Tumbling down precipitous mountain slopes to the sea in a mass of uncontrolled curls, it’s fair to say that the city of Valparaíso has never needed a hairdryer.
“Valparaíso, how absurd you are … you haven’t combed your hair, you never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you.”
Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet and Nobel prize winner
Valpo is one of the most extraordinary places we have ever visited.
It grew as a welcome rest stop for 19th century steamers on their way to the California Gold Rush and was built by the passengers that loved it so much, they decided to stay. But the boom was short lived as it was almost destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1906 and worse, by the opening of the Panama Canal.
Today the good times are back with the city regenerated into a bohemian tourist destination and a major port once again, exporting fruit from Chile’s fertile agricultural interior.
A maze of steep sinuous streets, escalares (stairways) and ascensors (short funicular railways) connect crumbling mansions to shanty dwellings in a chaotic, democratic jumble. In technicolor too, for Valpo has embraced the Latin American passion for street art and graffiti more that any other city. Few buildings are spared a vibrant mural.
To be honest, cycling the route from Santiago to Valparaíso was a little tougher that we expected.
Cruising out of the city was easy and pleasant as we negotiated several cycle paths all the way out to the industrial outskirts. Here we were pleasantly surprised to find it a bike repair shop to tighten Andy’s back axle that had come loose on the flight.
Then came a steep 300m climb in the searing midday heat. At over 12% gradient in parts we were both forced to walk, watching our arms turn red as the sun burned down on us through the Antarctic ozone hole.
We were very relieved to reach our Cabinas (cabins) set amongst gorgeous orange groves and run by an eccentric French chef. The only accommodation for 20 miles, and the best meal for 50!
Sorting out the axle had put the gears totally out of sync. Tuning them the next morning took a lot longer than expected and this meant we had to tackle the two climbs that act as a gateway to the Casablanca wine valley in the hottest part of the day yet again.
But it was OK as we had an incentive. We’d booked a wine tasting at a small family vineyard and even had time to check into our Hostal (B&B) first.
Unfortunately when we arrived in Casablanca, the Hostal didn’t exist. The address was correct (Chacabuco Street), the Google blue dot was exactly where we were standing but there was no hostel, no welcoming shower.
It turned out there are several Chacabuco streets. This one was actually in Valparaíso, 40km away and the little blue dot was simply in the wrong place. In a car this would be fine, a small mistake … but on bikes, in 35 degrees heat, hot and bothered after a long day it was definitely, unquestionably, 100% NOT fine!!
The only alternative accommodation was 10km away. Typically, the winery was 5km in the opposite direction. It was a tough decision.
Of course the prospect of a chilled glass of fine Chilean Sauvignon followed by a spicy Syrah won the day. This meant it was much, much later in the day that we peddled the 15km to our new hostel, both a little wobbly!
The early Sunday morning ride across to Valparaíso was lovely, gently pedalling along quiet country roads in the cool morning air. We bumped into Raphael and Emilie, two young French cyclists who had ridden all the way from Ushuaia (near Cape Horn) and are now on their way to Lima in Peru. It was fun to share the ride down through the vertiginous cobbled streets all the way to the port … but genuinely scary!
As Emilie said halfway down … “this is nice, but how are we going to get back up?!” A problem for another day.
Valporaisa does not need a hairdryer and neither does Clare.
The small hotels and hostels we’re staying in are not the sort of places that supply one, so she’s been making good use of her pink roller instead.
And just like Valpo, it’s liberating!
Clare and Andy