It was close to three months since I last found myself in a proper city, and only minutes elapsed before I was entranced by Valparaiso. In route to an Airbnb the narrow winding roads zipped by my colectivo’s window, leaving long-exposure trails of brightly colored facades in its wake. One turn off the main drag and I was instantly lost in this city of hills. Hidden staircases, adorned in spray can acrylic, branch off in every direction creating a vast web of interconnection amongst the earths undulating surface. Dead ends cease to exist. I gazed out upon the city sitting above and below me from a small lookout at the edge of my street. Beyond the port, outside the harbor, the open ocean played horizon to the rising sun offering a personal welcome.
Many cities have charm, and I consider myself more willing than most to find the best of even the more mundane, but only a handful poses a truly unique energy. The type of spirit that reaches beyond geography, architecture, or even the people. A symbiosis of history, legend, culture, and experience blended together into a thick, palatable ooze which flows down every avenue and seeps from every crack. It can only be experienced from within and cannot be recreated elsewhere. New York City is a prime example of this; Rio de Janeiro another, and I believe Valparaiso may belong to this most elite contingent. With endless corridors to explore and a rapidly changing decor of street art this is an amorphous city. It’s constantly evolving and one could never truly have it dialed in. It’s modern at one turn and developing at the next, hustling and bustling here, lounging and lingering there, it’s beautiful and gritty, maintained and crumbling.
Days of exploration up and down and up again through the hills leads to hunger and oh my do the empañadas in this town deliver! Has another city ever had such variety and selection of stuffed dough pockets available, I think not? Open to exploration, I made my rounds to multiple highly acclaimed outposts but rapidly the stars emerged. Classic and fried, Delicias Express served up over 80 varieties of made on the spot goodness. Gooey cheese and more oil than one should consume it will lift you up and bring you down at the same time, but you’re a liar if you say it’s not delicious. Now, I appreciate the classics, but formally coming in with THE BEST empañadas in Chile and perhaps South America overall was Taller de Masa. Words do not do justice to these ultra-creative, stuffed to the brim morsels. Flavors like chorizo with roasted red pepper and caramelized onions might begin the salivation machine, but it’s the whole wheat pastry that adds next level depth and complexity. The place has weird hours but the procession of loyalists acts as the city bell ringing at feeding time.
A great city is a sum of its parts, but the thing that really sticks out in my mind about Valparaiso, for all its art, history, and snacks, was the Parque Cultural de Valparaiso. It’s a strange thing for me to be wooed by a cities green space; I’m the guy that generally found going to Central Park a chore, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of this particular public project. The space was formerly a jail used to torture and detain political prisoners during the dictatorship, but come the removal of Pinochet it was slowly decommissioned and abandoned. This eyesore was eventually repurposed, and in exquisitely executed fashion. The revamp maintained the important, yet morbid, history while creating something utterly beautiful in its place. Amazing views, pristine landscaping, subtle yet striking architecture all combine into a space that I simply did not want to leave; I could sit there, contently, forever. Over five plus months in South America only a handful of stops registered as legitimate options for my future settlement, and Valparaiso certainly made the list.
One morning, seven days after arriving in town I woke up early and caught a bus to Santiago. Before I could even register what was happening I had boarded a flight back to Lima. In my earliest planned route for this trip I earmarked three months for South America and about a month of that was to explore Chile. In reality it took three months alone to see this country and there is still so much left to uncover. Describing Chile can be difficult, the diversity in both landscape and lifestyle of the places and people make any generality a severe misrepresentation. But suffice to say, it’s a beautiful, sometimes confusing, place and a must visit for any outdoor enthusiast. I have spent more time in Chile than any other country besides the U.S. in my life, and I had developed a rhythm that began to sync with the locals. I was beginning to really understand. As the plane revved and began to pull up, I couldn’t help but feel I was leaving something behind.