December 5-9, 2012: I had heard, and read, a lot of good things about the long distance buses in South America, at least in the pricier classes. So I booked the best available class, salon cama, and boarded the bus to Valparaiso with some hope of a good night’s sleep. I guess Pucon was too far off the main routes for the best buses, because I was really not impressed. For starters, no food was served (aside from a feeble attempt at breakfast), so I boarded with a pollo y palta from Latitud 39. Then, there was nowhere to put carry-on bags besides the floor, and the leg room was just too short for me to stretch out. At least the section was quiet, and I did get to sleep off and on. On balance, I’d say it was better than economy class on an airplane but worse than a couchette, never mind a sleeper, on a train.
Things improved when I got to my B&B in Valparaiso. The Yellow House provided not just the usual safe place to stash my bag, and coffee, but breakfast, and even more welcome, a shower in the shared bathroom. When the owner suggested I join a walking tour of the city I was in good enough shape to agree. The tour, led by a lively young Brazilian (Boris, who also teaches cooking classes), took us from the touristy main square to the fishing boats and market (and seriously photogenic sea lions and pelicans), on and off trams and buses and funiculars, up to murals and the best restaurant section, and down again, and provided plenty of information along with the sights. Including areas to avoid when walking alone.
Valparaiso, spread over many hills beside a sparkling bay, is a city that has much to like. (Provided you overlook the port area, which it is rather hard to do.) Architecture always has a lot to do with whether I like a city, and while my favorite Art Nouveau was in limited supply, the many brightly painted houses and a scattering of landmark buildings more than made up for it. The colorful metal buildings that had been crammed into one area of Buenos Aires were here splashed across multiple quarters. The Yellow House, where I was staying, could easily be picked out on its eastern hillside, below the Navy Museum, from down on the waterfront.
I spent one morning visiting the just reopened Palacio Baburizza. Although it houses the city’s Belles Artes museum, I ignored the paintings but admired the architecture. It was even worth the trek uphill, made necessary because the relevant funicular had yet to reopen after the last earthquake. But even better was La Sebastiana, the Nobel prize-winning poet Naruda’s Valparaiso home.
I reached La Sebastiana, perched on a hillside well above the bay, in a shared taxi that charged upwards at full throttle. Once there I was able to dodge the tour groups and absorb the house at my leisure. And between the magnificent views, and the magnificently quirky contents, it was worth every peso of the admission price. Unfortunately, photos weren’t allowed inside.
While Valparaiso is a working city, just up the coast is Vina del Mar, the area’s playground. While I had no intention of joining the crowd courting sunburn on the sands, I had a good time nonetheless. I started at the Archaeological Museum, where I was delighted to get a look at an authentic moai without having to trek out to Easter Island. After rejecting a number of eating places (including a surprising number of US chains) I ate a leisurely (and expensive) lunch at waterfront El Parron with excellent views, and then walked south along the promenade to the 20th century Castillo Wulff. The interior of the castle wasn’t much, but again the views were good. As were the views at the Sheraton, where I indulged in a caipirinha on the rear deck, overlooking yet another beach.
I finished my day at the beach in the botanical gardens, where I was sorry to find the Palacio Vergara closed for renovations. Then I was whisked back to Valparaiso on the excellent metro.