Chile: A birthday abroad

My 30th birthday was definitely one I will always remember for lots of reasons. It was wintery cold instead of the gently warm beginnings of summer; I didn’t unwrap any surprises but I had a day full of unwrappable experiences; I missed celebrating with my family and friends but it was my first birthday with a husband to spoil me. And he did a very good job.

I knew we would be spending a few days in the UNESCO city of Valparaiso but I didn’t know anything else. On the 24th (my birthday eve), we travelled the couple of hours from Santiago and checked into our apartment. It was one of the loveliest places I’ve ever stayed. It had several luxuries which I’ve missed lots during this trip: tea and a teapot, a hair dryer, a sofa and a bath! And it had a mezzanine floor – something I’ve always loved the idea of!

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So we settled in and then enjoyed a delicious steak meal at a nearby restaurant.

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The next morning, Dean made me breakfast from the components provided by the apartment: fruit with yoghurt and eggs on toast and two types of tea. I also got a card and a pair of evenings made from real butterfly wings that we bought a while ago in Costa Rica. Butterflies which had met a natural end by the way or I wouldn’t have had them.

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Running a bit late (though I didn’t know what for), we legged it down the cobbled streets of our hill, Alegre, one of more than 40 that make up Valparaiso. When we reached the main square, presided over by a grand statue of A(rturo) Prat, we encountered two red and white striped ‘Wally’s. It turned out that our morning activity was to be a tour of the city with the Wally called Chris. This was exciting as the glimpses we’d caught this far suggested it was a city of culture, art, music and poetry.

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First we crossed the square to take a look at the port. The people of Valparaiso call themselves Porteños and are proud of their historical importance as a trade route.

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Valparaiso’s ‘golden age’ began in 1848 with the gold rush. It became one of the most affluent cities because of its port. However, the completion of the Panama canal put an end to the era, rendering Valparaiso one of the poorest places in Chile. We took a look down what was once South America’s most affluent streets, it now reeks of dog deliveries and has fallen into disrepair because of the difficulty and expense of repairing buildings in line with UNESCO requirements.

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Throughout the tour we were accompanied by between one and four canine friends at any time. Apparently many are tour regulars and have back stories or nicknames from the Wallys.

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One of Valparaiso’s hills was recently ravaged by fire. I remember reading about it in the news and learning the country’s fire service is entirely voluntary and run by people who have other full time jobs. Chileans consider it an honour to be a ‘bombero’ and apparently wouldn’t have the system any other way. Valparaiso has a lot of fires, due to the dry climate, and something like 21 firestations which all rely on donations. They have a pretty difficult job given the hills and the narrow cobbled streets, many of which must be inaccessible for the fire engines.

No two houses are the same as they’re all built to fit their hill, sometimes being one storey on one side but four on the other. They’re generally made of adobe because the material flexes well during the frequent earthquakes but, since it doesn’t bode well in the salty air, the Porteños had the bright idea of cladding the exteriors with corrugated metal from ships and covering it in hardy boat paint. This is, I think, how the city’s houses came to be so many different colours.

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The thing I liked most about Valparaiso was the murals adorning so many of the walls, especially on Alegre and Concepción hills where our tour was focused. Graffiti is illegal but is such a big problem that building owners invite muralists to create their work on their walls. The graffiti culprits are respectful enough of the work that they don’t tag on the murals. Artists (as well as musicians and poets) from far and wide come to Valparaiso to try and make it big and there are several who have made a name for themselves. Our Wally pointed out a few works by more notable people as we walked. Here are a few of my favourites…well, ok, more than a few but it was very hard choose!

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All these hills don’t half take their toll on your legs! But there are a couple of short cuts available: huge steep staircases and acensors. The latter are strange archaic contraptions which consist of two rickety boxes that ascend and descend simultaneously on rails. It costs 10p one way and I think there are still something like 17 in operation. They don’t feel like they should be safe but they’ve stood the test of time and are well-maintained so we used them plenty.

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There was also the option of a slide at one point!

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Down one set of steps we were given a typical Chilean snack made from two chocolate covered biscuits sandwiched together with dulce de leche -the delectable caramel-like substance, kilograms of which the Uruguayan football had confiscated from them on entering Brazil!

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At some point we passed this, the house of an eccentric Croatian who collected lots of art, built this really architecturally interesting house and then opted to live in its basement with his sister for decades!

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On we strolled through the winding streets, with something interesting to look at round every corner – women shaking rugs over their balconies, workmen relaying cobblestones, a protest march, fire-destroyed buildings, violinists practising next to high up open windows and, every now and again a view across to another colourful patchwork hill.

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The tour came to an end with a drink of chicha and a city view.

Then we walked quickly back along a coastal path to a really nice cafe for very posh sandwich lunch and hot chocolate which we wolfed down in order to get back to the apartment for a Skype call with my parents 🙂

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Next Dean surreptitiously altered the contents of my bag and hurried us out of the door to another unknown destination. It turned out to be a spa in a very swanky hotel! We were a bit late so I was immediately whisked away into a massage which was wonderful (carrying our backpacks isn’t without its aches and pains). Then we had time to enjoy the steam room, pool and outdoor wood-burner-heated jacuzzi.

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Unfortunately they were having some technical problems so the pool and jacuzzi were very cold! Dean complained, got some money back and they said we could return when it was fixed. We did return, it wasn’t really fixed but they did give us incredible cheese (honestly, I will never take Europe’s access to decent cheese for granted again after this trip!) and wine/mojito in their fancy bar area! (Yes, the cheese was sprinkled with flower petals!)

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On the way home from the spa we stopped off for some posh chocolates.

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Back at the apartment, we chilled for a bit then Dean nipped out to collect our laundry, returning with a birthday cake: brownie with a dulce de leche filling featuring rum-infused raisins!

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By a strange coincidence, Warner Brothers TV (usually one of our only English speaking channels) just so happened to be showing a rerun of the Friends 30th birthday special! So obviously I had to watch that!

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In the evening Dean took me to a lovely pasta restaurant and then, to finish off the evening, down in an ascensor to an artisan beer bar with live music. Such a lovely day, I feel very lucky!

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We spent another couple of days wandering Valparaiso and nearby Viña del Mar (which featured pelicans aplenty and one of only two Easter Island statues removed from the island).

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Then we took another night bus down south to Pucon which is very cold indeed and strangely alpine-feeling!

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As is becoming a theme, I wrote this whilst watching the Chile-Brazil match in a bar in Pucon. The Chileans (these ones at least) were much more rowdy and noisily patriotic than the Argentines of last week! And there were a few unpopular Brazil supporters too. A very excitable bunch, the Chileans! Chiiiii! Leeeee! Chi chi chi! Le le le! Viva Chile! It’s a shame they lost.

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To finish, here are a few snowy photos and very mountainous winding roads taken during our journey back into Chile at the start of the week.

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2 thoughts on “Chile: A birthday abroad

  1. Oh my… You are such a lucky girl!!! That sounds amazing! Love the idea of everything but the spa treat and pasta meal sound to die for! Brownie cake too! The pic of you on steps surrounded by murals is beautiful! Memories you will never forget! A wonderful birthday!!! Celebrations still to come when you get home tho! Xxx

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