Decaying and totally charming
Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
127Trip End Aug 01, 2007
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From Cusco we flew to Santiago, Chile via Lima. The next morning we headed out by bus to the nearby city of Valparaiso. Valpo, as it is known locally, is not visited for any specific blockbuster "sights". It's faded charm, brightly colored houses, century old asensores/funicular railways, and house of Nobel Laureate poet, Pablo Neruda, seems to draw a light but steady stream of visitors. The town is a bit decrepit having seen its glory days pass almost a century ago. When the Panama Canal opened in 1914, ships could bypass Cape Horn when crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and therefore didn't have to resupply in Valpo. Despite all that, the town seems to be steadily on its way up with numerous restorations, revitalized neighborhoods, and a slow rising of fortunes. Actually the story of the thriving port turned derelict then finally renewed was a historical pattern that seemed quite similar to that of our home of Hoboken, New Jersey
A highlight of our two days here was a walking tour we arranged with a local guide named Michael (a transplanted German man). The tour was awesome. There was so much that he showed us that we would have never seen on our own, from the former Chilean stock exchange, to the movie set-like inside of a formerly glorious century old office building that was in an advanced state of decrepitude. Actually it was a bit sad to see how many magnificent structures that the city had, most of which were in various states of decay. But all things said, I really enjoyed our time there, and would love to come back!
Upon entering Chile, it was easy to see the relative wealth of the country, particularly compared to Boliva and Peru. The Santiago airport is new and modern, and our shuttle bus zoomed us down an 8 lane interstate highway to our hotel. All of the Spanish style architecture with big looming cathedrals and imposing government buildings makes it difficult to remember that you are not in Europe. After a freezing night in a hostel in the middle of downtown, we took an amazingly nice and comfortable bus to the town of Valparaiso (the bus had a video system with in seat headphone outlets, and a screen that displayed how fast the driver was going...something they definitely could use in Turkey!). After staying in hotel rooms for 2.5 weeks without heat, we were overjoyed that our little guesthouse in Valpo had a space heater
Just a quick aside... Chile is in winter denial, refusing to believe that they are not a tropical country. Most places do not have heat, and people walk around in short sleeves with winter hats, shorts with heavy coats, or flip flops with gloves. What? It's like they don't want to commit to the cold, and if they just pretend that it isn't cold, it will really be warm. And people regularly leave their windows open to let the balmy air in... the balmy 40-degree (Fahrenheit) air, that is. We froze everywhere we went, which is why that space heater was amazing, and we just sat around it and practically worshiped the thing. In fact, our big entertainment each night was to go back to the room and sit next to the space heater.
Valparaiso is both inspiring and depressing at the same time. It is easy to see that this city was once the financial and social powerhouse of the southern pacific coast (like 100 years ago), and how it is really about decaying buildings with grand architecture. To appreciate most of the town, you really have to use your imagination to see what was. However, there seems to be a bit of a revitalization going on now, with several big restoration projects, and a few entrepreneurs getting in early on the expected boom in tourism by opening new restaurants and hotels
I enjoyed Valparaiso, but I think that was more of a function of the walking tour with our knowledgeable guide and the really nice and genuine woman who owned our guesthouse. She was about our age, and we talked with her at length about growing up in the military dictatorship, and the changes she has seen since democracy was restored in 1990. Prior to coming to Chile, I really didn't know that much about the history here, so I found her viewpoint to be quite interesting. Read Todd's section in our next post (Santiago) for a summary of the history of Chile
Tomorrow we head back to Santiago to explore the city for a few days, and then on to Buenos Aires. I am looking forward to hanging out in a more cosmopolitan place after all this camping and roughing it in non-heated rooms!