If you can imagine a European city on the Mediterranean built by millennials on a time crunch, then you can imagine Valparaíso. The embodiment of funky-but-chic, urban decay hip, Valparaiso has a history that goes back as far as the 1500s when the first Spanish explorers arrived, though it did not become a major seaport until the later 1800s. Today it is a mix of historic colonial buildings and utilitarian shacks, appealing public art and murals and unappealing graffiti, modern facilities and crumbling infrastructure. Money makes a difference in what a city looks like, and money seems to be the thing that separates Valparaiso from other world-class tourist destinations. With gentrification only partially achieved, the city has a hip, "undiscovered" air about it that is refreshing after spending so much time in the sometimes cloying, well-oiled beauty of European seaside cities.
French Belle Époque buildings stand deserted with layers of dust on their windows and the scribblings of taggers covering their walls. Even the Spanish colonial buildings that are occupied do not seem to have enough coats of fresh paint to keep up with the repeated attacks from all the spray paint cans. However, unlike most urban graffiti which looks like visual eyesores to us, in this unique city many buildings are "defaced" with beautifully painted street art and murals, all of which are brilliantly colored.
In the steep hills that make up this city (42 or 47 of them depending upon whom you listen to), quickly constructed newer buildings sit beside a number of historic ones. Corrugated metal is a common siding on many of these buildings, both old and new, having been left on during the formation of the walls outside the thick insulating layer of adobe which lies beneath. To point out a difference in cultural aesthetic, this widely used corrugated metal siding, even when brightly colored - as it often is painted in all the pastel hues you can imagine - and adorned with pretty shutters, looks ghetto-like to us but, in the eyes of the locals, this building material does not convey poverty at all as even wealthy homes have the same metal siding.
This and other less-textured surfaces have become open canvasses for artists of varying talents. There is so much street art, both good and bad, that one really has to stop and deliberately look around to appreciate the grab bag of creativity that lurks around every corner. Illustrations of monsters and wizards, rabbits and naked women look out over the upper hills, lower neighborhoods, and the Pacific. The street vibe outside our hotel is lively and energetic.
From here we head north through coastal farming areas where it is springtime and bright orange ("California") poppies cover the hills. Offshore from an exclusive community, we are able to view Humboldt penguins waddling along craggy rock outcroppings as we walk along the beach, collecting shells as we go. The neighborhood here consists of summer homes for the very rich, and we are told that they cost as much as $500,000-$700,000 U.S. (rich is relative)!
Lunch is at our next destination: Zapallar. As opposed to the neighborhood near the penguins, this is an area of old money and enormous estates. We drive down a small, winding road in the hills to another winding road to yet another winding road until we arrive at a large open-air seafood restaurant seemingly far away from everything, but right on the beach. We lunch on fresh abalone, scallops and local crab as we enjoy watching the well-heeled diners around us and the seascape and hillsides in front of us.
From our hotel, we follow a path through forests of eucalyptus and eventually emerge along the seashore. Wild flowers are in bloom everywhere and the air temperature seems to remain a constant 72 degrees with a gentle breeze. We enjoy an opportunity to be lazy knowing that in a few days we will be joining our tour group and having to follow someone else's schedule.
Next comes the Casablanca Valley, one of the many wine growing areas of Chile, which is known for its Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, although it is here that we get introduced to Carmenere, a French red varietal that was previously thought to have been lost during a grape blight but that was found to be surviving in Chile. The weather continues to be in our favor with warm days and cool nights giving us the opportunity to have a decadently delicious lunch of seared tuna, beef empanadas, and a walnut pesto pasta outside in the vineyards.
Because we wanted to cover a lot of territory in a relatively short time, for efficiency, we reluctantly decided to join a small group tour for the next 3 weeks starting in Santiago, a big sprawling city which holds little interest for us. The next morning, very bright and early, we take the 5+ hour flight to Easter Island. The island is like a deforested temperate-but-still-humid Hawaii with "heads" (the statues). We spend a lot of time with our local guide learning (in staggering detail) about the history of the Rapa Nui islanders who originally came from the Marquesas Islands. Being a small island, we visit every single archeological site (and there are plenty) including the best sites which feature the famous Moai --huge stone torsos--that the island is known for (pronounced "Mow I"). The statues are impressive and a little bit eerie, standing imposingly on their platforms looking down on us with a backdrop of a churning ocean with waves crashing wildly and moody skies above.
Unlike Hawaii, the connection to a distant past civilization is ever-present throughout the island as natural beauty blends with reminders everywhere of past inhabitants' culture and spiritual beliefs on this tiny chunk of land far far away from anywhere else. In fact, Easter Island is the most remote inhabited island on Earth. We are often treated to unobstructed sweeping hilltop views of the ocean and can actually see the Earth's curvature.