The Chilean port city of Valparaíso was a correct answer in this year’s big GeoBee competition and, back in 2009, it showed up twice in our November/December issue: We ranked it respectably in our annual Places Rated assessment and we wandered its hilly streets with writer Andrew Evans in the issue’s On Foot section.
While fact-checking Andrew’s jaunt through the city, I “met” British blogger Matt Ridgway who’s made Valpo his home for the past three years. He has explored his new home extensively, delving into its history and culture. I thought I’d get an expat insider’s scoop on what he calls Valpo’s “ramshackle charms” with the following Q&A.
How long have you been living in Chile and what led you there initially?
Almost three years and I’ve spent the same amount of time in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and a few months in Ecuador before settling in Valparaíso. I originally came to South America to backpack, fell in love with Argentina and then with a Chilean girl. So I moved to Chile. The relationship didn’t work out but I stayed because my love for the country and the people was still there and strong.
What are your top 5 things to do in Valparaíso?
1. Wander around Cerro Concepción and Alegre to see the city’s finest architecture and eat, drink, and shop in its best locales. Also, see some amazing street art and graffiti.
2. Visit the three cemeteries on Cerro Pantheon for a fascinating look at the city’s immigrant history.
3. Take a boat trip around the harbor to get a completely different view.
4. Have a beer in Bar La Playa on Calle Serrano, a beautiful, traditional port bar.
5. Wander around Cerro Bellavista, visiting the open-air museum, Pablo Neruda’s house, and the Fundación Valparaíso for lunch.
What other interesting attractions are there nearby for travelers to Valpo?
1. A fantastic day hike, 45 minutes’ drive from Valpo is Cerro La Campana. On clear days you can see all the way to Valpo and the Pacific on one side and Aconcagua in Argentina to the other. Charles Darwin was suitably impressed.
2. Lunch at El Chiringuito in Zapallar. Chile’s Hamptons is a stunning little village with a fantastic seafood restaurant next to the fisherman’s wharf (not the one on the beach).
3. Viña del Mar is a little boring but it has some really good restaurants and a fancy casino if you like that sort of thing.
4. The Casablanca Valley, just 30-45 minutes away, is home to some of Chile’s most famous wineries. Take a tour and taste some of the world’s finest white wines (the reds are made further south). Englishman Mike organizes tours from Valpo.
5. The ex-whaling village of Quintay is really very pretty and has poorly run but still interesting museum.
What’s the best time of the year to visit? Any significant festivals?
The best time of year to visit Chile is the first couple of weeks of November and March. Great weather and few tourists. January and February are tricky as the whole country goes on holiday. At New Year, Valpo has one of the world’s largest fireworks display, which is truly spectacular. The amphitheater setting of the bay makes the display absolutely amazing. Over one million people descend on the city every year, hotels triple their prices, and you need to book at least two-three months in advance!
- Nat Geo Expeditions
What are the people of Valpo and/or Chile like?
Chileans are more reserved and may seem less welcoming than their more outgoing cousins from neighboring countries. They just need more time to warm up, though once you get to know them, Chileans can be a lot of fun. They’re welcoming to foreign tourists and will go out of their way to make you feel safe in their country. Chile is a very safe destination in South America with an honest police force and very little violent crime.
Is Valpo being revamped in terms of historic buildings being restored, etc.? How do you view this development?
Yes, but slowly and painfully. Mistakes are being made and things are not moving as quickly as they could. I speak as someone who was involved in historic property restoration in the city. Hopefully things will be better managed in the future and the city can regain more of its former glory.
Photo: Top, Haim Ilan/My Shot; Below, courtesy of Matt Ridgway.
For more on Chile, visit National Geographic’s Chile Travel guide.