It’s our second full day in Valparaiso, on the coast of Chile, and we’re finally recovering from a huge travel leap from San Jose, Costa Rica. We didn’t have reliable internet access in San Jose, so no postings for a few days. Mostly we walked around and visited excellent museums and exhibitions — which was challenging because although we had a map with street names and directions, there were very few street signs so we were constantly asking people calle numero? along with an appropriate hand gesture (like a sweeping directional motion meant to reinforce the idea it was the name of the street we were interested in — probably quite unnecessary) and often finding we were way off track.
We did book one tourist excursion to see a volcano. What a disappointment that was — aside from the lacklustre service from the tour company, Volcán Poás was completely shrouded in thick cloud that was producing a non-stop drenching rain — so even though we were supposedly peering into the world’s second widest crater, we could have been anywhere. Maybe there is no volcano and this is just a scam to drain dollars from turistas.
Getting out of Costa Rica was no easy task: 30-minute taxi to the airport, the usual line-ups and waits at the airport, two-hour flight to Bogota to change planes and then 5-1/2 hours overnight to Santiago. At the airport Chilean authorities really have it in for Canadians, Americans, Australians, Mexicans, and Albanians(!?). Apparently these governments charge Chilean travellers high visa fees, so Chile retaliates with what they call “reciprocity taxes” – forcing nationals from the above listed countries to stand in an extra line with one cashier to take the ransom payment. And what a slow and fussy cashier – obviously stationed here to further aggravate travellers from the hit list. He slowly counted, and recounted, and counted again the stack of US $20 bills each person handed him, and then rejected one or more bills for a small tear (he rejected three of our twenties, even though they were fresh from an ATM). He then printed receipts, stamped everything, and directed us to the immigration line – which by this time was twice as long because another plane had come in. In all, a two-hour process!
Finally out the door, we caught a 30-minute shuttle bus into town in order to catch a 90-minute bus to the Valparaiso bus station, and finally, a 20-minute taxi to our apartment. This will be our home for the next four weeks – a very small apartment complete with a kitchenette, on one of the famous hills at the west end of town that has a panoramic view of the hills that make up the UNESCO world heritage site, as well as the entire harbour, and north to Vina del Mar (where the best beaches are) and of course out to the ocean. Valparaiso has been a port city for more than 400 years; the subject of numerous pirate attacks in the early days. The city’s fortunes took a huge hit when the Panama Canal was completed and ships no longer had to sail around South America and stop by for refueling. Then banking and other business activity moved to Santiago, although the city has regained some ground as the main container port for Chile – so we see stacks of the same containers from China that we see in Vancouver. It has also been the main port for Chile’s armada (navy) for the last 150 years or so, and between the old neighbourhoods on the hills and the beaches to the north, a major tourist draw for Chile.
It’s the end of summer here – the kids went back to school this week – but it’s still very hot through the day and night, and every afternoon the wind comes up and blows all the street dust into your eyes. It was so bad yesterday, after we had explored the west end of town for several hours, that we had to duck into an old marine bar in what our host had described as “not an area for tourists” – a rather rundown section of town next to the port, known historically for the plethora of bars and bordellos that once thrived here in response the number of sailors that used to pass through. Those days are gone, although we did see a sign on the side of the building across the street that offered habitaciones matrimonial (rooms with beds for two people) illustrated with a drawing of an apple with one bite removed. The bar itself was not so bad – old school marine theme: booths along one side in the shape of big oak barrels, semaphore flags everywhere, but not a pirate in sight.
We then caught the funicular – the Ascensor Artilleria – up to our hill. This was around 5:30 pm, when the sun sets in Central America and time for all tourists to head home. Here in Valparaiso the sun sets at around 8 pm and it is dark by 8:30, which of course means for us happier, longer days exploring. A month here seems about right!