Chile was the second destination on my digital nomad tour, and Valparaíso (Valpo) was the intended city. Everything I read about it peaked my interest — words like bohemian, artsy, colorful, and poetic appealed to me. I was looking forward to more street art, more museums, and the iconic elevators that you can ride up the hills.
But that’s not where we stayed. Our program had some housing issues that I never completely understood and my room-mate and I wound up about 6 miles away from the rest of our group in a small rustic cabin in a working-class neighborhood in Viña del Mar.
And, so starts the tale of two cities
Similar but different
Viña is considered an upscale resort town that appeals to a different type of resident and visitor. It has beaches, fancy hotels, modern high-rise apartment buildings, an American-style shopping mall. Unfortunately, we were not living in that part of town; we were across the highway and up the hill in a grittier area, what I think of as the “other Viña” or “Valpo light”. There were many similarities between the two cities: ocean views, food offerings, buskers and street vendors, chilly and foggy mornings. It’s the differences that stood out.
Steep or steeper
The “fancy” part of Viña is centered around the beach and is flat. The rest of it is hilly but it is nothing compared to Valpo. In ski terms, Viña has the green and blue runs, while Valpo has all the double black diamonds and chutes. The vertical in Valpo is so extreme that they built outdoor elevators, called ascensores, to transport people. These rides are quaint, inexpensive, and fun. The alternative is a large number of steps that wind around, never seem to end, and are as decorated as the rest of the city. To NOT climb them is to miss some of the street art. Either way, the views are spectacular. In our part of Viña, you just trudge up and down their smaller hills without any of this entertainment. Still a good work out but the fun factor is next to zero.
Art or graffiti
I was very impressed with the street art in Buenos Aires and then I was blown away by the street art in Valpo. Every inch of the city seems decorated in one way or another. There is almost no way to describe it. Grind up the plastic in your kid’s toy chest along with all their crayons and chalk and then sprinkle it on the city. Or, put on kaleidoscope glasses to browse through comic books while on an acid trip. …??? I think it just has to be seen.
The upscale part of Viña did not have much street art. What we did encounter on our daily rounds in “other” Viña — to the grocery store, laundry, restaurants, bus or train — was more like graffiti than art, some decent, most unsightly. It just never compared.
Boutiques or brand names
Wandering the streets in Valpo feels like a magical mystery tour and around every corner is a unique shop, cafe, or restaurant. The menus outside clearly marked the places to eat but unless I peeked inside a doorway I wasn’t always sure what was there. If you were looking to buy something hand-crafted or unusual, this was your place.
On the other hand, if you wanted to buy something like a bathing suit or sturdy hiking boots (which some of my fellow travelers needed), you headed to the mall in Viña del Mar. It is four stories of glitz and brand names with a food court and a multi-screen movie theater. It is also easier to find chain restaurants in Viña — American icons like Subway, KFC, Tony Roma’s and TGI Friday’s — both in and out of the mall.
Port or beach
Valpo is a working port town. From every vantage point you can see lots of activity: cargo ships, tug boats, cruise ships, party boats, and military vessels. It’s fun to watch the bustle from the high points all over town. But, if you want a beach experience, you head to Viña del Mar where you can plant your umbrella, stretch out on your blanket, and brave the cold Pacific ocean.
Which would you choose?
If I was given the choice, I would have stayed in ultra-funky Valparaíso and gone to Viña del Mar when I wanted to feel the sun on my body, needed luxury (like spa treatments at the Sheraton hotel) or felt like a Sunday stroll in the park. I am on this trip for variety and adventure; Valpo offers more of it.