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Monday, December 04, 2006

ADVENTURES IN CHILE: A DAY TRIP TO VALPARAISO

SATURDAY, December 2/06

Today we caught a bus for a daytrip to Valparaiso on the coast. Only 1000 pesos return ($10) on a very nice airconditioned TourCan bus, one of many which run frequently between Santiago and the Coast towns. The hour and half trip heads west through the lush green countryside and coastal hills to the seacoast. Valparaiso (nicknamed La Perla Del Pacifico = the Pearl of the Pacific) is the second most important port in Chile, with a population 260,000. It's considred one of the most uniqure cities in Chile and certainly one of the most unusual. It was named a Unesco World Heritage site in 2003. It could be described as Latin America's San Francisco because most of the city is built on the many 'cerros' (hills) that surround the harbour. The flat city centre, which we found rather shabby and in places run-down, didn't have the grand old buildings that Santiago has and what were there seemed mostly neglected with little restoration evident. Where the city has its charm is on the ceroos.

The hills are so steep you must take an ascensor (funi cular elevator) that creks at 40 degree angles up the hillside. On these cerros, with their labyrinthine roads, houses build on stilts, one on top of the other it seems, some of them new, others crumbling mansion, all of them painted vibrant colours. And then there's the stunning panoramic vistas down across the city rooftops, the scoop of the wide harbour with its navel ships and freighters, and the vast Pacific beyond.

The town has a unique faded grandeur and on some of the cerros, a bohemian charm. (In the lower town, we noticed the many criss-crossed electrical wires , the crumbling pavements, the narrows streets many of which are dirty and run-down. Obviously they lack the constant cleaning crews that sweep the streets clean in Santiago). Some of the cerros house the countries poorest shanty towns, houses made of corrogated tin, many of them ramshackle and ready to cave in. Apparantly petty crime is common in Valparaiso. And here we saw some unsavory characters lurking, felt a bit unnerved at times, which we never did in Santiago. (Perhaps because it's a seaport?)

In the distant past, the city was the first port of call for ships coming round Cape Horn and became a commerical centre and hub of Chile's banking industry. In 1906 a major earhtquake destroyed many of the downtown buildings so only a few of the impressive 19th C. architecture remains. Once the Panama Canal opened, Valparaiso suffered an economic decline and it didn't recover til after WW II. It's still an important port and the navy's presence is an important factor in the city's economy. (Note: don't get caught photographing the naval ships down at the harbour or you may end up in a Chilean prison!) In recent years, Pinochet decided to move the seat of Chile's govenrment to Valparaiso and had a new presidential palace built on property his own family owned. Apparantly the government is (or will be) now moved back to it's original site in Santiago. ***note: the following day, Pinochet was taken to the hospital in serious condition. Aged 90, he is not expected to survive. Before we left there Sunday there were already crowds gathering downtown by the Presidential Palace, waiting to cheer the moment of his death. As yet unpunished for his crimes against the people of Chile, perhaps he'll end up finding the Golden Gates locked when he arrives!)

Patrick and I wanted mostly to see the third house of Pablo Neruda. So we took an ascendor from Espirito Santo up Cerro Bellavista where the house, La Sebastiana, is located. The colourful hodge-podge of houses provided a lot of Kodak moments. We found our way through the maze of narrow lanes to a beauitufl blue and yellow building which we first supposed was the Poet's house. It turned out to be a rather interesting cafe and boutique mall where I did a little more shopping. Then we were directed to where La Sebastiana is located farther up the h ill.

You definitely need a good pair of legs and feet to transverse the cobble and cement byways of the cerros, mostly all uphill by road or steps. People here are very courteous and helpful so in no time we got directed to the right road up the hill. At one point we stopped at a kiosk to buy water and the kindly gold gent who ran the shop brought us out a couple of chairs to sit on under a shadey tree so we could rest awhile before proceeding on our way. The radio was playing a song that Sumalao often plays at the Latin Quarter and I know it was one of Anibal's favorites. So the brief time we spent there on that corner on cerro Bellavista was quite memorable.

Just up the hill a little way farther we located the house. Pablo Neruda didn't spend as much time at La Sebastiana as he did at his other two houses, but he always went there for New Years to watch the annual fireworks from his lookout. The house, which was built by an Italian carpenter named Sebastian (for whom it was named) who Neruda said was a 'poet with wood', like the other houses follows his style of the eccentric layout and the ship motif. The first floor was owned and occupied by two of his friends and the ceiling murals and beautiful stone mosaics were done by the woman, who was an artist. In the lobby are two paintings by Neruda's second wife, w ho was an artist twenty years his senior.

The house of Neruda starts from the second floor, ascending several floors up to the top room which was his study and lookout, with a broad specatacular view of the whole harbour and ocean. Each room in the house is full of the usual trinkets and beauitufl knick knacks he loved to collect and there are some lovely stainedg lass windows. Visitors are given booklets (in your own languat) to read describing the history of each room and the furnishings and objects, and you can wander around at will. No photos of the rooms are allowed but photos of the many vistas are permitted. One of my biggest thrills in this house, as in the others, was to stand by Neruda's desk and look around at what he could see from there when he was writing. In all three houses it was a magnificent view. And surrounding him are all the objects he loved including his books and manuscripts.

After our tour, we tried phoning my friend Hector who was to have arrived in Valparaiso the day before, but he wasn't home, so we decided to walk down the hill back to the city centre. The roads are at such an incline it's dizzying and difficult to walk without feeling like you are tilting forward and falling down and by the end our legs were shaking. (Amazingly, no still muscles the next day!)

We walked along the harbour looking for a cafe and eventually found a funky little diner where we had quite an interesting meal. I wanted fish, and ordered an dish called Chupa, which was a very thick seafood chowder with lots of cheese in it, and a Chilean salad and papas fritas. Patrick had beef dishes. We were both stuff afterwards and by then it was time to head back to the bus depot for the trip back to Santiago.

The ride back was very scenic. We pased by acres and acres of vineyards, olive groves and fruit orchards. The valleys between the green hills of the coast and Santiago are stunningly beautiful.

Once we got back we headed for the supermarket where we had accidently left a bag of groceries the night before. Amazingly, they had recorded in a big log book, all the items left behind by customers, and we were told to get the stuff we'd forgotten from the shelves and it was given back to us. No exctra charge. Would Safeway ever do that? We were so impressed.

This is our last night in Santiago. By this time tomorrow we'll be homeward bound. I'm sorry to leave, but know even the best of times must come to an end.

NEXT: HOMEWARD BOUND

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