February is vacation month in Chile. Half of Santiago seems to relocate to the coast, only about an hour or so away. While many are clustering on the petit stretches of sandy beaches on those rocky shores, we have been revisiting the port of “Valpo”. Ahem, I mean, Valparaiso.
It’s a colorful jumble of a city clinging to the steep hillsides (over 20 of them). While the historic area has had a renaissance recently, Valparaiso has always had an appeal. For over a century, it’s a melting pot of people coming from all corners of the globe (many via sea, how romantic). There’s a corriente of artists that give it a very Bohemian vibe, including the bright graffiti and murals that are painted across the hills. The architecture is bright and charming, and whispers of its past when it was gem on the route from Europe to the west coast of the Americas. And, perhaps for many foodies, the motive (mine included), is the gastronomic draw. It’s a very happening place to eat and drink.
Here are some favorite things in this fascinating city that definitely merits a day–or three.
Be a Kid Again
Plaza Sotomayor may be where the naval heroes rest, the dinghies bob in the choppy port water, and the tourists throng in high season, but the true meeting place in Valparaiso is Plaza Victoria. Across from the cathedral, it’s a typical plaza studded with beautiful Chilean palms and grand old trees, benches, a gazebo and vendors selling churros and palomitas (popcorn). Local kids play on the swings or hop on the vintage carrousel (including our daughter who took her first ride here). One of my favorite spots in Chile, Puro Café, is on the corner. The owners are Colombian and know their craft. They toast their own beans to perfection and the espresso is exquisito.
Enter Time Machine
No, not referring to your computer. One of Valparaiso’s inherent charms is this vintage vibe it maintains year after year. The 1950s electric trams (with the same vinyl seats from decades ago) still run like clockwork. You can sip a pisco sour in al century-old, haunted bar like La Playa. Meander near Cardonal Market on Pedro Montt and you’ll stumble upon old emporios (grocers) with their elegant wooden shelving from floor to ceiling–the same many grandparents would remember as children. And then, there are all those Valparaiso “characters”: el Motemei, the sailors, the nuns circulating in their habits. Bells toll always in the distance on a hillside. Valparaiso feels authentic. Real. Very old world.
The rest of Chile calls it Marraqueta. In Valparaiso, it’s pan batido, or whipped bread. It’s the same bread with different theories on how it came to bear its present name. Everybody seems to agree that it originated in the port in the late 19th century when many European immigrants were arriving. Local tales say two French brothers with the last name Marraquette were responsible for getting Chile hooked on this baguette-like bread. Whatever the name’s origin, nowadays with so many artisan bakeries caving to supermarkets, it pays to scout out an oldie here. An oldie but goodie is Panadería Andina near Plaza Victoria. I suggest going in the afternoon around 6pm—aka, onces (Chilean tea time). Be sure you are fully prepared to honor that warm marraqueta with acceptable toppings such as mashed avocado and sea salt; or good mantequilla de campo (country butter) with jam.
An Urban Gym
When Sportlife (a big Chilean gym chain) opened on the main plaza, I almost fell over. What fools are running on those treadmills when there are literally THOUSANDS of staircases connecting the labyrinth of streets, alleys, and passageways in the hills?! Many of these staircases look fairly short and sweet. Mind you, most are vertical quad busters that will leave you a sweaty, heap at the top of them. That’s actually, I realized, a blessing in disguise. With the before-said food scene, and calories inevitably to be consumed, using your feet to take you into the hills is a good idea. Plus you can be nosy (but not weird), and sneak a peak into porteño private lives as you wind past front doors and intimate courtyards. Just wear very comfortable shoes. If you are too pooped to make it back down, or have a “wine situation” post lunch, salvation appears in the form of the rickety (but reliable) ascensores, funiculars. They will take you to the plano level in about 45 seconds. Just hold on.
Comer y Ser Feliz
Eat and Be Happy. This is why we come to Valparaiso. Maybe for the day. Hopefully a weekend. There are so many cool restaurants and food projects happening here (and cool boutique hotels, too). Want a quick study in porteño foodstuffs? Head to Mercado El Cardonal where bushels, crates, and piles of seasonal fresh produce teem from every corner with lively caseros (vendors). Across town in the more rough-and-tumble port barrio, there’s the fish market. Quality can be hit or miss depending on the day of the week but joints around the market like Los Porteños have been around forever to taste unpretentious Chilean seafood classic dishes like paila marina or machas a la parmesana.
Personally? I love getting high into the hills to the hip, refined spots that have come into their own. If before I couldn’t step foot in Valparaiso without eating at Pasta e Vino, now I am totally obsessed with Espiritu Santu. It’s an unassuming little trattoria on a typical street on Cerro Bellavista. Maybe it’s the natural flight that floods the place with high ceilings, the short and sweet menu that’s truly perfectly executed locavore cuisine, a fantastic list of MOVI wines, or most likely, the gracious (English-speaking) owner Laura (the chef’s mother). Right now, it’s my Valpo oyster. When I woke up dreaming the other night of their grilled octopus with miso sauce, I knew it may have gone too far.
There’s been a boom in food artisans and I am smitten with La Dulcería in the heart of cool Cerro Alegre. This candy store is just too cute for words. I become a child again when I pass the threshold. The colors, the flavors…the sugar. Owner Ángela Alfageme is the genius behind this colorful corner who sharpened her craft as a candy-maker in Barcelona. Everything from the soft, floral violet chews to the tangy and very Chilean pisco sours caramels, and the handmade red hots are amazing. The flavors change weekly, seasonally, and are all natural. They also showcase their candy-making art as they roll out designs on the handsome marble counter right in front of you.
One Last Word
For those coming to Valparaiso in vehicle (and not familiar with the city previously). Parking can be difficult, pricey, streets maze-like and not well marked (although GPS oddly does ok). For those challenged with the only manual shift option with rental cars in Chile, please don’t forget the steep hillsides. Man, those can be a bee-otch, especially in the rain. (Remember Lombard Street in San Francisco? Yeah, that’s average here). While Valparaiso is tranquilo, it’s best never to leave things in the car. The easiest solution is letting somebody else who knows the city man the ship (so to say), and just gawk at the beautiful facades, hillsides, and sparkling Pacific below.