Right smack in the middle of Chile on the coast is the location of Valparaiso and its much more beautiful sister, Vina del Mar. Coming from the north, the Atacama Desert faded behind us as we began to enter Vina del Mar and were met with large grassy hills and beautiful green vineyards. The change in scenery met us well after more than a month in the desert.
Vina del Mar has become known as a resort city for the Chilean elite and those with disposable income. Before growing into the city it is now, the region was essentially farmland with plenty of vineyards, hence the name Vina del Mar or vineyard of the sea. After a particularly bad earthquake rocked the city of Valparaiso in the 1800’s, the majority of the wealthy citizens simply abandoned the city to move elsewhere. Vina del Mar was chosen as the new location for many and was eventually developed into the city it is today. Obviously there is a lot more to its history than just this, but the Reader’s Digest version is sufficient for now!
We parked the truck in a secured parking area and set out on foot to explore the city. With the majority of the sites within the city being along the coast, we headed that direction through many of the quiet, heavily treed neighborhoods. Many of the homes in these neighborhoods were unbelievably beautiful and built by folks with plenty of “walking around money.” Once to the beach area, we were met with enormous historical castles built by wealthy people over the years. Streets were lined with Chilean Palms and looking down the coast, high rise apartments lined the horizon right up to the beach. Although beautiful, we didn’t find many touristy things to do in Vina del Mar which isn’t out of the ordinary for such a new city.
In the morning we prepared ourselves to enter Valparaiso. When I say we prepared ourselves I mean we were on high alert as many overlanders have reported having their tires slashed in Valparaiso. Many times, the slashers approach while you are stopped at the stoplight and there is no time to react. At other times, one person will poke a hole in your tire and let you know you have a problem with your tire. When you get out to investigate, another person enters your vehicle and grabs anything of value before running off. Some of our friends had their tire slashed and purse stolen a month earlier. Some folks we met in Santiago had their tire slashed but stayed in the vehicle preventing robbery. Anyhow, after nearly giving ourselves a heart attack, we found a secured parking area and were able to let our guard down a bit.
Valparaiso is an interesting city with a complicated past. Being right on the ocean with a protected bay, it is a port city which was, is and will continue to be a huge economic factor for the city. With limited flat land available, poor people were forced to find cheaper land on the outskirts of town which meant they would build their homes in the hills surrounding the city. These neighborhoods located in the steep hills were built without any planning or codes and is a mishmash of every style of architecture with no rhyme or reason to the layout of streets, assuming there are streets. As mentioned earlier, earthquakes have hit Valparaiso knocking down buildings and homes alike and, instead of rebuilding as a community, many of the rich folks simply left the city to be cleaned up by the poor. In more recent times, the city has stabilized but continues to be much poorer than its sister city, Vina del Mar.
To visit Valparaiso, we opted to take a walking tour of the city. We started the tour in the main square and almost immediately hopped on a bus that took us to the mountains overlooking the city. Our tour guide took us through neighborhoods that had quite the variety of homes. Some areas were borderline slums and a couple blocks away the homes were relatively new and clean. We were told that even though there is a large gap between rich and poor, in Valparaiso, almost everybody lives together in the same neighborhoods. Interesting. The views from up high were stunning and Vina del Mar could be seen in the distance. Eventually, we made our way down to the flat part of the city and finished the tour much more informed.
Apparently this dog escorts the walking tour every day through the streets of Valparaiso until she gets bored!
Another major attraction in Valparaiso is the escalators that haven’t changed in decades. They were completely made of wood and creaked like crazy as they rose.
Between Valparaiso and Santiago, we meandered through some vineyards and eventually made our way to a canyon with a stream. Although there were no pine trees, it reminded us of the type of wild camping that can be had in public lands in the US. We enjoyed it so much, we stayed two nights and even had a campfire… something we haven’t enjoyed in months.
With a quick mountain fix, we headed towards Santiago. As soon as we reached the city limits, we were met with the biggest traffic jam of the whole trip. In true Latin American fashion, two lanes were turned into four vehicles wide and anywhere there were no guardrails, vehicles drove off-road to get to the front of the line. It was nuts. It seemed like there was a wreck but we never actually saw a wreck so it is still a mystery to us. After four hours in a traffic jam, we arrived at our camp spot in the city.
Before being tourists, we decided we needed to be overlanders and address our leaking axle seal. To no avail, we drove through Santiago rush hour eventually visiting nearly ten mechanics who passed us off to the next. It’s hard to tell if they truly can’t fix the problem or if they just didn’t want to deal with us, but we returned to the campground with a couple leads, but the same leaking axle seal. A cold beer helped heal our spirits and our friend Fredrike indicated she got the same runaround the day before. Oh well! As long as we keep the oil level close to full, we should be just fine, right?
To begin exploring Santiago, we decided fighting the traffic was a terrible idea. Instead, we opted for a hop on, hop off bus tour of the city. We received very informative information about the city but only hopped off one time and explored the historical center of the city by foot.
The first stop was Santa Lucia Park. At the entrance of the park, a large facade in a Roman style was built, complete with a waterfall and pond. We continued walking up the streets that zigged and zagged, sidewalks that ran straight up and down and finally we reached the top of the hill after a few flights of stairs. From the street, it is impossible to see the highest point within the park but from the top of the hill, the view of the city was incredible. The top must be close to the highest point of the city.
Nearby Santa Lucia Park is the Iglesia San Francisco which is a church built by the Jesuit Missionaries in the 1600s. The simplistic style of the church was quite similar to those we saw in Eastern Bolivia when we drove the Jesuit Mission Loop. The following Sunday we had the opportunity to partake in Sunday Mass. Although we didn’t catch much of the message, being in a church of this style on Sunday warmed our hearts.
Venturing towards the city center, we found impressive squares and a museum just before the Palacio La Moneda, that descends three stories underground. Near the Plaza de Armas, we explored the Santiago Cathedral which was under renovations in preparation for the arrival of the Pope. We walked and walked, then walked some more.
Eventually we returned to the bus to finish the tour which led us to the eastern side the city which is much newer and heavily commercialized. Right near our camp site is the Gran Torre Santiago which is a beautiful building and also the tallest building in Latin America at 64 stories. With the tour over, we returned to the camper to reflect on the day.
During the day on Saturday, we splurged and took the gondola to the top of Cerro San Cristobal in the municipal park just behind our camp spot. The day we took the gondola happened to be a national holiday and was insanely busy with people! At the top of the mountain is an amphitheater where mass was being held. A “Christ the Redeemer” statue was at the peak and the line stretched clear down the mountain. We were herded like cattle but eventually made our way up, then back down. Walking down was a treat for the exercise and, more importantly, people watching.
Visiting cities is often tough for overlanders. During our visit to Vina del Mar and Valparaiso, we drove ten miles south of the city where we could camp at a truckstop without the risk of slashed tires and other shenanigans. In Santiago, we lucked out as we could camp for free and simply tip the guards in the public parking at the municipal park. Of course, we weren’t the only overlanders to know this, so we were able to meet a handful of great fellow travelers and stay up too late and drink too much, swapping stories and learning about each other in the meantime. Among the group were Konstantin and Wendy from Germany at Oursouthamericanroadtrip, Ben and Grant from Colorado at Themvanboyz, Etienne and Justine from Switzerland in an awesome pink VW Bus, Johan from South Africa and Rolando from Chiloe in southern Chile.
With new friends made and new cities visited, we ventured to the airport for a quick visit to the most remote inhabited island on earth. In our next post, we will share our visit to Rapa Nui or the Isla de Pascua, better known as Easter Island.