Perched smugly on the coast of Chile you will find the accidental port city of Valparaíso, or Valpo as the locals call it. We say accidental as this explosion of art, colour and Bohemia wasn’t born like a normal South American city, being founded and sprawling outwards from the central Plaza de Armas. The city was always considered a port of Santiago and so was never officially founded and has no Plaza de Armas!
So where other cities have the logic of streets, avenues and blocks, Valpo has winding narrow laneways and mismatched, multi-coloured, corrugated tin-clad buildings. There is a main Plaza, Soto Mayor, but it doesn’t resemble the normal layout of the tree filled, Church adjacent plaza we’ve all come to know and love, instead is a large statue dedicated to the brave souls who lost their lives during the Pacific war, centred in an area where you can’t tell where the footpath stops and the road starts.
“The Jewel of the Pacific” boasts so many unique and historically significant points that its entire historic quarter was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003 and cannot be changed or repaired without the green light from them.
All the repairs also need to be done using original techniques and materials making it very expensive and difficult, leading to a lot of abandoned buildings.
Valpo is officially known as the “Cultural capital of Chile”, and unofficially as the “City of Great Legs”, 95% of the population live in the cerros, or mountains away from the port itself, so lots of stairs.
Within walking distance of the plaza, are the Concepcion and Alegre neighbourhoods. These are the tourist hotspots with plenty of trendy bars and restaurants from the upscale, polished glass establishments, to the hipster cafes serving drinks in jam jars.
If you’re staying in Valpo, you’ll more than likely want to stay here. The architecture is a mix of old gothic buildings and newer more modern styles. Contradictory neighbourhoods where you can have a Starbucks beside an independent cafe. There are loads of banks in this area also adding to the chaos.
A place where the old and the new, the tall and the small, the clean and the dirty stand side by side. It’s multi-layered, multi-coloured and multicultural. An eclectic clash of business suits and mohawks, truly a unique Barrio.
We found it to be a remarkably safe area, the nightlife is really active here as families wander the narrow, stair-dotted streets hand in hand, friends wine and dine together and artists fill the streets with music and dancing. You can wander between the two and not realise you’ve changed Barrios. If Concepción is an artistic, bohemian, Latino man, Alegre is his rich girlfriend who’s slumming a little bless her heart.
To the southeast of Concepcion and Alegre, about a 25-minute walk from the Plaza Soto Mayor, you will find the San Juan de Dios & Bella Vista barrios, this is more of a residential area but is worth mentioning as there are a few hostels and bars. We’d recommend staying here If you’re on a budget as it’s a cheaper area to both eat and sleep. There’s not a whole lot of nightlife here though, so you’ll be walking or taxiing home after a night out which is something to bear in mind.
To the west-northwest of the Muelle Prat is the Barrio Puerto, consisting of Cordillera, St. Domingo, Playa Ancha and Artillería. This is the original barrio of the “Porteños” or port workers. It’s still a conflicted neighbourhood so can be a little dangerous, especially after dark. It’s really nice to see and feel the history and has lots of street art, but we’d recommend taking the Barrio Puerto walking tour just to be on the safe side.
A 4-minute walk to the east of the plaza is Muelle Prat Port, if in doubt just follow your nose, the smell of fish and gasoline will lead you straight to it! The vibrant Muelle is where local fishermen work for their catch of the day, navy battleships park and wait, with the hope they’re never needed and large cargo ships await their loads. Artists play out puppet shows, and tourists flock to board one of the motor ‘Paseo Collectivo’ boats.
The main bus terminal Rodoviário Valparaíso sits on the corner of Pedro Montt, close to the Plaza O’Higgins, and Avenida Argentina where you can find the Paris Mall, Petrobras gas station and Bank Estadio. The Avenida rings around the city, flowing left to form Errázuriz, the main road alongside the beach, and right to form Avenida Espana, a straight drive to Vina del Mar. Head to Calle Rawson, for streets endless with markets selling fruit, vegetables, fish, and anything your imagination can stretch to.
Table of Contents
How To Get To Valparaíso:
From terminal La Serena, you can take a 7 or 8-hour bus, Tickets start at 13,200 CP and the bus will drop you at Rodoviário Valparaíso.
From Santiago, there is a lot more choice as it’s only a 1 to 1 1/2 hour journey. We showed up and haggled for the best price going 3.500CP. Buses leave every 20 minutes. All services into Valpo terminate at Rodoviario.
Things To Do in Valparaíso:
These boots are made for walking:
At 10 am and 3 pm daily there is a “Tours for Tips” walking tour which leaves from the plaza Soto Mayor and for two to three hours transports you around the finer points of Valpo.
The 10am tour focuses more on the history and the culture, while the 3pm tour is more about showing you the main highlights of the city. Both are incredibly informative, depending on what you’re into. The tours focus mainly on the Concepcion and Alegre areas. Your guide will be wearing a red and white, wheres Wally t-shirt, as is the trademark of the Tours for Tips guides.
There’s also a 12.30pm Barrio Puerto walking tour that meets at the statue in the Plaza Sotomayor. This tour focuses on the history of Valpo and the street art. It’s a very information-heavy tour and is the only walking tour to go through the Barrio Puerto.
If you’re a history buff this is definitely the tour for you. Oh, and there’s a lady who lives in one of the houses who waits on the tour so she can hand out blessings and chocolate, cuuuute.
