7 Great reasons to visit Valparaíso, Chile
The locals call the place Valpo not Valparaiso. Chilean tradition prizes Spanish that leaves off syllables where possible and climbing any one of the 45 hills that make up the geography of Valpo is bound to leave you out of breath, so it is just as well the extra letters disappear.
The bayside was named by the captain of the supply ship for the first Spanish explorers to the area in 1536. Juan Saavedra had grown up in a village in Spain named Valparaiso. The South American Valparaiso is now a tourist destination and major shipping port for the entire country while art and cultural events expand it’s original nickname of ‘The Jewel of the Pacific’. The entire city was recognized as a World Heritage Site in 2003.
- 1 Getting to Valparaíso is cheap and easy from Santiago
- 2 Accommodation in Valparaíso is well priced for a beach city
- 3 Food is excellent and can be cheap or gourmet
- 4 There is plenty to do in Valparaíso
- 5 It’s the Hippy Art Capital of Chile
- 6 See how do Real Chileans live: Bufo Travesias
- 7 The Cerro Abajo bike race
Getting to Valparaíso is cheap and easy from Santiago
This is easy and cheap. Most people head for Santiago as it is the capital and all flights go there first. There is no major airport in Valparaíso. Instead you take a luxury bus service out of the regional terminals. This is what everyone but the president of the country uses. It will run you about US$8 return. (The Chilean peso is roughly 500 to a US dollar.)
There are a number of bus lines going to Valparaíso. They leave from both El Centro and Pajaritios stations about every 10-15 minutes. Depending on which line you use you will get reclining seats, a TV in the back of your seat, a snack and perhaps even wine. It is a 40-mile trip to the coast.
Any taxi, local van, or local bus can get you to the terminals from the airport. Taxi’s are priciest at about CLP11,000 or US$22 and a bus is half that on a per person basis. There are local guys with cars who will drive you straight to the terminals for US$16-20. They are safe to patronize and will make themselves known as you clear customs.
For the more adventurous and moneyed amongst you – rent a car for about US$36 a day from a one of the big companies and about US$26 from one of the local operators. Add money for taxes and whatever insurances you want to buy and the price hits US$80 for a day’s transport for your party. It’s a fun way to go if you have several in your party and like to take side roads and look at the countryside close-up while buying fruits from roadway stalls.
Roads all over the country are excellent and drivers are OK. There are tolls for the tunnel roads, usually about $1,000 pesos or US$2 a vehicle – 3 tolls on the shortest road. Gasoline is almost US$1.80 per liter roughly 4 liters to a gallon.
Accommodation in Valparaíso is well priced for a beach city
First understand that the city is divided into two parts. Valparaíso is the old town. Viña del Mar is it’s sister city with only one street dividing the two. Viña is modern and laden with condos and hostels. Book early, if there is a holiday the town gets full.
Best value for a luxurious place to stay with all amenities; Wi-Fi, pool, room service, restaurant, and near the beach will set you back US$92 or more.
If you are prepared to be off the beach and on a hill with bright walls, paintings and mosaics in a hostel with a tiny private bath you will spend around $25,000 CLP or roughly US$50. That’s a normal stay in one of the big old mansions. Beware that most of them have not been retrofitted for AC/heating. A small free standing room heater or fan is adequate though as the climate is mild.
You can go even further out for around US$22-30 but check cleanliness and security. Some are good and filled with locals who know the good deals.
Food is excellent and can be cheap or gourmet
Cheap street food is everywhere and generally safe to eat. Use your nose. A meat filled semi-circular empanada runs US$1.60. A cheese empanada is $500 CLP or about US$1. Add a bottled water for US$1 and it’s a very cheap lunch.
Your guidebook may not mention the very special warmer weather offerings from Oct-April. Numerous artisanal ice creams! Mango/blueberry or kiwi fruit/choc chip anyone? It’s a low-priced treat at about US$2 for a double-scooped cone. Cups of cut fresh fruits on street corners run US$1.
Here is a pricey treat rolled up in an unforgettable experience; Cooking Chilean Cuisine; For US$75 you spend 5-6 hours with a multilingual chef. He’ll introduce you to ingredients you ignore back home because you have no idea what to do with them. Take back a bit of Chile without trying to stuff anything in you bag but the recipe sheets. You get a scrumptious meal with wine at the end of course.
They also have wine tours to the nearby local wholly organic winery for US$200. This includes all transport and the fees for the tour charged by the winery. The sommelier will ensure an education in the local offerings and plenty of tastings. (There are also cheaper wine tours available from your hostel.)
Chile had the only Carminiére wine grapes left on the planet a while back. The vines were attacked and killed off all over the planet but due to the Pacific in the west and the Andes in the east the plague never got to Chile and so they have wines you will never taste elsewhere.
