The bus comes to a stop, the winter sun shines heavily on the hills. The hills are burdened with the ant-farms of old, wooden houses. Walking away from the worn bus station we enter one of the main streets of Valparaiso.
First impressions of Valparaiso: no, not yet. You don’t want to express your first impression straight away. When you see the city, you want to hold it back. Hold back what? As soon as you set eyes on the port city favoured by artists – even by Pablo Neruda – you don’t want to say what you’re thinking.
Because what you’re thinking, is decay.
But no, you want to give it a chance. This is one of Chile’s major tourist hotspots. That many people can’t be wrong. So we begin walking from the bus station into the centre of town. We walk along the promenade. Beside us are ghostly train tracks. Along either side of the train tracks there are homeless people, cluttered like fallen monks.
The walls are graffitied. It’s mostly communist or socialist messages. Unsurprising since opposite us is the university of Valparaiso. It turns out, in Latin America, socialism is still a fad amongst students. That’s a comforting thought: Nixon must be shuffling in his grave. Even better still: Kissinger is still alive to see his criminal failures.
Graffiti is a common sight in Valparaiso. Your eyes become accustomed to them fairly quickly, like seeing lichen in a damp forest, or roasted chestnuts on the streets of Rome. But when you start seeing graffiti climbing up the walls of some once-proud, important-looking buildings, the D-word starts cropping up in your mind again. But still, you keep it to yourself.
On the bus ride into Valparaiso, past some beautiful landscape full of vineyards and mountains, I warned my wife that Valparaiso has a reputation of being rundown. It’s part of its charm, I told her. It’s what attracts artists and bohemians from all over the country. I look forward to it. I wasn’t wrong to, right?
When we arrive at the main square of Valparaiso, Plaza Sotomayor, we find a square worthy of a major city. At its centre stage there is a monument to the heroes of Iquiqe, and all around us, above the markets and the bustle, there are humble but beautiful white buildings. The sea and the port lay silent in the background.
Now of course one of the main attractions that draw in visitors to Valparaiso are its hills. So we simply thought, let’s just climb up. But Valparaiso is a notoriously difficult city to navigate. Maps are as useful here as they would be on Mars. So we picked one of the streets behind the correos building and started walking up.
It soon became obvious, after a good few minutes of climbing, that we had taken a wrong path. And it was a path that would crumble all our faith in this port city. This paradise valley.
We still wouldn’t say anything yet. But in my mind, as we walked up a quiet street, with dirty buildings, all tattooed with gaudy graffiti, and balconies that seemed to be falling off the cliff-face like bad acme – I was beginning to feel revoltingly homesick.
I want to be back home, I thought. Where decay is something to move away from, to hide away, bury like a racist relative. But here, in this Valparaiso, it is flaunted like family heirlooms. Why are people so attracted to this rot? Do people come to Valparaiso for the same reason they go to the favelas of Rio or the death-tinged waters of the Ganges?
I don’t get it. I’ve heard of slum tourism before but I never understood the allure of slumming it. I come from an area known for being rundown. Yet no one flocked to my hometown of Hamrun except for the festa. And rightly so. Tourists in Malta go to Valletta and Mdina, where, whatever decay there might be, is quickly buried away by the vistas of golden palaces and gardens.
But here in Valparaiso, there was no counter-balance. When we saw that the road we had taken was taking us nowhere, we decided to turn back and slug it back to Plaza Sotomayor and get a bus up to the hills.
Again, not an easy feat. Of course there were buses available. A lot of buses. Really – a lot of buses. Too many buses. Buses everywhere. And yet – not a single bus stop! And hardly any signs telling you where the bus is going.
So we run up to a bus that’s stopping to pick up some locals. We follow them. We ask the bus driver if he goes up to the hills. He says yes. Relieved, we take our seat.
The bus starts driving around the cramped, busy streets of this crumbling town. In my mind that old Pogues tune was playing: Dirty Old Town. The bus, known as a trolley car, announces the names of the stops and the main sights nearby.
We keep waiting, waiting, expecting the bus to start driving up. But it doesn’t happen. He keeps driving straight ahead. We think, maybe he has to loop around. Don’t worry, we reassure each other, he said he’s going up into the hills, so he must be.
And then, to our horror, we find that he’s stopping at the bus station, right back where we started!
I go up to him and the old driver tells me this is the last stop. What about the hills, I ask him? The hills? Well, the bus can’t go up into the hills. Then why did you say it goes up there? Well, he said, you had to stop at the funicular and take that up into the hills.
Well why the hell didn’t you tell us? We’re tourists, how are we supposed to know that!
As angry as I was I must admit that that haggard bus driver was the first useless, non-helpful Chilean we had met on our whole journey.
When we got off the bus, fuming and irritated, we both looked at each other and said: let’s get out of here!
Now, we could say it out loud! Valparaiso is a mess. What’s there to see? The sea? We have that back home. Narrow streets? You’ll find those in much better-looking cities. Decay? Yes, well, I could go to the slums of Kenya and find decay. Except, I won’t be going there. And I won’t be going back to Valparaiso either.
We had booked our bus ticket to Santiago with a return time of 8pm. We went for a quick lunch – a hot dog in a dive, except, my hot dog had no dog! It had lots of mayo, avocado and chips, but no dog – and then returned to the bus station to change our return time. Luckily there was a bus heading back to Santiago in 20 minutes.
We got on and as it drove off we felt like we had just survived Jurassic Park!
Despite the sense of elation we felt on the bus I couldn’t deny the disappointment I felt. I had a Romantic image of Valparaiso. I remember the scene in The Motorcycle Diaries of the Che Guevara and Alberto driving into the luminous-looking city quoting Pablo Neruda. And Neruda – he lived there too. He loved watching the New Year’s fireworks from his home there.
It goes to show how you have to be intelligent in how you travel. Don’t be afraid to stay away from hotspots you don’t think are for you.
If you don’t like the sound of Disneyland, or Auschwitz or even the Louvre, then do yourself a favour: stay away.
What do you get from being able to say, been there, done that? To hell with the t-shirt. As you travel more and more you begin to learn what kind of places are right for you. You develop your style as a traveller.
Which isn’t to say don’t go out of your comfort zone. Naturally, we all should. But in general, where the masses go, you’re not going to be out of your comfort zone, you’re just going to be uncomfortable.