The Local’s City from the Outsider’s Eyes: Valparaiso and Viña del Mar

Jenna Mulligan is a student at Gonzaga University and an ISA Featured Blogger. Jenna is currently interning with ELAP in Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, Chile.

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Street murals in the neighborhoods of Valpo

First, let’s just touch on the fact that I hate, hate, feeling like a tourist.  I’m pretty sure this sentiment is rooted in the many years I spent resenting the tourists that came to crowd our ski mountain every December.  They got in my way, made me ski slower and I stubbornly believed that there was no way they could possibly understand our home and appreciate it accordingly.

That being said, I have spent the majority of my travels pretending that I was a local. In these adventures of the undercover tourist, I went to a lot of hole-in-the-wall restaurants, hiked on many unmarked trails and pretty much never carried a map.  The thought of an organized tour actually makes me cringe, and my mother would likely disown me if I ever ignored her carefully planned and always interesting Anthony Bourdain-like plans.

Now, welcome to Chile, where I can’t really hide the fact that I’m a tourist. It is written all over my face, and I’m having to find ways to subside my resentment of this word.  I’m not diesel dumping my truck and yelling as I snowplow down the mountain, so I can’t be as bad as the tourist I’m imagining right?

As I explore and get to know this city, I wanted to do so as authentically and undercover as my blonde self possibly could.  So I’m turning to the people in my life here who have experienced this city beyond the lists of tourist destinations that, in truth, have little to do with its character.

My host Papá basically wants to teach me and show me all Chilean things related to going out.  His explanation of a “terremoto”, a Chilean cocktail involving wine and pineapple ice cream, effectively terrified and intrigued me all at once. When I left for “Gringo Night” at the popular bar, Café Journal, down the street, he was like a proud dad sending me off to school. I am not complaining.

My host sister Carri thinks that Valparaiso smells bad, and loyally insists the superiority of Viña del Mar, where we live.  Viña is like the older, more conservative sister to Valpo’s rough-around-the-edges personality.  Still, she tells me that the Emporio La Rosa ice cream is the best, but to not try the Rosa flavor, which is similar to consuming perfume.  I chose to take her word on that one, and basically found heaven in my lime gelato cone.

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Another day, another staircase

When I came home raving about the graffiti mural in our neighborhood, my host Mamá basically told me “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” And boy, I hadn’t seen anything yet.  She directed me to Cerro Allegre, where the artistic side of me basically had a hay day.  It is a neighborhood on one of Valpo’s many hills, looking over the port and the bay. The combination of cobblestone streets, street performers and a serendipitously timed sunset made us feel like we were in Italy.  The man casually graffiti-ing the side of a restaurant with a mural of a cat reminded me that being in Chile is even better.

The basis is this. I asked questions to my family members and to the copious, kind ISA veterans, and I spent the last week walking my butt off, chasing their suggestions.  Here were some of my favorites:

IMG_6382 Sonreir es gratis
Smiling is Free

In Viña-

  • Walk by the ocean. The coast will transition from beaches to large black slabs of rock, covered in love letters and bible verses.  Practice Spanish by just reading and translating these little messages.
  • Drink coffee at Tavelli’s which is near the intersection of San Martín and 5 del Norte.  I am in a deep obsession/love affair with the Lavazza espresso bean, and they serve it here! The drink with Nutella at the bottom and whipped cream on top is worth every peso.
  • All along Calle Valparaíso in El Centro are a smattering of shops, restaurants and markets. The far west end has a few bars and hostels, and you can basically find anything you need on this street, super barato (cheap).
Shops on Calle Valparaíso

In Valpo-

  • El Huevo is supposed to be an incredibly fun nightclub.  I haven’t been as of yet, because it’s harder for me to go all the way from Viña to Valpo at night, but the multiple dance floors and popularity give it quite a reputation.
  • The pier right past the Barón metro station is the perfect spot to sit and chow down on an empanada or greasy, street food equivalent, especially when the sun is out.  Beware of bird poop.
  • Everything, I repeat, everything, in the Cerro Concepción/Cerro Allegre neighborhoods.  Art galleries, check. Bars with live music, check. Cafés and panaderías, check.  Huge smile on your face, check.
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Climbing the many colorful stairs of Valparaíso’s hills

And then, in true Jenna style, I tried to go somewhere in the city, and I got really lost.  I will defend myself in that I knew almost exactly how to get back to the metro station almost the entire time, but I definitely did not make it to the place I was aiming for.  Instead, my camera and I struck gold– a multi-colored staircase in a back alley, a family run book store with a grandpa willing to labor through a conversation with me, a political history lesson plastered on the moss-covered walls of the Cerro Monjas streets, a cup of coffee that came from an espresso machine and not a container of Nescafé powder.  It turned out to be the best day so far.  Being a tourist will never work for me.  For me to feel like I’m experiencing a place, I need to stumble across things accidentally.  I refuse to write on this blog to “… Just go get lost in the streets of your city and find your soul somewhere along the way!…” Gag. But I will say that the best things you find will be small recommendations from authentic sources and, best of all, pursuits of your own curiosity.

Put down your guidebook. Ask for advice. Open your eyes.

5 thoughts

  1. I absolutely love Valpo and Viña, and I’m finishing up my time here this month, but I know you are on the lookout for some good local things… There is an incredible little place called El Pimenton on Calle Ecuador (Valpo, about a 10 minute walk from Estación Bellavista) that serves the best Chorrillanas I’ve had in Chile! They only serve them after 6, but I think you would love the local dish!

  2. I am deciding whether to go to school in Vina or Valpo (UPLA or PUCV) and I hear people usually get placed with a host family in one of the locations depending on the school. Any strong thoughts on which one is better to live in?

  3. Hello,
    I am interested in studying in Chile in the Valp/Vina area and I was wondering if you could answer some of my questions:
    1. How are the crime rates in both areas?
    2. Which area is better to study far I understand Valparasio is more artsy and Vina del Mar is beachy.. how exactly do they differ?
    3. Which school is the better choice Unversidad de Vina de Mar or PUC Valparasio (Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso)?
    4. For the homestay how was it different in Vina del Mar and Valparasio?
    5. As far as the Spanish goes how was the experience?
    Overall tell me about your experience with the areas..

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