The overnight coach from Osorno to Santiago was onboard a particularly old, dirty and uncomfortable bus that left us feeling shattered and broken.The need to recharge our batteries and have a more chilled day is this reason that we decided to skip the capital (Santiago) in favour of Valparaiso, the smaller more interesting laid back city we heard such great things about.
Valparaiso is the old capital and the seat of congress which is surrounded by 45 cerros (hills). The downtown (flat) area is a gritty, busy, bustling port awash with homeless alcoholics that share the left overs from the large fish and veg markets with the huge and quite aggressive seagulls and pelicans.
Interestingly it is the 100s of stray cats and dogs that tend to be the biggest beneficiaries, particularly the dogs who are all extremely well fed by the locals. We later found out that the culture in Chile is to raise a dog during the puppy stage ( usually for the kids) before throwing them on the street once grown to fend for themselves. The macho culture also doesn’t allow for neutering irrespective of the mammal, resulting in hundreds of mongrel strays that have seemed to create their own society of gangs and hierarchies throughout the city and country for that matter.
As with most historically important ports, Valparaiso was the birth place of the Chilean banking system, benefiting from a huge influx of immigration (particularly from Europe) which has paved the way for it being the centre of the arts and progressive thinking.
The political importance of the city, as well as the fact that is was also the birth place of General Pinochet has, I believe, shaped the strong anti capitalist leftist student subculture present here. similar to what we have seen in Buenos Aires and Berlin, these minority groups come to the fore during times of repression and begin to blossom immediately after the fall of a dictatorship.
I remember the controversial arrest of Pinochet in London back in 1998, but was more concerned about partying at the time to pay much attention to it.
The key to understanding Chile today is to understand Pinochet’s military rule which began via his coup back in ’73 following the demise (apparent suicide) of the worlds first democratically elected Marxist president (Salvador Allende). He ruled through repression, torture and murder right through to ’89 with a strong influence in politics up until ’94.
Interestingly people’s opinions of Pinochet are somewhat divided given the radical economic policies of free trade that have successfully helped make Chile one of the strongest economies of this continent. The US involvement with Pinochet’s coupe and the fact that nearly all of the large copper, gas and nitrate firms that underpin this economy are owned by US firms, has a very real impact on the culture in Chile (less so in the south) … not necessarily always for the better.
We stayed in a truly bohemian hostel that was in an area where most tourists wouldn’t really go ( cerros Alegre). The couple that own the hostel (which is really more of a cheap bed sit for the builders or port workers) were without question the leftist product of the recent history explained above. They were interesting, well-read hipster types that on the surface seemed to be living the idyllic bohemian lifestyle. The husband spent most of the day ‘running’ the cool cafe below the hostel, collecting books and discussing politics with musicians, artists; basically anyone with the time, whilst the wife looked after the 5 or so rooms they rented above.
After spending some time with them during our stay, I couldn’t help but see a more sombre harsh reality that their once youthful activist exterior had begun to crack along with the building. Both in their late 30’s early 40’s they are beginning to show the signs of aging with an expression hard to explain in words. Frustration at the ill distributed wealth in Chile and the fatigue of living day-to-day lay behind their welcoming smiles. Upon reflection and after our first night, what I thought was a look that reflected some of the social and political issues of this booming economy could have simply been a lack of sleep!
Our room was partitioned with a single door that had broken glass widows at the very top, as such we were able to hear every little thing our neighbour was up to. Normally this wouldn’t be of interest , however the lady that occupied the room was a local butch lesbian who seemed to have a very close relationship with both the husband and wife! Let’s just say my impression of the liberal couple changed some what after the 1st night!
Another interesting difference with this particular portal city, is their unique take on titty bars, which in themselves are no surprise given the amount of port workers. The difference here, is that they are open 24 hours and are in fact coffee bars! No alcohol is served and they are an accepted part of society since most Chilean men cheat on their wives as a matter of course ( may be a huge generalisation that is most likely changing as the legal status of women have recently been transformed to allow divorce and heavier sentencing against sexual harassment)
Whilst I have probably painted a pretty grim picture so far, this city is absolutely beautiful and a true highlight of our trip so far. The 45 different hills ( neighbourhoods) surrounding the downtown are an assortment of colourful tin boxes that have elements of European design depending on the origin of the immigrants that settled there.
The hills of Carcel, Algre and Bellavista are simply huge art galleries with some of the best graffiti we have ever seen. Every corner seemed to have groups of local art students drawing or panting the most vibrant city scenes. It is no wonder that the spectacular faded beauty of these hills have long drawn in South Americas most famous poets, painters and would be philosophers. The 15 rattling acensores ( funiculars) that crank you up into the hills add another dimension to this unexpected charm.