Christmas in Valparaiso

Last year we were staying on a piranha farm in Northern Thailand, and Christmas day actually involved a pretty gruelling Thai boxing class….This year was not to be so strenuous! This year we would be indulging in cocktails, wine, food and street art in the enigmatic city of Valparaiso, Chile.

It is the 6th largest city in the country, yet the greater Valparaiso Metropolitan Area is the second most populous, and it lies just 70 miles from Santiago. Today it is the most important port in Chile, and indeed is one of the most important South Pacific ports, but a far cry from its signifiance pre Panama Canal. In the second half of the 19th century, the city served as a stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, earning it the names “Little San Francisco” and “The Jewel of the Pacific”. All of this would change with the opening of the mighty Panama Canal-which had a huge impact on the ship traffic that Valparaiso would see, and ergo the port based economy took a heavy fall.Since then Valparaiso has reinvented itself, its myriad of mazy streets providing inspiration for artistic and cultural expression. In 2003 the historic quarter was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status due to its improvised urban design and unique hop scotch of hillside architecture sprawling away from the coast. It’s difficult to put into words the landscape that you are faced with upon arrival, the city literally leaps from the sea and crawls up the surrounding hillsides. A series of 26 old and rickety funiculars are scattered around the city giving your legs the option to circumnavigate the steep inclines that you face at every corner! Street art meets your gaze everywhere, a lot of it breathtaking, but equally so much of the grafitti is just a collection of banal tags. This explosion of colour on the walls, combines with the crazy streets and perilously balanced buildings certainly gives the city something of an ‘edge’, especially when placed against the contrast of previous experiences in the sleepy town of EL Monte, and the modern and cosmopolitan Santiago. But this is something that the city never denies, in fact this edginess is positively embraced. Probably the best way to describe to you Valparaiso is to quote the famous Chilean poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda, a hugely influential figure in Chile-and someone who had quite a magnificent home on the hillsides of Valparaiso. On visiting his home, one of the things that you have to do while visiting the city, you apprecite what an eye for design and detail that he must have had, plus the fact tht he was a bit of  party animal-with a pretty cool bar just off his living room! Wonderful art deco design features, couple with the most superb panoramic views of the quagmire of streets falling away down the hillside to the docks nestled far below-the perfect fodder for artistic inspiration I would think:

Ode to Valparaíso
by Pablo Neruda

(translated by Molly Allison-Baker)

VALPARAÍSO,
what an absurdity
you are,
how crazy:
a crazy port.
What a head
of disheveled
hills,
that you never finish
combing.
Never
did you have
time to dress yourself,
and always
you were surprised
by life.
Death woke you up,
in your nightshirt,
in your long johns
fringed with colors,
naked
with a name
tattooed on your stomach,
and with a hat.

(read the full version of the translated poem here)

Christmas turned out to be a funny time to be in the city, the streets much quieter and calmer than we were expecting-as it transpired it was the perfect time to go on a tour of discovery of the balmy alleys and streets, in search of some of the much lauded graffiti that adorns the walls, roofs and passageways around the city…What you find is a myriad of amazing artwork:

I was reaching for my camera at every turn, always eyes wide open, a smile at the corners of my mouth. Valparaiso certainly isn’t a pretty city, but it is captivating!
As for Christmas day, we had rented an apartment for the festive period, so with the opportunity to use a kitchen we did what seemed most apt…..Cocktails, red wine, beer and steak and chips!

Aside from street art and steak, we travelled up the coast a little to Viña del Mar-the neighbouring seaside resort, a little bit like the younger yet more responsible sister…Which fails to charm in the same way as the gritty streets of Valpo-but would serve a purpose should you be seeking some beach time and a swanky night out!

Getting back to Valparaiso and I cannot help but feel that our experience of the city was somewhat an oddity-the Christmas period giving the whole place a much more lazy and sedate feel than the reports I hear from others. I think if you were to visit at New Year you would get an entirely different perspective-but for us a few days in our little apartment were perfect, a very Merry Christmas!

Advertisements

Interlude-72 hours to Singapore

Having left the schoolhouse in the rear view mirror, we found ourselves thrust back into the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap. After spending so much time away from the tourist trail, the bright lights of Pub Street were brighter than my memories, and the city was bursting at the seams with excited holidaymakers. It was from here that we had planned to tackle our longest journey yet-a mammoth 72 hours to Singapore.
Singapore hadn’t featured in our original plans, with a reputation for being not-so-friendly on the wallet, but one of Jo’s friends had recently moved out there so a great chance to go and have an interlude from our travels proper. Our plan was to take a bus to the border town of Poipet, hop on a train to Bangkok, get a sleeper train to Butterworth, and from there tackle the last leg of the journey to Singapore-it was going to take a mammoth effort.

This quickly changed as we found ourselves somewhere we could watch the Mayweather vs Pacquiao fight at 8.30AM the next morning…Both being huge boxing fans it was something that we just couldn’t miss out on watching, and so our plan for onward travel became more fluid. After some to’ing and fro’ing regarding the first leg of the journey, we found ourselves booked onto a minibus that would take us all the way to Bangkok-leaving at 2AM in the morning. Certainly not ideal, but definitely the best option allowing us time to watch the fight.

