Where Travel and Green Living Meet

Valparaiso, Chile

I've learned in my travels that often, there is nothing special about a port of entry. When one enters a country through a city such as New York, London, or Sydney, there is plenty to explore and enjoy. Often, though, ports of entry into a country simply aren't nearly as exciting as the smaller and more hidden cities that lie beyond. Imagine entering the United States via Raleigh, North Carolina; or Hartford, Connecticut; or Los Angeles. Sometimes it is best to skip a city entirely.

And so, after arriving in Chile I spent only enough time in Santiago as was necessary to arrange transportation to my eventual destination: Valparaiso.

I boarded a rather well fit bus given the $8 price tag for the two hour journey. After more stops than I felt were necessary, including one that was so far out of the way that I am quite convinced was actually on Easter Island, I arrived in Valparaiso shortly after 10:30 at night, checked in to a small guesthouse on Cerro Alegre, and ventured out for food.

After arriving at a Tapas bar and enjoying at least 4 tapas plates and 3 glasses of wine, the other remaining customers in the bar struck up a conversation with me when they heard me ask a question in such broken Spanish that even a lip reader could tell my accent was horrible.

It's amazing the conversations you can have when there is a language barrier.  The man asked where I was from. I replied.  He asked in very broken English that arguably was no better than my Spanish what brought me to Valparaiso. I replied that I was on holiday and simply wanted to go somewhere I had never been. About 45 seconds later, I quickly discovered we had reached the limits of his English. Here's how the conversation went from there:

Guy: "I sell ice."
Me: "Ice?"
Guy: "Yes, ice. I have 6 icemakers to make the ice that I sell."
Me: "Do you mean actual ice?"
Guy: "Yes, ice."
Me: "As in, ice for my drink?"
Guy: "Yes. I have 6 ice makers. I use the ice makers to make ice. And then I sell the ice."
Me: "Interesting. How long have you been selling ice?"
Guy: "Como?"
Me: "Oh, I don't know how to say it in Spanish."
Guy: "Oh ok. So I sell ice. When someone needs ice, I sell the ice."

(Brief pause.)

Me: "Do you like Valparaiso?"
Guy: "Yes, it is a very good place for my sell ice business."

And so it went.


Valparaiso is quite likely the most interesting city in Latin America, even if you count Miami. Sitting at the same latitude as Sydney despite having half of Chile to the south, Valpo is really two cities: the rolling, sprawling hills, full of Bohemian charm and houses painted all manner of bright colors, and "El Plan," the newer, more modern part of the city. I stayed in the older part of the city, made up of its 42 hills, or cerros, though not for the exercise I knew I would get. At the top of the cerros, occupying some of the most prime real estate in the city, are Valpo's slums -- more dangerous, according to locals, than the slums of some of the country's larger cities. My guesthouse was a mere 2 blocks away.

I began my day slowly meandering up and down the hills, starting near the top of Cerro Alegre, wandering through the "Graffiti Trail" and seeing the many different murals that dot the old town. I felt a certain feeling of relaxation everywhere, except in my quads, where I felt about half a dozen cramps. The hills are so steep that staircases take the place of sidewalks on nearly every street. I passed by touts hawking the usual tourist miniature paintings, magnets, and photos, and onto others selling tourist necessities here: Pisco Sour mix, miniature tall ships, and automatic defibrillators.

To help cut back the number of heart attacks that took the lives of so many out of shape yet still young, dashing travel writers, Valpo became one of the first cities in the world to use the funiculaire, or ascensore as they say in Chile, as a mode of public transportation. To me, the most ideal forms of public transit are those that not only bring people from point A to point B, but provide a highly unique and interesting experience along the way. While every city's public transit is interesting -- Tokyo's for its incredible cleanliness and for the presence of city employees who wear white gloves and push passengers into the train so that the doors can close, Kuala Lumpur's for its lack of human drivers, and London's for its incredible propensity to break down just when you need to actually get somewhere -- they all generally have a common look, feel, and purpose that bind them all. There are few transit experiences so unique that one would be unable to recreate them elsewhere.

Take the Cable Car in my home in San Francisco. While the Cable Car is a very popular tourist attraction, it is just as useful and inexpensive as the ubiquitous bus or light rail.

And so Valparaiso has something so rare, so unique, so special, that I could've spent hours riding the many ascensores if only they came equipped with bartenders.

The oldest ascensore in Valpo, built in 1883, is still operating today. Imagine an old wooden elevator with windows, then paint it red and put it outside on a hill with a 60 degree incline. Attach it to a cable that is driven by the same device that runs the chairlift at the ski slope, and that's about what the average Valpo ascensore looks like.

I paid the equivalent of a US quarter and passed through the turnstyle. Inside, I found myself in a world where travelers and locals alike could come together in the spirit of saving the earth and taking pictures of the surrounding scenery. The three passengers in the car with me were obviously locals commuting home from work. We smiled at each other as our kindred spirits came together feeling the joys of locals and travelers alike sharing transportation, sang songs about the environment, and then hugged goodbye at the top of the hill.

