Just Chilein’

The semester is over (can you believe it?), which means now it’s time to do some exploring. Not that I haven’t done my fair share of exploring already, but now that I have more time I’m able to wander outside of Argentina. Originally I had planned on going to Peru and hike the glorious Machu Picchu, but life is complicated and plans change. I was disappointed not to go, but I’m hoping I can during my February break next year, which means it’ll be warmer and more enjoyable there. Silver linings. So, with Peru out of the picture I latched on to my friend Izzi’s trip to Chile and it is awesome. This is a country I had not planned on visiting, not just this trip but really ever. It just hadn’t really occurred to me, maybe because Argentinians and Chileans don’t have the most loving of relationships, and the Argentinians I know always spoke of Chile as if it was a totally insignificant place in the world. I didn’t know anything about it at all, but now here I am and I absolutely love it.

Izzi and I flew into Santiago on the 5th and after getting just a little turned around we arrived at the Dominica Hostal. It was way nicer than the hostels I’ve been staying in traveling alone (although I really liked most of those). It had perfectly clean bathrooms, surprisingly comfortable beds, and an amazing staff. One of the staff, Pablo, sat down with us for an hour to help us organize our trip to Atacama and give us suggestions on the tour companies with the best prices and all that. Once we were settled in to our bunks, we spent some time exploring the Bella Vista neighbourhood, where the hostel was, and stopped at a Peruvian restaurant where we shared an amazing Ceviche. At this point we weren’t completely sure what Chilean food entailed, so we were very happy with some Peruvian. Plus, like sushi, I don’t think I’ll ever turn down a good Ceviche. After eating we realized we were very close to the Pablo Neruda house, which was one of our main goals for Santiago. His house was filled with items he had collected over his extensive travels and every corner was fascinating. Photos weren’t allowed inside the house, which was a shame, because it was a very unique kind of beautiful. The house itself was a work of art. It was filled with secret tucked away rooms and spiral staircases. It moved seamlessly from inside space to outside space and integrated plants and trees in a way that made me drool. He built the house for his lover, Mathilde and named it after her. He named it La Chascona, after her curly hair. It was their secret love nest in the years before he left his wife for her and then they lived there together as well as in his houses in Isla Negra and Valparaiso. During the tour I learned that Mathilde was quite a cool figure. She, like Pablo, was a strong political activist and after he died she was committed to protecting his political poems, even though that was a dangerous thing to do during the dictatorship. Will all their friends gathered, she also turned Pablo’s funeral into the first ever protest against that same dictatorship. It was nice learning so much about her because now when I read her name in Neruda’s love poems I have a bit of an image of who she was in my head.

The next day we wandered outside Bella Vista and explored some other parts of Santiago. We had been told we should try a completo and a cab driver pointed out a place where we could find one. This place turned out to be a fast food restaurant called Doggies, the kind of place I usually avoid at all costs. But, hey, this was cultural. A completo turns out to be a hot dog with avocado and, depending on what kind you order, can also have onions, a spicy sauce, tomato, or really whatever else. The avocado is key, though. I liked it, mostly because of the avocado, but I don’t think I’ll ever seek one out specifically again.

Completely by accident we happened upon the Cerro Lucia, a hill in the middle of the city, and decided to climb it. The way up is lovely with wonderful gardens and towers all over.

View of Santiago from above. Hard to see through the clouds, but the Andes are just behind it.
View of Santiago from above. Hard to see through the clouds, but the Andes are just behind it. Photo credit: Izzi Macdonnell

I loved the way the plants all clung to the cliffs and the water dripped down through them. There was also a really nice view from the top and we could even see the Andes through the clouds. It was nice to get a more general view of the city to orient ourselves. After that we headed to El Palacio de la Moneda, a government building that is a must see on the tourist’s list of things to do in Santiago. We weren’t allowed to go in (which I thought was odd) but the basement had a very cool cultural centre. It was interesting because it exhibited classic folk art from all around the world but it was all made by contemporary artists and artisans.

That night we met up with my friend, Pipe. He had met Joanna while she was traveling and then had visited her in Buenos Aires which is when we met. Now that I was in Santiago, it was fun to see him in his own city. We asked him to bring us somewhere to try choripillo without really having any idea what it was, so he told us of a place pretty close to the hostel. When our order came I couldn’t help but think that it reminded me an awful lot of poutine. Of course there were differences – it wasn’t saucy and instead had strips of beef on it and it had crema agrodulce instead of cheese curds. It was good, but not nearly as good as the beer I had. It was just a plain old Corona, but done in the typical Chilean style – michelada. They put a spicy tabasco sauce along with something else in the beer and mix it up to make it spicy. Then they put salt along the rim so it’s like a spicy beer martini. I know, I know, that sounds disgusting but I thought the way the refreshing Corona snuck past the spicy and salty was delicious.

