A walk on the wild side in Valparaiso
Valparaiso is a grimy old port with over 450 years of history and the third largest city in Chile. Although Santiago is the official capital, ‘Valpa’ is home to the Chilean parliament. Until the Panama Canal was built, it was one of the most important stop offs for ships moving between the Pacific and Atlantic through the Magellan Straits. It’s now the second most important port in the country and a vital base for the Chilean navy.
During its golden era it attracted immigrants from all over Europe, including Britain. The architecture of the old town reflects the many cultural styles that they brought with them and nowadays it is a UNESCO world heritage site. Today it is a very bohemian city with a large left-leaning, student population, who seem to be at every traffic light performing acrobatics, juggling or breathing fire for the entertainment of the waiting drivers.
The school students were on strike demanding free education when I was the there and in the evenings there were often clashes with the riot police who were defending the congress building, not that I saw any of it as I was staying in posh and peaceful Vina del Mar next door (see previous post).
My only tastes of town were on a Monday (virtually dead, lots of places closed) and a Wednesday (relatively buzzing) so I can’t really comment on the night life, although I’m sure the locals party hard.
For food, the Rough Guide suggested I try J.Cruz Malbrau, a greasy spoon up a dark side alley at 1466 Condell. The taxi driver warned me to watch myself around this part of town, but it was pretty quiet early in the week so I wasn’t too worried.
There’s lots of graffiti in the alley (some of it quite good) but I wasn’t expecting it to carry on inside the restaurant where even the napkin holders and greasy plastic tablecloths are covered in scrawl.
The rest of the walls and the ceiling are covered with an impressive collection of old junk including, amongst many, many other things; African masks, kitsch woodcarvings, cherubic portraits, bombs with baby’s bibs tied to them (!?), hundreds of passport photos and cabinets containing collections of ivory carvings and Toby mugs! It’s quite a sight.
Upon entering I was gazed at impassively by three formidable matrons, one of whom turned out to be quite kind and sat me down in a corner. ‘Chorrillana?’ was all she asked, to which I nodded, as this is the local ‘delicacy’ which I had come to try.
Basically it’s a huge plate of chips topped with stewed onions, scrambled eggs and strips of steak and served with a dish of chilli sauce, which this establishment claims to be the inventor of. For good measure, I was also given half a white sliced loaf, in case I didn’t have enough carbs already.
It’s pretty foul, starting as a just about eatable C but moving to an inedible D as you get to the final soggy chips floating in a pool of oil and onion water at the bottom of the bowl. The feisty chilli sauce definitely helps get it down and it was kind of satisfying in a way, but left me feeling rather queasy by the end.
With this, a half bottle of Santa Teresa red which wasn’t too bad for a table wine (C+), however Coke seems to be the accompaniment of choice for the locals.
Just down the road at Plaza Anibel Pinto 1182 is Cinzano, one of the oldest bars in town (since 1896) with bored old waiters who looked like they have been there since it opened. They made a passable Pisco Sour (B), served up in a fruit bowl.
The shelves behind the bar are a shrine to Santiago Wanderers, (formed in 1892 and so the oldest club in the country) with ancient team photos going back to 1946. Older souvenirs from the club’s history were wiped out in an earthquake that destroyed their headquarters, and a lot of their silverware.
The walls are further decorated in a nautical theme with pictures of tankers sinking off the coast and old ads for dance nights at the bar. It still has a popular ballroom at the weekend, and a restaurant too but I didn’t get to try either as I was in town on the wrong days of the week.
Although it was Monday, there was a bit of action in one of the squares. I was there at the time of the third annual ‘container festival’ where shows are in put on in shipping containers in various places around town.
A large crowd was enjoying the sounds of a brass section while a big group of people waved wooden orange boxes at the front. It all looked very intriguing but I couldn’t work out what was going on so didn’t stay for long. Passed the same container in the day time and it seemed to be a hive of alternative activity with people painting and getting them ready for the next evening of entertainment.
A fun and cheap ($300 or 35p) thing to do is take a ride on an ‘ascensor’, an aged funicular railway that once helped the populace get up the steep hills that hem them in on the land side. There are several ascensors at regular points around the city but perhaps the best is Ascensor Artilleria at the far end of the bay (a couple of blocks from Estacion Puerto on the metro/subte).
After a short rickety ride, you can get a great panorama over the container port and the berths for the warships of the Chilean navy.
I went to Cafe Arte Mirador, immediately next to the station at the top and had a deep fried Emapanada Naplolitana (diced ham, melted cheese) (B+) with a bowl of spicy ‘pevere’ (Chilean salsa) and an ice cold Escudo cerveza (B) while sitting on the balcony. It wasn’t the best of days weather-wise but it was still very nice to sit outside and take in the wonderful view.
Walking back down the hill there is lots of colourful street art covering the walls and stairs which I think are part of the open air museum, a series of murals around the city.
Down in the old town again I stopped off for a cold bottle of Cristal beer (B) at the ancient and atmospheric Bar Ingles at 851 Cochrane (or rear door at 870 Blanco). It’s full of old guys playing dominoes, knocking back the pisco sours (happy hour 6 till 8.30 Mon to Tues) or tucking into cocina tipica Chilena (empanadas, grilled kidneys, tripe etc). The stained white walls don’t seem to have had a lick of paint since it opened in the 1900’s and the huge old warped wooden bar gives it a saloon-like feel.
It’s a popular lunch spot, but I was one of only a few having an evening meal. I had Palta York (avocado with diced cooked ham) to start (C+) followed by the local favourite of Conejo Frito (fried rabbit) with chips (C+), for just under £20 with another beer. It was all nicely prepared and presented simple food but my eyes were bigger than my appetite. Your grub comes up from the cellar on an old dumb waiter while orders are shouted down the shaft. In one concession to modernity, they do have Wi-Fi so I could write this.
Bar Irlandes just down the road at 1279 Blanco doesn’t have the history but it’s cosier, cleaner, plays music, stays open later and also has Wi-Fi.
So no knock out restaurants here either in my very short visits, but a few good simple snacks and meals. Too late, after getting to Santiago, I heard about Pasta e Vino, which is getting a lot of attention. Apparently you need to reserve several days ahead to get in. Next time!
Bars recommended by teachers I didn’t get to:
Bar La Playa, in Plaza Soto Mayor near the port, is an old bar rumored to have it’s own ghost!
Bar Piedra Feliz, at Errazuriz 1041, has live bands and a good atmosphere.
Generally bars in Subida Ecuador are safer but you should be careful around Barrio Puerto. Everywhere will be quiet Monday to Wednesday.
I also missed out on a visit to La Sebastiana, one of Pablo Neruda’s houses.