That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Valparaiso and the big bus south

4 December 2010. Saturday.

Santiago is behind me, and I’m ensconced in a triangular patio on the corner of Cumming and A. Montt streets, motorbikes and flatbed lorries rumbling around me here in Valparaiso. The sun blazes, and colourful, worn-down, century-old buildings stack against each other up the steep hillsides. Snoozing dogs steal patches of shade to lounge in, oblivious to motors rumbling everywhere.

My own hostel is a wooden-stilt-supported home built in 1892, snaked around by quaint alleyways and gritty stairwells (which are much more enjoyable after having dumped the rucksack – it was quite an ascent – a mile and a half walk from the bus station seemed doable enough until the hill decided to go steadily upper and upper).

The city’s got a bustling and youthful atmosphere about it – graffiti murals stretch across cracked concrete walls. No gang-style turf-claims, there are portraits, surreal landscapes, abstract expanses of colour for its own sake. I’m very curious how these murals are agreed. Do artists split the city up and decide to tackle different walls? How much of it is collective? Does anything ever get painted over? Do the UNESCO Heritage folks, who’ve designed the old town a treasure of humanity, actually kind of like what these kids are up to?

My last night in Santiago was a minor epic of lateness, involving a cluster of fellow hostellers, two of them long-term, who had collected their own friends in town since their arrival. The night involved a nightclub, which we were permitted into for free thanks to a Brazilian’s apparently magical skills at asking the doorman quite politely. The music was cheese and Top 40, before salsa dancing ensued, and it all closed up by 5am. Not the natural way to prepare for an early morning bus to Valparaiso (“Valpo” if I start using backpacker slang) but I made the bus all the same.

The major attribute of this city is the architecture and the street art, and the main thing for me to do really is just to wonder in its grit and colour, and look out across the Pacific horizon towards what I suppose must be the northern tip of Queensland. Despite all this, there isn’t much to “do” but drink coffees and take photos, which I’ve done plenty of so far, and which I certainly don’t mind. The purpose of travel to me seems often to be to seek out new and idyllic cafes, little bars, and take photos. So, missions are certainly being accomplished, however simple these missions are.

After the supermarket meals of cheese and pitas that I’ve depended on so far, tomorrow I’ll treat myself to sushi (as ubiquitous here as in Vancouver, though not quite as cheap). Even that meagre plan makes me look forward to the reunion with M in El Bolson even more, as solitude has its limits! Four more days till then. If buses from Puerto Montt permit…


I’ve just found a gorgeous, perfect hang-out cafe, thus re-fulfilling the cafe mission. A smoky, street-level dungeon, dim lights, young bohos, eighties rock played quietly, gritty and unpretentious, serving beer from tins for CH$900. It’s called “Cafe Ritual.” Tell Lonely Planet all about it! Walls of red and white, sheet music lacquered haphazardly across the walls, random furniture, and tiny. O.K., now for pasta.

5 December 2010. Sunday.

Valparaiso’s sun has re-emerged after a day of cloud and cool breeze, and with it, the end of a period of aimlessness. Feeling quite bright and excited about the next phase – the bus south – and also pretty well rested. A part of me had been very looking forward to the “Valpo” (sigh) Saturday night, imagining lots of folk rock blaring from cloistered late-night cafe bars, but 1) I was so tired, and 2) my fellow hostellers were kind of annoying, and 3) Cafe Ritual was the only place that looked appealing in the end. So in the end, I made some pasta and sipped a pisco sour courtesy of Jorge, the gregarious hostel owner (shame about the party kids).

In the end, I did agree to join a couple of them on a night out, which only reconfirmed that once you’re in your thirties, you’re in your thirties. And it’s nice here in the thirties.

We ended up meeting with a hosteller’s German 22-year-old semi-resident friend, who led us up one of the city’s incredible hills near midnight, towards his friend’s house where a party was supposedly going on. I was mentally bailing on them the whole walk, after the German explained his view on getting a good daytime high versus nighttime high. My favourite nighttime highs tend to involve dreams of riding a flying dinosaur, and these are utterly uninduced. So, 40 minutes after setting out on this walk, and finally finding the guy’s friend’s house and the cast of six half-asleep beer-drinkers, I said my hellos followed by a quick sorry, I’m out of here. Just not up for small talk about nighttime highs, sorry.

All for the best, as rising early, I got some insight from a Chilean surfer/geographer over breakfast about Chile’s south, and he advised me against Puerto Montt (a non-descript small city) and suggested Puerto Varas – just 20 miles from P.M., but a village on the lake, under the shadow of towering Fuji-like Volcan Osorno, and well connected for Argentine buses. I decided I’d take his advice, as I felt long overdue for some outdoor beautinesses.

First to the choral service at St. Paul’s church, a small place on Cerro Conception (I’d expected an organ service, but oh well) and then a successful tour of hilly neighbourhoods and some new classic photos. Took a couple of elevadors, the 45-degree-angle funiculars that grind up and down the steep hillsides of the city. Got online briefly and planned movements with the M. Without mobile phones, we are really going to be going old school, and having to plan our meeting point in advance – no luxuries of “I’ll text you” or “25 minutes late, can’t find that cafe, let’s meet at Tourist Information instead” – no, we’ll have to, umm, plan!

It’s now resplendent in Valparaiso – The sun is getting low here at 6pm. I think about London’s 3.45pm sunsets and snow, and find it oddly suddenly natural to be experiencing late spring in early December. I get this sense of normalness surrounding Christmas being a summer festival – something that is tied in with general carefree holiday excitements: why not also indulge in gift giving and song singing at the same time? Festivities surely don’t have to be stuck in with the act of hunkering down, making beefy stews and complaining about winter-induced aches. Not sure how it will feel to see fake Christmas trees erected closer to the time, but on verra.

But, that old sun is reclining seriously now, and I’ve got places to go. An 8.15pm departure for the volcanic south. Boom boom!

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June 2020

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