All the pretty pictures:
Valparaiso is famous for many reasons, but probably the most prominent is its abundance of street art. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of graffiti too, and it’s good graffiti, but I’m talking about street art murals that tell a story or make a point politically or otherwise. This city is a storybook and every street is a page.
If you want to immerse yourself in the street art culture of Valpo, you´ll need a long time. If you don’t have the time, why not take a street art tour and see the highlights?
If you don’t want to do a tour it’s remarkably easy to catch the highlights yourself.
There’s the Museo a Cielo Abierto, an open-air museum of mural-covered buildings on Calle Labruyere, All along Calle Templeman is great for spotting street art (also most of the Instagram famous ones are here) and Calle Simpson out by the Ascensor Polanco is another popular spot.
Put the fun in funicular:
As Valparaiso is built on several hills, funiculars or rail elevators were constructed to transport goods, building materials and people from top to bottom and vice versa. Originally there were 27 funiculars of that number; only 9 are still functioning today. Unfortunately, as there is a government initiative to rejuvenate them there are usually only 6 running at any stage. This was the case when they were there. If you’re only going to see one or two we’d recommend Polanco, as it is probably the most picturesque or Concepcion as it was the first one built. You will need to keep an eye out as most of them are INSIDE buildings and are only shown by a rusty old sign above the door.
Get the boat:
There are collectivo boat tours running at the pier from 10am to 8pm daily. There’s no timetable; they just leave when they’re full. A half-hour boat ride from Muelle Prat to Muelle Baron and back costs 3,000CP. You will have a full frontal view of the paradise that is Valparaíso. Take a trip around 4-6pm for the perfect mix of warm weather, gentle sea breeze and beautiful sunlight. There is a guide who will tell you about the port’s history and the current harboured boats and ships. The tour is in Spanish, but even if you don’t speak the lingo you can enjoy the sights and wave at the lazy sea lions as you sail around the bay.
Go to jail:
Located on Calle Carcel to the west of Cementerio no. 2 is the old prison of Valparaiso. This normally would be enough to warrant a visit, but this particular prison has been turned into a culture centre and family park. Totally worth a look, you will see families gathering to celebrate birthdays, young lovers walking hand in hand and friends chilling on the grass. Entry is free to the main park but you can opt to take a guided tour of what’s left of the old facility at 1, 3, 4, and 5pm for 2,500CP pp. Tours are in English and Spanish, and the meeting point is outside the tourist information office.
Viña Del Mar:
8 km to the northeast of Valparaiso you will find its more sophisticated, wealthier, older brother city, Viña del Mar. Immediately a more affluent area the first thing you notice is that there’s less street art and hippies and more, restaurants and SUV´s.
A relaxed and family-friendly vibe, this is an active beach town fitted with playgrounds, outdoor gyms, volleyball nets, a small football stadium with chairs, gymnasium bars, and other activities for children (bouncy castles, trampoline).
Instead of your typical beach town cannons, along the Viña del Mar beach are war guns, from large battleships adding to the sense of class and sophistication. Viña del Mar comes alive at night as people populate the local bars and restaurants. Because of this and its pristine white sandy beachfront, it is a popular holiday hotspot for foreigners and Chileans alike.
Valparaíso to Viña Del Mar:
From Avenida Errázuriz, take any bus displaying signs for Viña del Mar or specifically lookout 601 and 602. The journey costs 480CP pp. each way.
You can also take the metro from Puerto to Miramar but it’s expensive unless you plan on purchasing a day ticket 3390CP, and you´ll still need to walk for about 10 or 15 minutes to get to the beach.
To ride the metro you need a travel card (2000CP) and with that purchase, you receive 500CP credit. It’s a little over 1,000CP from Valparaiso to Vina del Mar.
Things To Do in Viña Del Mar:
Take A Hike:
Tours for tips to the rescue again. Same format as before, look for your “Wally” at the flower clock at 10am or 3pm depending on your preference of tour type, history or highlights and enjoy a 2 to 3 hour information odyssey of “the garden city”.
Sitting on the dock of the bay:
Muelle Vergara is a long pier that is no longer in use as a port so it’s open to the public and possible to walk down. To the right of the pier is the Borde Costero, a long boardwalk and park with stalls, playground artisanal and fast food stalls. Colours, sounds and smells abound.
Let’s go to the beach-each:
During the high season, Reñaca is a beach without sand. As in, you will in no way find a grain due to what feels like thousands of people covering every inch. Mostly teenagers and young adults, the pumping dance music, games of intense volleyball and thong-wearing inch-perfect women reminded us of a scene from Ibiza. You could say Playa Reñaca is the Cancun of Chile. The early opening nightclubs are packed to the brim with beach bums and the intense hot sun shining across the entire Avenida Borgoño, until at least 9.30pm. This is a true party town, one with no curfew.
Dunas de Concón:
400CP from Vina del Mar, next to the Plaza Vergara. Bus passes the Dunes.
From here take a 25 minute coastal walk down to Renaca. There is a path the whole way. If you feel a little tiresome, it’s easy to jump back on a bus from anywhere along this main road. Concon gives off this seaside vibe. Once you ignore the few towering apartment blocks built with full Seaview access. The looming cliffside hides the remaining city.
A sure sign of Concon’s wealth and a thriving economy. Two small beaches, Not as glam as the ones in Vina del Mar but certainly less busy.
All in all the twin cities of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar are well worth a visit regardless of your reason for doing so.
As always my friends, if you need any more info or have any comments or questions please get in touch. We would love to hear from you.