The Valparaíso Walking Tour

December 4, 2012

‘Tours for Tips’ is a three-hour walking tour around Valparaíso, beginning in Plaza Sotomayor and ending at Cerro Bellavista. It runs twice a day, every day at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. and begins with a game of ‘Where’s Wally’ with the guide wearing Waldo’s famous red and white stripes.

Our guide, Chris (a North American with a huge, teethy smile), first of all took us in a circle around Plaza Sotomayor, each side of which is positively seeped in history. This included a house on Calle Serrano which, during the gold rush, would have been home to one of the wealthiest families in the world. This road is now home to small gambling dens and run down buildings. When we entered, there were men hanging around in the hallway who shouted and cheered at us as we went past.

The stairs of this house are made of onyx, and now chunks have been taken out to make jewellery. Chris told us this was a representation of Valparaíso – a place of lost wealth, where the mansions that used to be the preserve of the rich now crumble and rot. Chris, grin shining white in the dusty light, tells us that this is what makes Valparaíso such a fascinating place to walk around.

Considering the tour is based only on tips, Chris paid for many experiences out of his own pocket. We got to take an funicular (one of the only ones working in the city at the moment) and he also took us for alfadores (traditional biscuits with dulce de leche in the middle and chocolate around the outside) from a house that sells them on Cerro Concepción. We also got to take one of the old-fashioned buses that run like trams but without tracks.

He aimed to give us an idea of what it was like to live in Valpo, and the juxtaposition inherent in everything. He showed us the CSAV building in Sotomayor Square and explained to us why, among so many beautiful old colonial buildings, there lies this big ugly square of reflective blue glass. When CSAV had first brought the plans to the city of Valparaíso, they rejected them on the grounds that it would not fit with the square.

So CSAV threatened to leave the city and move all their custom and all their jobs to another city – they are one of the biggest and oldest shipbuilding companies in the world – and so, sadly, the city agreed. Very soon after this, the city became a UNESCO world heritage site and now, this sort of thing will not happen again.

Once we had all sighed a sigh of relief, Chris took us further up the hill to a house that was completely gutted by fire – a ‘For Sale’ sign blew in the breeze. He explained that for the locals here, being a world heritage site makes their city look a lot better, but when something happens like this, it is so expensive to only use original materials and building techniques (this is insisted upon by UNESCO) that houses just lay dormant, no-one willing to climb this hill with all the materials and re-build.

This duality was something that by the end of the tour we could feel in every step. From the beautiful old style houses covered in modern graffiti to the antique funiculars lying dormant. Many of the stairways are painted beautifully from ones painted like piano keys to ones delicately depicting the Mapuche way of life. Although Chris showed us these to take pictures, he also stressed that the stairs at night are dangerous for tourists and people travelling alone. It was so hard to place that a town so obsessive about its own beauty might also tear it apart.

At the end of the tour we all shared pisco sours and Chris gave us all maps, marking the places we were interested in visiting on them for us. He also gave us bus information and pointed out the best restaurants depending on our budget. Sure, tipping is voluntary, but after all the effort they make on this tour, you’d be cruel not to.


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