego, our young, charming, chatty and very passionate tour guide met us in the Plaza des Armas, which I discovered is super quiet on a Sunday. It was as if everyone had left town for the day. Only three others turned up, an American couple and a Brazilian guy, making it a very intimate little tour.
The tour began with Diego walking us to a spot over the road to tell us about the history of graffiti, and how Valparaiso came to have every brick, every door, pretty much every inch of it covered in art. He showed us some of the most beautiful pieces of street art I have ever seen, and in contrast to that he showed us some of the worst and simplest forms of graffiti (which is usually just people signing their street name on someone’s property). He explained how many locals now pay artists to decorate their buildings with huge vivid paintings. And if anyone ever tried to paint over graffiti or art to have a ‘normal’ house, local street artists just see it as a brand new blank canvas to paint over.
He also pointed out that the hills of Valparaiso don’t have any big brands or chains, no Starbucks, no McDonald’s, because the community won’t allow corporate chains into their unique and independent world that is solely run by them – and even though I’ve got a soft spot for McDonald’s and am a big Starbucks whore, I kind of admired them for that.
Throughout the two hour walk Diego took us on a bit of an adventure. He walked us through hidden alleyways, ones a tourist would never be able to find, each one hiding away a quirky piece of art, or even a teeny tiny shop. He showed us shortcuts that cut the hills in half and took us to views that made us gasp. We were taken down an alley that was being completely repainted by a group of artists and at the beginning of the tour we were introduced to a famous artist couple who were up on scaffolding in the middle of creating commissioned street art. And at the end of the tour Diego even took us to a Bakery that sold a variety of over 60 different Empanadas (which was great news for me, because walking makes me super hungry).
Diego basically opened a window for me, a window that allowed me to look closer and see Valparaiso in a completely different light. Okay, so the night life had not been as expected, not that night anyway, but I suddenly found myself not caring, not when I had beautiful art to admire and yummy snacks to eat. No I did not like the litter situation, it made the place look dirty, but it turns out he agrees, so do many of the residents there. Just like us Brits, they blame their litter problem on lazy youths. But in the UK we have the power, the means and the funding to change this. They don’t. And yes, I had to admit, even though I am a dog person, I had been slightly intimidated by the big wild dogs roaming around everywhere, but as a group of happy dogs joined us on the tour, all with their tails wagging and their tongues hanging out, I began to love them. They were so friendly. Diego explained to us that not many locals tend to have pet dogs because they treat all the dogs in Valparaiso as their own; when one animal is sick they all chip in to get it medicine, they all feed them, they all care for them – which explains why all the dogs look so healthy.
By the end of my two hour tour with Diego, my opinion on Valparaiso had completely changed. It had switched from a ‘colourful s***hole’ to ‘cute & quirky, full of love and imagination’.
The Valparaiso Street Art Walking Tour certainly made me realise that sometimes you have to look a little harder and dig a little deeper to see the real beauty of a place. Not everything is perfectly structured, perfectly tiled or perfectly clean. I forgot that flaws can be beautiful. And exploring is fun, but sometimes you have to be shown a place to really understand it.
Considering the tour was tips only, it was a fantastic little tour, I cannot recommend it enough. Had I not bothered with it I would have left Valparaiso that day not understanding it at all. Instead I left understanding that Valparaiso is a place that is all about being free and having imagination. It still wasn’t my favourite place, and I had no desire to stay an extra night, but I certainly appreciated it as great little place and a cool city for backpackers to visit.
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