On Tuesday we had booked a tour with Tips-for-tours, a free tour company where you just tip the guide with whatever you can afford. It’s nice because the guides tend to be really passionate about their city. In this tour, we started off in el Mercado Central and I was completely blown away by the seafood. As we walked by I saw the most enormous squid I had ever seen. I don’t even understand how you can catch something like that. Even with all the eyeballs and teeth protruding from the fish, all I could think about was coming back and getting some to cook up for dinner. Then we made our way to the veggie part of the market. We walked through much too quickly for my taste since I usually like to absorb the colours and smells of every fruit and vegetable, but I scouted stands I wanted to revisit and buy from later. When we left the market, we stopped at a little stand and our guide introduced us to Sopapilla. This is pretty much fried dough, except they add a type of squash to the dough and you eat it with hot sauce or ketchup and mustard, so it’s not at all sweet. I was hungry after walking through the market and staring at so much food, and this was spectacular. I would have eaten a million if they weren’t well… fried dough. To end our tour our guide brought us to el Cemeterio de Santiago. I was interested to compare this one to el Cemeterio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires, and it turned out to be very different but also very impressive. The guide told us that there are 2.5 million people buried in the cemetery which is a lot, especially if you compare that to the 6 million people that live in Santiago. The cemetery was separated between the classes. In the sections of the working class, families were buried together with three people fitting in each box. When one body decomposed fully they would gather the bones and put them at the end of the coffin to make room for the next body. This was a stark contrast to the upper class tombs that looked like everything from Greek temples, to pyramids, and even one which was a replica of the Alhambra, in Spain. I noticed that some tombs were covered in an extreme amount of flowers and plaques. The guide told us that these were the tombs of popular saints. Unlike religious saints, these were people who had been innocent or adored by their communities and then had died a tragic death. We passed one that was the tomb of Santa Carmencita. The guide told us that her family had moved to Santiago from the country when she was 14, but when they arrived she had been raped and murdered. Then, she moved us farther away from the tomb, out of respect, and told us the real story. Carmencita had been a prostitute, but very much adored by her community. When she was 30 she had gotten syphilis and died but her friends loved her so much that they created the myth of Carmencita so that she would be remembered in a good light. Now, when people have love problems, they make an offering of flowers or a plaque to her tomb so she will help them. This story delighted me, despite its sadness. That’s exactly why I love cemeteries. They remind you that history isn’t made up of dates and places, but of people.

When the tour was over Izzi and I went back to the market. It was lunch time so we stopped at a seafood restaurant our guide had pointed out to us. I had a soup filled to the brim with all sorts of seafood.

Seafood soup with muscles, squid, fish, shrimp, scallops, and more.
Seafood soup with muscles, squid, fish, shrimp, scallops, and more.

There was a muscle the size of my hand and every spoonful was overflowing with shrimp, clams, squid, scallops, and white fish. When we had finished, we pretty much rolled ourselves through the market on our full bellies and bought our ingredients for dinner. We decided on papalisa, this beautiful pink and yellow speckled potato-like root from Peru, salmon, onion, and zucchini. That night we cooked it all up with our new friend Morgan, from Maine, who had bought the wine. The fish was so fresh that Izzi only had to sear the outside for a few seconds and it was perfect. It was a great end to our time in wonderful Santiago.

Izzi and Morgan creating our feast.

Our next stop was Valparaiso, a coastal town about a two hour bus ride from Santiago. It was much bigger than I had expected. In my head I had been picturing a little fishing village but this was a real city, smaller than Santiago, but still with a lot going on. It’s filled with nooks and crannies and tiny little side streets and winding stairs that climb (and allow the citizens to climb) the forty plus hills of the city. I can see why Neruda liked the place. Walking through Valparaiso was like playing a game of hide-and-seek with the city. Neruda designed his houses just in that way, and his Valpo (Valparaiso) house was our first destination. We took the long way to get there, stopping every other block to marvel at the beauty. The hills were all covered with brightly coloured houses that looked as if they were reflecting the sunset. The fact that they were built on hills made the sight even prettier because it allowed us to see almost every house individually, above or below it’s neighbours. Many of the walls also had beautiful murals painted on them. I found it difficult to decide whether I wanted to concentrate on the details in the paintings or the wide, stretching landscape of the hills and the ocean. The city felt, right from the start, full of curiosities and the seagulls circling and calling made it hopelessly romantic.


Hidden corners of Valparaiso
Hidden corners of Valparaiso
The beautiful Valparaiso and the Pacific Ocean.
The beautiful Valparaiso and the Pacific Ocean.