Fight day arrived and we headed to Charlie’s Bar, Siem Reap. Getting there for opening time we managed to snag ourselves a spot at the bar, right near the big screen-which was an absolute result as soon the place was packed to the rafters-it was at this point, right after breakfast, we made something of a misjudgement. We made the ‘ever-so-wise’ decision to have a beer while we were watching the fight. Now, we’re not necessarily known for our all day drinking binges, but that’s precisely what ensued and to say that it made the journey a tad more challenging would be a understatement of considerable proportions.

I’m not entirely sure what time we rolled into our hotel room, but it felt like I was in an alcohol induced slumber for no more than 15 seconds before the banging on our hotel door woke me-it was 2AM, our bus was here, we were both in something of a state, and we had to start our journey to Bangkok-ouch!
To say that the minibus journey that followed was a challenge is putting it mildly, first of all we drove 5 hours to the border where the minibus just parked up on the side of the road and the driver went to sleep for a couple of hours, it turns out we were waiting for the border to open! Bumbling through the border, we were armed only with a red sticker to indicate that we were getting onwards travel to Bangkok. With little idea how things would pan out, we just put our faith in the wonders of Asian transportation of tourists, and soon enough we found ourselves loaded onto our minibus and hitting the roads bound for Bangkok. It always just works.

Having made our way to the capital and then negotiated the MRT to get to the central train station, another hiccup in our plans-there were no tickets to Butterworth. We had to keep travelling, and so we booked ourselves onto a night train to the lesser known city of Hat Yai on the Malaysian border, and then we would try to work out onwards travel from there. This came with some feelings of caution, as travel to Hat Yai is generally discouraged due the city being a target of terrorism in the separatist campaign conducted by the Patani United Liberation Organisation and similar radical groups. However it was our only option on a way forward, and so we bit the bullet and readied ourselves for a journey into the unknown.

The colourful streets of Hat Yai

The colourful streets of Hat Yai

As it turns out, Hat Yai looked to be an interesting, bright and vibrant city, and I would have liked a little longer there to explore the city, but we were on a mission and needed to secure our onwards travel ASAP. At this point we do have a tale of caution to share with anyone who happens to find themselves in similar circumstances. When we arrived at the train station, well rested but still groggy, we disembarked to the usual clamour of people offering you transportation options. No problem for us, we knew that we just needed to grab an onward train ticket to Kuala Lumpur. Sadly, the train was fully booked and suddenly we found ourselves victim of a ‘transport tout’. Basically the moral of the story here is that the ‘travel agents’ around the train station are making a significant profit out of befuddled and bedraggled tourists-take a moment and seek out tickets from the bus companies directly. We weren’t so savvy and paid over the odds for our tickets, but we did eventually get ourselves on a night bus direct to Singapore, and so the end was in sight, albeit on the other side of a hefty bus journey across the whole of Malaysia!

Getting comfortable for the final leg

Getting comfortable for the final leg

With little more incident, we found ourselves in the gleaming city of Singapore, and ready to have a ‘holiday’ from our travels. It was fantastic to find ourselves in familiar company once again, and great to share fine food and good wine. It was a fair leap from the conditions where we found ourselves over the last couple of months! Singapore proved to be a surprise package, we constantly hear people just describe the city as ‘clean and expensive’, yet we found that we enjoyed it immensely. The amazing food you get from Hawker centres, the greenness of the city, we didn’t ever feel crowded or uncomfortable, the juxtaposition of the old and the new-all in all a welcome city break from the craziness of the Bangkok’s and Phnom Penh’s of the world! As with our arrival in most major cities, we found that our best introduction was to follow one of the Lonely Planet’s walking tours, and boy did it deliver-from the old of the Singapore Cricket Club and Raffles Hotel, to the spaceship like Supreme Court and a three column skyscraper with a ship laid across the top, and the extensive and picture perfect botanical gardens-Singapore in all its glory.

A pool to relax by-bliss!

A pool to relax by-bliss!

Buildings on and around The Orchard

Buildings on and around The Orchard

Be wary on your entrance to the Haw Par Villa depictions of the ten courts of hell

Be wary on your entrance to the Haw Par Villa depictions of the ten courts of hell

Memorial Park, Singapore

Memorial Park, Singapore

Inside the impressive supreme court

Inside the impressive supreme court

Singapore skyscape

Singapore skyscape

Singapore

Singapore

We marvelled at the all encompassing MRT system with it’s massive shopping centres and luxury shops, a far cry from what you may find at Kings Cross. Certainly you could live in Singapore and never leave the confines of the rail network…For sure we had settled back quickly into tourist mode.
At the end of a truly welcome few days in Singapore, we took to the skies for the first time since arriving in Asia and set our sights on our final destination in the Asian chapter of our adventure-Myanmar.