Thursday, 2 June 2016

An appreciation for Valparaiso

When we drove through a part of Valparaiso yesterday to get to our accommodation both Celliers and I were not feeling too excited about the place. Slum-like rickety buildings falling off hillsides, an abundance of electrical wires sprouting from poles and buildings and the appearance of everything needing a good coat of paint put us off.

Our hostess, Elsa, told us about a walking city tour, which we jumped at doing. We are so glad we did because now we have a far greater appreciation of Valparaiso.

I have done a free city walking tour before - in Buenos Aires. I loved it. This was to be just as fabulous.

We caught a bus from Vina del Mar to the city centre of Valparaiso. These bus drivers are demons!  They drive really fast, whizzing through traffic. We met our tour guide at a square, with a statue of Neptune - a must-have for any port city or town.

There were another three people on the tour with us: an Australian and a couple from India. Our guide, Alvaro, was friendly and informative and a pleasure to have showing us around. We toured the streets of Cerro Conception, went up an old funicular - a near-vertical cable car on rails that connects the lower city with homes on the hills (there are 14 of them) - and we ate empanadas at a local cafe.

There are officially 42 hills (cerros) surrounding the flat commercial and financial area of the city. Valparaiso grew organically, with no residential planning, as immigrants arrived and the population grew through the late 1800s and early 1900s. They spread onto the hills. The small roads make quite a web.

The cerros are stacked with houses and, in the nicer areas, with hostels, hotels, restaurants and places of interest too. Cerro Conception is a touristy area with nicer buildings, which are adorned with graffiti and murals.

Since the late 1990s these artworks have become a 'thing' of the area and are a major attraction. With good reason! They're stunning. You can go crazy looking at and taking photos of them.

Artists ask house owners if they can paint a picture on their walls. Permission is usually given because it is far more preferable to have a nice picture instead of a nasty graffiti tag (those ugly black 'signatures' that morons squiggle on everything) on one's wall. Apparently taggers will generally respect murals.

Many houses are painted in charming colours, turning the hills colourful. It's another tradition of this town and that of other port towns, like the La Boca neighbourhood in Buenos Aires.

We took in a lot of the history of the city,  marvelled at the walls and murals and enjoyed walking the winding streets and cobbled roads. We totally recommend doing the same if you visit here.

After the tour, which took about three hours, Celliers and I trekked up the hill to see one of the three cemeteries up there. Much like the cemetery in Buenos Aires, there are family mausoleums (typical Catholic setup). The earliest we found dates back to 1880. We went to Cemetery No. 2... No. 1 could be older?

The electricity wires above the streets are a crazy sight. I find them very ugly - being used to underground cables. The deal (one of them) with the above-ground cables is that this is a region hit by earthquakes. Safer to have them above ground, apparently.

The population is only around 280,000 - about double that of Potchefstroom. Looks like loads more because of the density and jumble. The greater Valparaiso area, including Vina del Mar where we are staying and other 'cities' a little North, tally just under a million.

And then we took another high-speed bus ride back to Vina del Mar, where we chilled on a bench overlooking the beach and explored the nearby mall (very flash and with lots of stores - especially clothing).

There are lots and lots of stray dogs all over the place. They're generally in good condition and are friendly. I asked our guide about them.

Many of these dogs - usually medium size to large (labrador, German Shepherd) - were pets at one time but were probably abandoned when their owner moved; say from a house to an apartment (or to a smaller apartment). The city pound doesn't have space to accommodate the vast number of them and so the dogs roam the streets.

People feed the dogs, even though it is illegal, and the dogs look healthy. Apparently the government outlawed the feeding of the strays - in an attempt to starve them to death... but the people have far more compassion. I've seen a number of pedestrians patting dogs on their heads. There are animal welfare organisations that try to help the dogs and as a result many of the strays are sterilised. The dogs spend their days wandering around and snoozing on benches, on grass and on sidewalks and they seem pretty street-crossing savy. I've  seen a dozen I'd gladly take home.

I guess this is the problem... There are just so many strays and people can't take them home to pokey small apartments. Instead they do what they can to care for them on the streets.

Tomorrow we start heading South. We got our hands on some maps today. We'll  be travelling down the coast for some sightseeing.

I've included two collages below from our day on Valparaiso. One of some murals and the other of buildings. I took loads of photos - just so much to see!

I'm very glad to be leaving Valparaiso knowing more about the place and having a far better appreciation for the city than what the first impression made.

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