Somewhere Beyond the Sea
There are some cities that have no feel. Urban growths which lack charm, flavor, smell or any characteristic that is memorable or distinct. Other cities inspire themes. The common hum of industrial centers, the crisp smell of mountain hamlets or the bright neon jungles of a fast moving metropolis. Finally, there are those rare places that evoke their own feeling. Their colors, shapes and lines seem completely original and therefore, incredibly refreshing.
Puerto Montt had been a themed city for me. The salty air, boulevards of seafood restaurants and armies of seagulls reminded me of nearly every port town I have ever been in. It was nice, but familiar. Moving on from Puerto Montt left me in Valparaiso, another long important port town southwest of Santiago and while it shared many of the features common to all ports, it was immediately apparent that the city was a member of the third category, a wholly new place waiting to be explored.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Valparaiso has been a popular tourist destination in Chile for decades. Its dozens of hills fence the shore and support hundreds of thousands of tiny houses, apartments, shacks and lean-to’s and each structure is painted in vibrant shades of red, purple, blue, green or orange so that what might normally be a street of boring facades is made into an architectural garden, with graffiti instead of wildflowers.
After a long, meandering walk from the bus station I checked into a small bed and breakfast run by a very elderly woman and her husband. I had chosen this particular location because it was at the peak of Valparaiso’s historic district, where the streets wander like errant streams and nearly every other building houses either a cafe, restaurant or art gallery. What I didn’t expect to find was the rooftop terrace that was constantly unattended, leaving me to take in 360 degree views of the city and its port. It was from this vantage point that I took in Valparaiso. I passed the time focusing on small sections of the city, watching them like different episodes of the same tv show, each with a new plot and characters. In some episodes there were funicular cars, the impossibly steep rail cars that provide access to the various hilltops throughout the city. The car to my section of the city is the oldest, built at the turn of the century and riding it is exactly as exhilarating as you might expect. A 100 year old wooden box being tugged up a track at a near vertical angle. Let’s just say I rode it only as often as was strictly necessary. Between funicular track’s iron dividers I could make out schoolyards, almost always filled with children playing soccer, fruit stands, live jazz bands, traffic jams and love struck couples. Thousands of stories packed neatly among rainbows of concrete and rusting steel.
Then there was the port which seemed startlingly bare compared to the overloaded city streets, but provided an equally engrossing story. Drab battleships sat in a motionless line, their grey hulls only interrupted by the bright orange lifeboats, worn like earrings near the bridge. All around them were tiny tugs and tinier inflatables, dragging long white tails as they moved around the dark blue water. Large trade ships eased into their respective slips at incredibly slow speeds. Staring straight at them, they appeared to never move, but if I turned away for a few minutes I would find that they had moved halfway across the port. I watched until the sun set and then until all natural light was gone and the once colorful mosaic of Valparaiso illuminated under the yellow electric glow of millions of street lamps and bare porch bulbs.
I left the terrace and a very large empty bottle of beer to go in search of dinner, which wasn’t difficult considering how many restaurants are packed into my part of the city. Within a few minutes, I found a well occupied cafe with live music and ordered a steak and more beer. The music was good and the food was better, but I didn’t linger. I don’t like eating alone in restaurants and the friendly atmosphere made it feel all the lonelier.
For the next few days, my schedule remained the same. Evening sessions on the terrace, quick good meals, absent minded walks through the streets and frequent cat naps when the sun grew too hot. It was the sort of lifestyle that is completely unproductive, but feels unmistakably natural. It was too easy and I enjoyed every minute. But, travel is not travel unless you move and I could only stay in Valparaiso for so long. I had roamed quiet city streets for months and was ready to get back to some real civilization. Santiago is just an hour away and I feel ready for some noise.