‘Don”t drive in Valparaiso’. That’s what everyone told us, including Catalina the daughter of the owner of the flat we were hiring. Take a bus and then a taxi, otherwise you’ll get lost. But what she didn’t realise was that she was talking to a man who had driven one of the most dangerous desert roads in the world and not gotten lost (well, OK, I admit I was following someone and maybe it wasn’t that dangerous) so how could we possibly have a problem in Valparaiso.

A somewhat reluctant Catalina sent us driving instructions and a rather confusing (and as it turned out, incomplete) map. We negotiated our way through town and were just congratulating ourselves on our progress when we hit Plaza Bismark and then we were well and truly sunk. Catalina’s map seemed to indicate that we should take a street that didn’t exist and it wasn’t detailed enough to show all those which did. So, for the next 45 minutes we went this way and that, doubled back on ourselves, asked directions from some people who had never heard of the address we were attempting to reach, and got more and more tired and frustrated. Eventually, we found a block of flats which looked exactly like the one in a photo which Catalina had included with her map.

Our next challenge was to find the neighbour, Maria Eugenia, who would let us into the apartment and show us where to park the car in a secure space, then carry all luggage down a steep flight of steps. The apartment is advertised on AirBnB as ‘The best view of Valparaiso’ and whilst this might be a bit of an exaggeration we certainly could see a lot of the city spread out below us. At night the lights were wonderful.

The car stayed in its lock up until we came to leave. Instead we either walked the city or took a collectivo taxi. These ply certain routes in the city for a fixed fare and you jump in with any other passengers going the same route. Our collectivo cost 400 Chillean pesos each (about 50p, less than a dollar} and boy didn’t it save a lot of tired legs. Valparaíso is built on a series of steep hillsides and the only flat bit is around the port area and the central Calle. So steep is it that at various points in the city there are either steps which you climb or wonderful ‘ascensors’, funicular carriages which take you from one level to the next. There used to be 26 of these dotted about but now there are only 6 working ones.

We took a walking tour with Tours 4 Tips. Guides take a group of people through the streets and then you tip them at the end. Our group was quite large and we had two young guides, one Chilean and the other Canadian, who were really informative and fun at the same time.

We learned that Valparaiso came to prominence during the California Gold Rush. Travellers from Europe needed a safe port to stay after rounding Cape Horn and Valparaiso was well placed to cater for their needs. It grew and mushroomed in the second half of the 19th century with many European immigrants and you can still see their influence in the architecture today. However, an event in 1914 started the decline of the city. Not, as we all thought, the First World War but the opening of the Panama Canal. Ships no longer needed to face the dangerous waters around Tierra del Fuego and so Valpo’s days were numbered.

Today, Valparaiso is a mixture of up market restaurants and cafes, vibrant music bars, quaint streets, old trolley-buses and ascensors and a crumbling, ruin of a place over-run with dogs and their stinking mess, a noise filled, fume laden hotch-potch of potholed streets and busy highways. It’s fascinating and yet it’s not a place to relax or linger in.

And it is full of graffiti. But not the normal type of graffiti we’re used to in our modern cities all over the world. In Valparaiso graffiti has risen to a glorious art form and it’s what brings hordes of people to visit. In certain parts of the city virtually every wall surface is covered, not just one house but a whole street full of houses. For the most part the artists, some of whom have become internationally noted, obtain the house owner’s permission to do up their property in gaudy colour, though there are still some free spirits spray painting their tags in places. There are certainly some very talented painters at work in the city and it does make Valpo a unique place to visit.

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