There is plenty to do in Valparaíso
Valparaíso gives you the delights of an old colonial European type city without the price tag. Of course you also get some of the uncomfortable aspects too. Some streets unpaved, smells that raise the question of their origin, etc.
But I still suggest a few days in the area for it’s excellent attractions.
You must, of course, ride one of the numerous 130-year-old elevators to the top of one of the VERY steep hills. Almost free at 20 CLP. Aside from undertaking the alarming squeaking and creaking of the car itself all funiculars take you from the port area to the older residential parts of town catering to tourists.
Free or donation attractions:
- At the top there are spectacular views over the city and bay
- World-class street art everywhere.
- Museums galore, history, natural sciences, arts, etc.
- House tours of writers, admirals and other Chilean notables
- Art galleries
- There is a large well appointed casino and cultural center on the bay
Street venders have locally made trinkets and art for sale. Good, and nicely priced at 5,000-10,000 CLP.
This all creates some great ambiance. Your guidebook will tell you which attractions is at the top of each hill so you can plan an interesting itinerary. There are also many local people offering themselves as guides for very little. They are multilingual and good.
It’s the Hippy Art Capital of Chile
There has long been a tradition of vibrant art in Valparaíso. On the streets in the form of street art on people’s houses and murals and fountains paid for by the city. Plus everywhere you look;
- 3D creations of all kinds
‘ ExCarcel’ is a hill containing the original powder magazine that was used in the 1880’s as a jail. It was expanded and used for prisoners for 110 years. Until 1999 the ‘Carcel’ was the main working jail for the region. It was a place you did not want to be sent.
In 2000 it was abandoned and falling down. A group of leftover hippy artists needing studio space took up squatter’s rights and started lobbying the politicians to turn the place into the vibrant art space it is now.
It has studios, exhibition space, workshop areas, a small concert hall plus outdoor gardens where free music concerts are given all summer. Several of the ex-long term inmates are they give tours and talk about life in the prison. Free, but donations are appreciated.
See how do Real Chileans live: Bufo Travesias
This is a newer venture with an extended family that has generations of history in the area.
Bufo Travesias picks you up and drives you through the lush green valley behind the city and into the countryside to their working campo or ranch. Once there you are introduced to your horse and taught his vocabulary. Then you ride through the stunning terrain; valleys with forests of trees and hills with saguaro type cacti and dry and wet riverbeds.
The entire trip contains information about Chilean flora and fauna and how to create sustainable life. The day’s pace is slow and you can regroup from the often mad pace of travel yet be soaking up life in Chile. As you reach the forested section of the ride you can get off and siesta or take a hike with your guide, who is a family member. They are involved in several projects to help with scientific studies so tourists often get to help be part of some aspect of the latest study. (Frog counting in the creek perhaps?)
Then there is lunch like ‘the natives’ eat. The cost for all this ecotourism delight and understanding another’s lifestyle for most of a day? 30,000 CLP or US$60 per person. That includes lunch and the transport back and forth to your lodgings in town.
The Cerro Abajo bike race
Chileans love skateboarding, biking, skiing, surfing and other bone breaking pastimes but one of Valparaíso’s main seasonal attractions may well leave your mouth agape.
If you play your cards well there is the scariest bike race on the planet held there, which is free to watch.
The Cerro Abajo is the mother of all downhill bike races. According to legend the ‘Cerro Abajo’, held in Feb-March, is much more dangerous than skydiving and a whole raft of other death defying activities.
The course is set up going down the most punishing and deadly streets, ramps and stairs imaginable. (And no I don’t know if there are any deaths connected with it but there have been many broken bones, stitches and concussions.)
‘Cerro Abajo’ is now part of the prestigious, or insane, depending on your viewpoint, MTB Downhill World Tour. It’s likely to become a crowded spectator event in the next few years. Check out the videos for some simply unbelievable footage.
What things cost for a 4-day trip to Valparaíso
I have rounded up the ‘middle-of-the-road’ expenses plus the pricier tour and chef class here all in USD.
Bus transport and incidental transport:
- Airport into town 16.
- Bus to Valpo 8.
- Transport in Valpo 6.
- Boat trip on Bay 20.
- Ranch excursion 60.
- Cooking Day 75.
Museums donations or other fees, Art galleries, watch the downhill bike race,etc: 30.
Nice mid-level hostel135. USD
(private room and bath 22,500 CLP x day x 3)
- Breakfast free at hostel
- Lunches included with the activities- ranch and cooking or empanadas
- Dinners,ice creams, fruit cups, waters, etc50.
4 full days all costsUS$400 ($100 a day)
I think you’ll find some pretty unforgettable experiences to be had in this little known quaint seaside town.
By Suzie Hammond
Suzie Hammond is a freelance writer and the author of; “I am Not Sure Where I Want to Be -But it's Not Here” (Easily Find Your Ideal Relocation Destination)
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