Indeed, there is no Public Transit like this is anywhere else in the world.


Now, ordinarily, I feel that meeting others in one's travels is one of life's greatest pleasures, next to Twilight Zone marathons.

Randomly befriending strangers is unfortunately not without its hazards, as I learned in Valparaiso, where -- get this -- I was attacked by a gang of lesbians. No, I'm not kidding, and yes, I was there and I still can't write that sentence with a straight face. After a night out at the bars, four very pleasant women -- three of whom casually mentioned they were lesbians -- started chatting me up, and before I realized I was a little too far from the crowd, they attacked me. I like to think they simply found me too attractive to keep their hands off me, but I am told by locals that they likely were out to rob me. I escaped without a scratch, though they did manage to shred my favorite sweater. I still keep it to this day as memorabilia. And proof. Because I was there, and I'm still not sure I believe that story myself.

There are some aspects of traveling in Chile that you will be hard pressed to miss, even if you only have a few hours in the longest, narrowest country in the world.

Pisco Sour is one. Chileans claim this to be the national drink of Chile, and there's really no reason why it shouldn't be, except that it is also the national drink of Peru. Don't ever tell a Chilean that Pisco Sour is Peruvian, and don't ever tell a Peruvian that Pisco Sour is Chilean. You'll have better luck surviving a Brazilian soccer game wearing an Argentinian jersey.

Please understand, pisco sour is an acquired taste, and once you know what is in it, you probably won't want to try it any more. It contains syrup, bitters, lime juice, and egg whites. Like the kind you find in an egg white omelet, only you drink these. But trust me, it really is tasty. The alcohol comes from pisco, a liquor distilled from grapes. I personally think it's a bit of a waste to use grapes to make anything but wine, but I'm guessing the grapes are of a lower quality than the kind you find growing throughout Chile's best wine regions. As strange is the Pisco Sour sounds, it is a taste that you will acquire if you do any amount of travel in Chile. One simply cannot enjoy Chile the same as one can with Pisco sour in hand.

The second aspect of Chile that you will not escape is what might seem like a constant love fest. Chileans make out in public everywhere. It's not necessarily that Chileans are into PDA, it's that the younger Chileans are hard pressed to find moments alone because more than likely, if they are single, they live with their parents. Even young professionals in their late 20s or even early 30s tend to live with their parents, and so Chile's public spaces serve as a convenient substitute to the living room couch. This can get a little awkward at times if you're lost and need directions.

And of course, there's at least one time during a stay in Chile, where, on a slightly cold day, you'll be forced to say "no pun intended."


Valpo, indeed, is a city unlike any other. There is no Eiffel Tower, there is no Opera House, and there is no Great Wall. In Valparaiso, the city itself is the attraction. It is a traveler's city -- one in which you can easily wander around, get lost, explore, and do nothing.

And so as the day drew to a close, I made my way up Cerro Concepcion to a small cafe at the Hotel Brighton. This may very well be the most idyllic spot in Valparaiso. If it isn't, then the more idyllic spots are heavenly. On one side of the partially sunlit terrace, the cafe overlooks Valparaiso Harbor. The same harbor that, 200 years ago, was the first major port of call for all ships coming around Cape Horn. The British Navy, clipper ships, commercial shipping vessels -- all docked here prior to setting off for the Pacific or the West Coast of the United States. As I sat and sipped a glass of Chilean wine, I saw a small sailboat crossing the harbor in the distance before disappearing behind a high rise. Past the harbor is Vina del Mar, the favorite beach getaway of Santiagans. On the other side of the cafe are the hills of Valparaiso, a sprawling sea of blue, green, yellow, and other bright colored houses that dot the landscape.

It's amazing how bright colors can make even the ugliest slum look appealing. In Rio, famous for it's favelas that dot the hillside within view of some of the best beaches in the world, the slums are mostly a uniform brown color. In Valparaiso, the slums are brightly colored. Seeing them from a distance they appear vibrant and inviting.

Below is Plaza Anibal Pinto, part of "El Plan," the newer part of the city. It is a reminder that even in a Bohemian city where old world charms are a stone's throw away from everywhere, the modern world of buses, banks, and mega-chains is not far off.

Music from the 1920's plays softly in the background. A gentle breeze blows in the cool ocean air and negates the effects of the hot Chilean sun. Idle conversations in Spanish waft in from the patio just a few meters away.

If this place isn't a traveler's paradise, I don't know what is.

I slowly sipped my glass of wine as I watched the world go by 200 meters below. When the waiter came over, we exchanged a brief knowing glance -- he spends every day here. "Beautiful view, isn't it?" He asked in Spanish.

"Si," I replied. "Muy lindo." I continued practicing my Spanish and asked for a glass of water.

The waiter paused a moment and asked, "Would you like ice? We buy from this very nice man..."