Having spent a more than a week away from civilisation in the Bolivian salt flats and the Atacama desert, arriving in Santiago and later moving to Valparaiso felt like a cultural explosion I hadn’t experienced so far in my trip. I had intended to only spend a day or two in Valparaiso but due to the Chilean Independence Day celebrations, I was unable to buy an earlier bus ticket so ended up staying four days in total. Instead of writing about the eight days in full, I’ll focus on the highlights and similarities between these two colourful cities side by side.
History and politics
My second day in Santiago was marked by a well-known turning point in Chile’s history. September 11th has a different meaning for most western countries, but for Chile this is the day that marks the beginning of the military coup and the Pinochet dictatorship in which 50,000 people went missing or were exiled from their country. I had read about the history of Chile in my LP Bible (Lonely Planet guidebook) and so I knew the basics of the history but visiting the huge cemetery of Santiago (the size of 200 football pitches) and taking a historical walking tour on this special day brought extra significance to this history.
Chile was torn between communist and socialist ideas, and a capitalist economic approach led by the military. I found it very interesting to hear the different sides of the argument. In Valparaiso I met the son of the butler to Pinochet (the dictator and president of Chile) and he told us another side to the story; how in private he had been a good man. The country is clearly still divided and although not a nice topic to discuss, Chileans are happy share their opinions on this controversial chapter in their history.
On my last day in Santiago I visited the Human Rights Museum which explains the violations the Junta (the military group in charge during the dictatorship) committed including torturing, abduction and imprisonment. Many thousands of people who went missing from Chile at this time have never been found. This museum is a must-see in my opinion and despite most of the exhibits being in Spanish, the free audio guide does a great job of documenting the turbulent period.
I am no expert in architecture, in fact I know very little about it but it does interest me and it’s always one of the first things I notice about a new place. The architecture of these two cities is very different but still striking. I preferred the variety of Santiago to the famous colourful and distinct buildings of Valparaiso. In Santiago you can walk down a street and see 10 different styles of buildings all lined up next to one another, modern glass structures followed by colonial designs followed by ugly concrete flats.
The same goes for Santiago’s beautiful and eerie cemetery. I only spent a short time walking around this quiet and peaceful place but the differences between each tomb and memorial was fascinating. To begin with I felt very uncomfortable walking around and I didn’t want to be considered disrespectful to the mourners by taking hundreds of pictures. It was very easy to get lost in the maze of graves and memorials but this was part of the beauty and I left feeling that this seemed like a nice place to rest.
The architecture in Valparaiso throws a stark contrast on the colonial and sophisticated architecture of Santiago. The typical buildings are covered with corrugated metal sheets like you would expect to see used for make-shift roofs. The style is now protected by UNESCO and considered distinct to the city’s culture.
Valparaiso is a sprawling city build across more than 20 cerros (hills) and many have old elevators that you can ride to the top (only 5 are still in action). Made famous and rich as an important sea port for those on their way from Europe to California for the gold rush, Valparaiso is now quite a poor city struggling to recover from economic difficulties. The plan or flat area of the city by the port retains some of the early colonial buildings used during these stopovers and their antiquity is out of place now in comparison to the ‘modern’ bright and colourful residences.
Graffiti and art culture
Art and graffiti are the most striking aspects of Chilean culture in these cities. This is perfect for me as I’d always choose an art museum over a science or history museum.
It’s almost impossible to avoid the art and it’s importance in Chile; graffiti and murals cover most large walls and available spaces. In Santiago I stayed in Barrio Bellavista, the new bohemian area of the city with graffiti on every street surrounding the hostel. You only have to walk to the metro to see countless pieces and different styles. I had intended to search out more graffiti in Barrio Brasil but ran out of time as it was across town from my hostel. But even without trying I saw a lot of great artwork and whetted my appetite for Valparaiso.
Valparaiso is famous for its graffiti and it rivals Bogota for its frequency when walking around the city. Almost every building and wall has some from of graffiti, from tagging to huge, world famous murals. It’s embraced by the city and used by many businesses as a way to attract attention and increase tourism. I went on another graffiti tour here and I was lucky enough to get a solo tour as no one else signed up that day. I don’t think the tour was as informative as the one in Bogota but it was still very interesting as the guide was an artist himself so he was able to explain some techniques and styles with a lot of detail. I’d definitely recommend this over some of the other walking tours and you get a lot more graffiti-specific information and context.
In both cities I visited art museums or exhibitions – there were more that I wanted to see in Santiago but I ran out of time. On Monday all museums are closed in basically all of South America (very annoying for tourists) but luckily an Andy Warhol exhibition was open and free before 12pm. I’m not extremely knowledgable on Andy Warhol but I know his style and could name some of his works before entering the exhibition. Although most of the signs were in Spanish, I learnt quite a bit from the few English signs and the development of his work over time. His use of colour is so popular and this especially appealed to me.
I also visited the Museo de la Moda in Santiago which, although in the guidebook, was very quiet, almost deserted, and not the easiest to get to. This was a fantastic museum held in a house that a stylish family used to own. The museum was a mix of an exhibition from a Chilean designer, a showcase of the house as it was originally decorated and an exhibition of Princess Diana’s most famous dresses, including her replica wedding dress from Madame Tussauds in London. I loved this museum and I felt like I had uncovered a treasure many tourists don’t get to see. Perhaps it was because I felt like I had the museum to myself, but this was one of my highlights of Santiago. In the entrance hall there is a wall covered in video tapes and this really struck me as an innovative design idea – I’d love to try to recreate this in my own home.
In Valparaiso, with my extra, unplanned time, I visited the Museo Municipal de Bellas Artes held in the Palacio Baburizza. I had been told on a walking tour that the museum’s collection was formed by the second owner of the palace who had brought back art from Europe after each of his business trips and holidays. The museum has a large collection of impressionist and 20th century art which, although not mostly famous, is still very impressive. This museum was right up my street and I could have probably gone around twice the pieces were so good. Thankfully I was allowed to take lots of pictures though so I’ll be able to keep a good memory of them.
I did also visit the Noble Prize winning poet, Pablo Neruda’s house, La Sebastiana, but unfortunately I had a screaming child following me around the whole time who ruined the experience for me. It is quite small and very expensive to visit, and although it’s well-known, I don’t think it’s worth seeing. Perhaps save it for a rainy day.
The culture of both of these cities made the extended period of time I spent between them worth it and if I had more time and money, I would have liked to have seen more of Santiago. I could see myself returning here in the future, perhaps to study or just to explore the city more. It’s metropolitan and yet the snowcapped mountains and city parks give you more than enough space to escape.
A good thing I’ve had my fill of culture as for the next month of travel I’ll be in the countryside exploring Patagonia!