Kaye has itchy feet. Again. Read why – and where they’re taking her – only on Just About Travel
Continued from 14 April:
One of the things I love most about travel is the opportunity to try out a new life for a bit. I’d spent six weeks trying on Argentina for size and discovered that this country of passion – for food, football, tango, love and life – seems to suit me. Yet for all that I couldn’t help but wonder: what if Argentina’s next-door neighbour, spindly Chile, suits me even more?
It was time to find out. And so I found myself boarding a bus from Mendoza, Argentina to Valparaíso, Chile. There’s a saying “It’s not the destination that counts but the journey” and certainly it’s an apt metaphor for my bus ride which, encompassing as it did one of the world’s great mountain ranges, was nothing short of spectacular. The majestic mountains were sprinkled in snow making for an unexpected winter wonderland. And it wasn’t just wide eye tourists like me who were blown away by the sight of the snow capped Andes: even the Argentine and Chilean passengers were pressing their noses against the windows of the bus and taking pictures of the jaw dropping scenery.
I was almost disappointed when, nine hours later, our bus pulled into Valparaíso but the port city’s faded beauty soon put a stop to that. I don’t think I met a single soul during my sojourn who managed to resist the wily charms of Valpo (as the Unesco world heritage listed town is affectionately known). Spend even the smallest amount of time there and you’ll quickly discover the delights of Valpo’s 45 cerros (hills), overlooking the Pacific that are dotted by sugar almond hued houses whose exteriors are made of corrugated metal peeled from decades old shipping containers.
It’s a sleepy sort of place in which to rest, reflect and recuperate or as Pablo Neruda – the Nobel Prize–winning Chilean poet who was once called “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language” – put it in a letter to his poet friend, Sara Vial, in 1959: “I feel the tiredness of Santiago, I want to find a house to live and write in peace at Valparaíso. Certain conditions must be given. It may not be too high or too low. It must be solitary, but not in excess. I wish neighbours were invisible. I wish I did not see or hear them. Original but not uncomfortable. Very light, but firm. Neither too big nor too small, far from everything. But close to the stores. As well, it has to be very inexpensive. Do you think I can find a house like that, in Valparaíso?”
Chile’s best loved poet did indeed find the house he was looking for. Step forward La Sebastiana – named so in honour of its first owner, Sebastián Collado, who began building the heart stopping-ly pretty property but died in 1949 before he had completed the project. Visitors to Valparaíso can wander at will around the five storey house and gain a glimpse into the unorthodox (expect to see a carousel horse in the living room for, as Neruda famously remarked, “A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived in him”) life of the Nobel laureate winner. But be warned: reaching the romantic house involves a hefty uphill hike, that’s not for the faint hearted.
Following a final – Malbec filled, natch – night in Mendoza, the long bus journey and the schlepp to see La Sebastiana, I wasn’t surprised to hear my stomach rumbling but, looking at my watch, I saw that it was only 6pm. Eeek. Restaurants – if my experiences in Argentina were anything to go by – wouldn’t open for at least another three hours.
My mistake: turns out that Chileans don’t eat dinner. I learnt this from Gabi – my Airbnb host in Valpo. But to call Gabi a ‘host’ is an understatement for not only did she let me step into her spare room: she also let me step into her life. Gabby gave me a genuine local Valpo experience, acting as an informal concierge. Case in point? She kindly met me at the bus stop on arrival, pointed out the best place to eat empanadas (essentially seriously addictive stuffed pastries) and spent time swopping travel stories and experiences with me. I didn’t just a rent a room, I – in effect – rented a new friend for Gabi and I have a lot in common: namely we’re both 34, live alone, are involved in our communities and careers, have great friends and like our single lives perhaps, we mused, too much so…
But back to dinner…or the lack of it. Rather Las Onces is what Chileans eat in the evenings and it’s basically a light meal that typically consists of tea, some sandwiches and a slice of cake consumed around 6pm. Instead the Chileans fuel up at lunch time when they’ll start with soup before moving onto a main dish of fish or meat - Lomo a lo pobre aka Steak topped with fried eggs and French fries is a Chilean classic – accompanied with the obligatory rice and vegetables.
Having been brought up on the mantra “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dine like a pauper”, the Chilean take on mealtimes made more sense to me that the Argentine approach whereby breakfast (desayuno) is very light while dinner is late and invariably heavy. However while the Chilean eating schedule differs from Argentina’s, both countries love to stay up late and as such people don’t go out to play much before midnight. One night in Valpo after a plethora of Pisco Sours (Chile and Peru both claim to have invented this heavenly cocktail in which Pisco, a popular grape brandy, is mixed with sugar and fresh lemon juice), it dawned on me that early evening Onces don’t prevent hangovers in the same way that a late, great Argentine steak can…
It wasn’t just the potent Pisco Sours I needed to be wary of though: stray, street dogs (perros callejeros) roam Valpo’s sinuous streets 24/7 and, while a lot of Valpo residents refer to the canines as fellow Porteños seeing them as much a part of the frenetic port city as the escalaeras (stairways), ascensores (funiculars) and street art scene (colourful murals adorn every Valpo wall and door), I wasn’t convinced. Walking home alone at night surrounded by a pack of scraggly dogs (there’s estimated to be around 25,000 in Valpo ) is more than a little disconcerting - even if you’re a devoted dog lover.
And so after a spell in Valpo and a day trip to Vina de Mar – an orderly ‘garden city’ that’s a popular weekend destination during summer owing to its numerous beaches – I decided to travel south to Santiago: the Chilean capital.
To be continued tomorrow (29 April)…
To read part one of Kaye’s ‘Notes from a traveller’ series, please click here
To read part three, click here
To read part four, click here