Valparaiso is a series of foothills, rolling downwards from the Chilean Coastal range to the pacific. If Santiago is a sprawling flat metropolis punctuated by hills and the occasional skyscraper, Valparaiso is all hills punctuated by an occasional flatness. It is a city of funiculars, leading from the largest port in Chile up into the old barrios that fed workers to the docks. Most built at the turn of the last century, the cars of the funiculars are funky things on lopsided stilts, creaking with character. Having forgotten to download our guidebooks we sampled the neighborhoods at the tops of each one, searching for the city’s famous charm that brings thousands of ‘tourists’ from Santiago into Valparaiso to celebrate New Years there every year. The evidence of the party remained even if the Santiagoans had already left; drifts of sparkling confetti, streamers and plastic hats piled up in little banks against cobblestone curbs. At the top of each hill we were met by incredible views of the city below, stately Victorian municipal buildings painted in bright pastels, most left over from when Valparaiso wasn’t just the port but Chile’s capital as well. Mansions of a similar style and color mingled with shacks of corrugated metal, both painted with equal optimism and both in equally bad repair. Between the cheerful shacks and the mansions that clung precariously to the side of the steep hills, empty lots littered with the bricks and refuse of their crumbled former occupants, victims of earthquakes no doubt, but also of mudslides and poverty. Past the charmingly decrepit vistas, in the valleys between the hills, shanty-towns were built haphazardly on near vertical slopes, held up by rebar and flowering bougainvillea.
At our first stop of Artillery Hill we made a half hearted attempt to brave the shantytowns and walk to the next hill over. We’d gotten a few blocks and were photographing some of the most picturesque facades of the day, when one of the many stray dogs that roam Chile’s urban areas lifted its lion colored head from the dust and emitted a deep growl. So far the dogs we’d seen had been friendly and surprisingly well cared for. Some mutts in Santiago were quite handsome and well groomed. It’s a good indication of a country’s personality how well they treat their strays – I think of the tumor ridden creatures in India, swarming with fleas vs. their elaborately painted cows, given every luxury, a portrait of India’s dual nature of spirituality and neglect. Valparaiso’s dogs seemed as docile as Santiago’s until this beast began its rumbling warning. It raised itself to its feet, but walked a lopsided gait away from where we were taking pictures. He started to bark into the air and other voices from the barrio called in response. Then around the corner walked a shady looking character, his head down and his shoulders tight. We were alert now too, and we crossed out of the man’s trajectory. In each hand he gripped a rock. His wrists were turned inwards so the rocks were hidden by his big hands. He didn’t look at us or the chorus of barking dogs. We walked the other direction, the dogs paying no heed, and soon were walking again amongst other strolling tourists and locals. We’re the man’s rocks intended for the dogs? For the back of tourist’s heads? Did the man have a history with the dogs? The lion colored mutt had sensed something coming and didn’t like it, and thanks to him we decided against walking further off the beaten path. If our travel senses aren’t yet honed, better we rely on the warnings of beasts.
On the hills at the center of the city, the barrios are in beautiful shape. The old mansions still tended and lived in. In a shaded little cafe serving delicious cappuccinos, we listened as a woman practiced singing chords, the bird-like song drifting through palm leaves and wrought iron grills.
We made it to an old prison, on Prison Hill, which has been turned into a cultural center. On one end of the old exercise yard, a brand new five story building, airy with open patios and gradual staircase inclines. Subtle geometric courtyards splashed sunlight inside the structure, their walls painted yellow in contrast to the natural concrete color of the rest of the place. Magda had a field day taking pictures and we spent the rest of the afternoon documenting this sharp new building.
On the other side if the yard. The old prison sat looking untouched, and it was closed. As we passed, a portly security guard asked in Spanish what we were doing. Just walking by, looking we said. This was enough to start a lecture in his shaky, curiously accented English about the history of the building. Finally, not content to just tell us about the fabulous renovation of the stark old prison, he threw open its gates to show us the completely remodeled inside. It was a revelation, the old prison facade, complete with barred windows, was just a shell casting bar shaped beams of sun onto a thoroughly modern inner structure. It was the sister building of the first one we’d seen. We were told that they would be holding a flamenco show there the following evening, bringing thousands of people to the old compound. Alas, he would be the only security guard, he said with his mustachioed grin. When he got distracted by giving another passing couple a similar lecture, Magda took some shots of this remarkable building as well. We wished the round guard luck and made our way back through the chaotic lower streets to the bus station.
On our return to Santiago, Consuelo drove across the whole city to deliver our backpacks to us so we could get on an overnight bus headed south. Her generosity was yet another example of the fantastic welcome we’d received in Santiago. We had to give her a too quick, too unsatisfactory goodbye. To her, to Tavo and to Chile’s capital as we ran to catch a bus that ended up being in no hurry to leave.