Let’s Talk About: The Bohemian City of Valparaíso

Pablo Neruda, Chile’s most famous poet, had a love affair with the city of Valparaíso.  His poem Ode to Valparaíso begins:

“VALPARAÍSO, qué disparate eres, qué loco, puerto loco, qué cabeza con cerros, desgreñada, no acabas de peinarte, nunca tuviste tiempo de vestirte, siempre te sorprendió la vida, te despertó la muerte, en camisa, en largos calzoncillos con flecos de colores, desnudo con un nombre tatuado en la barriga, y con sombrero, te agarró el terremoto, corriste enloquecido…”

Which roughly translates to, “Valparaíso, what nonsense you are, how crazy, a crazy port, with a head made of disheveled hills, that you never finish brushing. You never had time to get dressed, always you were surprised by life, awoken by death, in a shirt, in long underwear with fringes of many colors, naked with a name tattooed on your belly, and with a hat. An earthquake caught you, and you ran, crazed…”

The english translation doesn’t do it justice.  Neruda has a way with words and paints a pictures of his passions.  If you speak Spanish and want another example of the doting way he wrote about Valparaíso, listen to this: ‘Amo, Valparaíso’ – Pablo Neruda

Despite its seemingly nonsensical descriptors, the poem is the most perfect encapsulation of the mysterious city of Valpo that I’ve encountered.

The so called ‘Jewel of the pacific’ is an amazing city that has a life and vibrancy that can be hard to be put into words.  It’s a port city of 300,000 people, directly west of Santiago.  To give some geographic context, here’s a map:


It has mild weather: warm but not too warm in the summer, and cold but not too cold in the winter.  My house had neither central heating nor A/C, and while it was definitely chilly in the heart of winter without heat (with temperatures hovering around 50 degrees fahrenheit at night), it was never unbearable.

The city, a UNESCO world heritage site, is sloppily built on the hills that surround a crescent-shaped harbor.  The port area dominates the flat plane right next to the water, but the different hills (known as ‘cerros’ in Spanish) are what gives the city its real character.

As you can see, buildings snake up the mountains in different areas.  Each ‘cerro’ is its own unique community with its own name, its own culture, its own art (I’ll talk about this in a separate post), and its own unique vibe.

As a general rule, the closer you are to the water, the wealthier and more commercial it is.  The higher up the hills you go, the poorer it is.  I rarely ended up at the very top of the mountains, but I found that many of my most interesting and authentic experiences were when I left the comfort of the lower hills and made my way further up.

The buildings in Valparaíso are just absolutely stunning.  While there aren’t many “traditional” tourist attractions in the city (other than one of Neruda’s houses), the numerous viewpoints of the city, the amazing architecture, and the bohemian feel made it a city where I could spend endless hours just wandering the streets.  The winding roads, colorful buildings, and constant verticality found a way into my heart:img_4678img_3406img_3437img_4710

Despite its beauty, it has its rough areas as well.  It’s loud, dirty, hectic, and a little unforgiving until you learn the way the city moves and works.  I guess in that sense, its just like any other city. Oddly enough, the dirty and noisy parts are part of what made the city irresistible to me.  Seems to me that it’s what made the city irresistible to Neruda as well.

It’s worth mentioning some things about the people of Valpo as well.  It’s a university town, and therefore packed with people my age.  It’s a very liberal city, full of hippies who are immensely proud of the city and call themselves ‘Porteños’ – literally ‘people of the port’.  There’s a huge skater culture, smoking culture, drinking culture, and people just spend a lot of time outside in the plazas and public spaces of the city.  It makes for a vibrant community that parties a lot on the weekends, but still feels authentic.

I consider Valparaíso to be one of the under-appreciated gems of South America.  While not a lot of people know about it, ever person I met who had visited raved about it.

It was the perfect city to spend my semester abroad.


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