Following our brief, but pleasant stay in Santiago, we had a decision to make. With Christmas approaching, we knew that we would be stuck in one place at least over the few Christmas days, when most places would be closed and nothing much would happen anywhere. It would be rather risky to try and travel between towns with a possibility of staying without any accommodation or at the least, with limited options to buy food. Of course, we could have just camped and cooked some food on our camping stove, but, come on, it was Christmas after all.
Our route from Santiago would be down South via Route 5. Initially we thought about stopping in Concepciòn, but then someone mentioned to Carl, it is not the best place to stay at (although, later someone else said it is pretty decent – how subjective everything is, eh?). We wanted to be near the coast, so our choice fell on Valparaiso. Yes, it meant traveling up North, the exact opposite to where we were headed, and we would have to go through Santiago again, but it didn’t matter. We had heard a little bit about the town and it seemed interesting enough.
Located, approximately 70 miles North West from Santiago, Valparaiso is a major seaport of Chile and has a rich history. At certain times in history it has attracted many immigrants and has been known as ‘Little San Francisco’ and ‘The Jewel of the Pacific’. The latest part of the last century was not that kind to Valparaiso though, and the town suffered a downfall in it’s economy. Arriving in Valparaiso, it is immediately seen in the many colourful, but very rundown buildings. These days though, Valparaiso is attracting many tourists from all around the world, to marvel at it’s maze of little windy streets and the eclectic mix of architecture.
One of the town’s major attractions is taking a ride on one of the several funiculars scattered around the place, which was one of the first things we did. Due to the fact that Valparaiso spreads out into nearby hills, funiculars are an integral part of the town’s transport system, helping people get around day by day, avoiding hundreds of steps and steep hikes. As an added bonus, it is an opportunity to enjoy beautiful views.
For those of you, who might not know what a funicular is – as silly as it sounds, I really didn’t before encountering one:
A funicular (/fjʉˈnɪkjʉlər/), also known as an inclined plane or cliff railway, is a cable railway in which a cable attached to a pair of tram-like vehicles on rails moves them up and down a steep slope, the ascending and descending vehicles counterbalancing each other.
Exploring all the little streets going up and down the hills, means you can find many hidden cafes and restaurants, little artisan shops or just take beautiful photos.
Once we had done the street exploring, the next on the agenda was the beach. Well, you cannot really call it a beach – there is a stretch of a dock accessible by crossing the railroad at Baròn station and walking through something that looks like a desolate bus parking ground. From there you can either access the pier that gives you a good view of the Valparaiso Port, or sit on big rocks by the water and marvel at sea lions sunbathing on remains of an old pier (at least that is what I think it is).
There you can also hire kayaks and if you feel brave enough, go and trouble the sea lions. We did not attempt that as the day was rather windy and I had never been kayaking, so the thought of kayaking in choppy waters scared me a bit. (Before you think – what a wuss, I will go kayaking in one of the upcoming blog posts, so don’t worry).
The Christmas approached, and what better way to spend untraditional Christmas, as sunbathing on the beach? Of course, we had to travel a little bit to get to an actual beach and this is where Viña del Mar makes an appearance. Only 5 miles from the city centre, Viña del Mar is a complete contrast to the shabby charm of Valparaiso with clean wide streets, high-rise hotels and the general resort atmosphere. With it’s Mediterranean feel, Viña del Mar is a popular spot for tourists and chileans alike to get their summer fix.
The easiest way to get there is by metro (most of it goes above the ground though). It takes around 10-15 minutes from the Bellavista station in downtown Valparaiso, it is incredibly cheap and trains run every 10 minutes. So, whilst all my friends and family sat around the Christmas tree, I was eating an ice cream and burnt like a lobster on the beach.
With the longest strip of golden sands located at the heart of the town, there are few smaller beaches scattered nearby. Whilst it might be tempting to cool yourself down in the cold water, some caution has to be exercised. During our time at the beach, there were massive waves all day long. Even though, it was good fun to jump around in them, I got knocked off my feet few times and I would never underestimate the power they had at dragging me in deeper. We also saw an unconscious man being pulled out of the water by a lifeguard – unfortunately, not very good Christmas for him.
As for the actual Christmas Eve dinner – it turned out to be a slightly miserable affair with us going out for a dinner, only to realise everywhere was shut (and we were told by our hotel staff that places should be open). After lots of walking around, we were left with only one option of a cheap fast food place that did not have anything else apart from some chips and beer.
Have you ever spent Christmas in a foreign country? Do you miss your friends and family?
Eating some greasy chips and surrounded by a bunch of beer drinking men, who were probably escaping all the Christmas preparations at home, I was feeling slightly down, but, I guess, it is all part of the experience, right?