Valparaiso was, without question, our favourite city in Chile. If you're planning your route and only thinking about going straight from Santiago to San Pedro de Atacama, then we'd beg you to reconsider. In fact, we'd recommend you cut down your plans for Santiago so you can spend more than two nights in 'Valpo', just two hours from the capital.
The city doesn't necessarily have any stand-out attractions, which is perhaps why it isn't front-and-centre of the guidebooks. However, for us, the city itself was the attraction. It's gritty and authentic, with a history shared between the docks and the dreamers, such as Pablo Neruda. Its architecture, sprawling and clattering up the side of hills, makes little sense but captivates the eye. There are cafés and artists, street art and hill-top vistas, corner shops manned by little old ladies on the same street as boutique stores. Buses rumble past you as you're trying to avoid the after-work crowds on the pavements. Poetry and art decorates the walls, whilst ships and colourful containers form a barrier between the land and sea.
It reminded us, in parts, of Berlin (and if that's not enough of an endorsement, we don't know what is). Simply wandering around the city on a sunny day is the best way to experience it (and maybe fall in love like we did) but, to help you along the way, here are our some of our favourite things to do.
visit the food market
We returned to Valparaiso after six weeks in a very isolated, very non Latin-American bubble in Santiago. During that time, it was quite frankly a relief to remove ourselves from some of the more..intrusive..aspects of Latino culture, which had started to grate.
However, when our bus rolled in and we stepped out into the food market, there was no doubting we were back into the heart of things. Music played at full volume, there was no space to move, men and women laughed and shouted in unison, stray dogs zig-zagged between our legs and trash, from rotting fruit to old crates, was piled up on street corners. And you know what? We realised that we had really really missed it.
The market, which runs every day and takes over several streets outside the bus station, is ridiculously photogenic and chaotic. As well as being an experience all on its own, it's also way cheaper for fruit, veg and fish than anywhere else in the city. You're basically buying direct from the producers, so we'd strongly encourage you to shop there.
wander the cerros
A little like Medellin, our favourite city in Colombia, Valparaiso sprawls up the surrounding hills (cerros) and it's there where you'll find most of the action. It would take more than a week to visit them all - there are over 40 - but first-time visitors to the city should concentrate on Cerro Alegre and Concepción.
Although ostensibly the most touristic and gentrified parts of the city, authenticity remains on these neighbouring hills. As well as some lovely views, you'll find thrift stores, little handmade nik-nak shops, independent galleries, churches, cute cafés and restaurants plus some cool and varied architectural styles. You'll certainly get lost down some random alleyways but that might just lead to your favourite discovery in the city.
On a Sunday afternoon, you might want to make your way to little Plaza El Descanso on Cerro Concepción. Covered in hearts and mirrors, this is where crowds gather to drink, smoke and watch poets, musicians and dancers perform for free.
If you want to branch out from these cerros, our advice would be to ask a local at your hostel which others they would recommend visiting.
indulge in, possibly, the best empanadas in chile
We try to limit our use of 'best' in these posts because, unless you try out all the options, then you're hardly able to give a definitive statement. However, when it comes to Chilean empanadas, we tried considerably more than our fair share, so feel qualified to say that we found some incredible ones in Valparaiso.
Le Pató is a little artisan empanaderia on Cerro Alegre, where the small team create wonderful veggie and non-veggie fillings. The menu is changed daily, delightfully scrawled onto white bits of sticky-tape which are peeled away as and when the supply runs out. However, any day you visit, something is delicious is bound to be on offer; from cheese, olive, tomato and basil to spicy pulled pork, every single one left us salivating.
And, if you still don't believe us, then the fact that on our return to the city, we did a 90-minute walking round-trip - whilst hungover - just so we could buy some of Le Pato's finest, should remove all doubt about how awesome these empanadas are.
To find them, simply hike up the street called Almirante Montt, until you see #556 on the right hand side, with the little duck in a chef hat sign.
find art on the streets
Given that the most popular tour in town is focused solely on Valparaiso's street art, it should come as little surprise that the city is covered from head to toe in spray paint. However, you will unlikely have seen somewhere where graffiti is so interwoven into the city's structural fabric.
Instead of taking the tour (we only heard good things about it though), we simply kept our eyes open as we wandered around the town - it's difficult to miss.
From large-scale murals to little hidden-away pieces, graffiti plays a big part in making sections of Valpo so colourful and enticing. Most of it is excellent, however certain streets and buildings have unfortunately been ruined by less talented taggers simply scrawling nonsense on the walls. If anything, if you weren't already aware of the distinction between 'street art' and 'vandalism', you certainly will be after your visit.
If you grab a free city map, you'll find the route for the Museo a Cielo Abierto (Open Air Museum) on Cerro Bellavista. This is a well-established circuit which brings you to the work of several notable artists however, we actually found the neighbourhood more interesting and photogenic than the art, with better pieces scattered throughout the city.
celebrate the start of spring
If you're visiting Valparaiso at the beginning of October, then you're in luck. In such a culturally and politically conservative country, it was a real surprise when our hostel owner told us about the Mil Tambores festival. Held on the first weekend of October to mark the transition from winter to spring, there are the usual sort of things like traditional dancers, markets and concerts.
However, on the last day, it all goes a bit crazy. Naked men, topless women, painted bodies, debauchery by the beach, lots of booze and crowds. Think of it as a small scale Notting Hill Carnival with more nudity and less Caribbean influence, and you're almost there.
best of the rest
The above are our favourites, but other popular activities in the city are a visit to Pablo Neruda's house, a boat trip from the harbour, the free city walking tour (for tips) and a day-trip to the fancy-pants beach town of Viña del Mar.
Valparaiso also holds lots of markets, festivals and cultural events throughout the year - we'd go so far as to call it the cultural capital of Chile - so keep your ear to the ground when you're visiting to see what's on.
Where to stay in Valparaiso
Given Valpo's new found popularity on the backpacker trail, it won't come as a surprise that there are dozens of hostels to choose from, doted all over the city. Whilst many people opt to stay in one of the cerros, both times we visited, we chose hostels more centrally located - and can strongly recommend both!
During our first trip, we stayed with Nómada Hostel, an eco hostel located in a beautiful old building with fantastic views of the ocean and the surrounding hills. Great kitchen, staff that will feel like friends and many opportunities to improve your Spanish! Read our full review here, or make a reservation now.
Muffin Hostel was home for our second trip, located near to the local market (and therefore an excellent choice for those who choose to cook!). Another solid choice, with all the amenities you would expect, plus an adorable hostel bunny to make friends with! It also had some of the cheapest double rooms in town. Click here for more information or to make a reservation.