We were very excited to get to Neruda’s Sebastiana, named after the man who had originally owned it. After my tour of the Santiago house, I felt like I knew him a little bit. I’ve also been reading his poetry throughout this trip and am falling in love with his words. I feel like the houses help me understand his poetry a little bit more, if only because I get to see his inspiration for myself. La Sebastiana was certainly beautiful, but after seeing the two I think I prefer La Chascona in Santiago. Neruda loved the sea, and this house had a lot of nautical decoration. I understand why it makes sense of his house in Valparaiso, but it wasn’t quite as colourful and playful as the Santiago house. But the views it had and the side of him that it showed me were amazing, and I would give anything to have a study like that to write in. Walking through I found myself feeling a little sad, though. He designed and decorated his houses to be lived in, played in, and loved in, and now they’re empty. Sure, tourists pass through, but no one is there to read in the chairs or drink from the brightly coloured glasses, or enjoy his intricate bar. Of course it’s amazing that all these things have been preserved, they might otherwise have been completely lost, but I think he would be sad to see his houses so empty. It’s conflicting, though, because I’m certainly glad I had the chance to see them.

The next day was tour day and we started in the morning with the Valpo Graffiti Tour. I learned so much right off the bat. The guide started off by explaining the different styles of written graffiti and showed us some examples. In American style every letter is designed individually and they often have features like googly eyes, Mickey Mouse hands, or arrows.

An example of American graffiti style
An example of American graffiti style

Bomb, on the other hand, integrates the letters much more in a very bubbly style. After giving us a little bit of an explanation, the guide took us to see some of the best murals in Valpo, which is a lot considering Valparaiso is one of the best cities for graffiti in the world, and the second best in South American, behind Sao Paulo. Some really amazing artists come out of there. We saw one piece by Inti, a really famous street artist who just painted the largest mural in the world in Paris a few months ago, and who just happens to be from Valparaiso.

This mural by Inti can actually only be seen from above, right where we were standing. If you try to find it on street level you'll be walking around in circles forever.
This mural by Inti can actually only be seen from above, right where we were standing. If you try to find it on street level you’ll be walking around in circles forever.

It was also cool because our guide knew a lot of these artists personally and she was able to tell us fun little anecdotes to go along with the murals. One crew/artist, El Odio, also owns the only paint shop in Valpo that sells a certain kind of paint. So, no one dares tag over his pieces because then he won’t sell them any paint.

Hostel Po from the outside. There were many other gorgeous murals by amazing crews inside, too.
Hostel Po from the outside. 

What was amazing was that on the tour we learned to identify the crews by the symbols they use to identify themselves. And once we got back to the hostel, Hostal Po, I realized that many of the murals inside were actually done by the artists we had seen.

Our second tour in the afternoon was another Tips-for-Tours. Our group was very small so it was fun being able to really talk and joke with the tour guide instead of it being more formal like a class field trip. He was really nice and showed us some of the best views in the city. As we looked out at the beautiful pacific coast, he told us that the city was thinking about expanding the port farther along the beach. This would completely ruin the ocean view of the whole city, especially the more touristy areas, which would really detract from the experience. He then mentioned that there’s a possible alternative to expanding it in the other direction and then making a sea-side park instead. I don’t know all the details of the debate, but this one seems like a no brainer to me. We also saw some more typical tourist sites such as the Navy building and the Justice building. The navy building used to be the site of the municipal government, but it was so beautiful that the federal navy decided that it should be theirs… typical. The Justice building also has a fun story. In front of it is a statue that is supposed to be of Lady Justice, but if you look closely you realize that she’s holding the scale under her arm, so it’s not at all balanced, and that her eyes are wide open, meaning justice is not blind. Apparently the statue isn’t really of Lady Justice but of the Greek Goddess of Justice and that it had been delivered to Valparaiso mysteriously.

The not-so-fair Lady Justice
The not-so-fair Lady Justice
The beautiful Naval building with a perfect view of the port
The beautiful Naval building 

No one knew where it came from or what to do with it, so someone decided to put it in front of the Justice building. It makes sense at first, until you really think about what the statue is implying. Personally, I think it’s a much more realistic portrayal or the justice system. We ended the tour at the port which was good to see because it is such an important part of Valparaiso’s history and economy. However, I much preferred being up in the hills surrounded by the street art and all the colours.

The port of Valparaiso
The port of Valparaiso

Valparaiso was amazing and I was a little sad to say goodbye. I could see myself staying in a place like that for a long time. Now, though, here I am in northern Chile, writing this to you all from the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the entire world. More on that to come!