Chile: Con Con, Vina del Mar, and Valpariso

IMG_2781-001We reluctantly left the hospitality of the Miller’s home in Santiago, and headed toward the Pacific coast. Kristy packed us a goodie bag with home-made cookies, so we were feeling fine. Once again Suzanne had scored a nice, comfortable apartment.

Surfers at the beach - from our deck

Surfers at the beach – from our deck

This time it was in a little town North of the main port town of Valpariso by the name of Con Con. Unfortunately when we arrived we were informed that the people currently in the big apartment were having car trouble and needed to extend their stay for a few more days. To accommodate us the owner put us in a smaller (but more modern) apartment. It turned out that the folks with the car troubles were the Bell family from South Africa who are on a multi-year road trip around South and North America in their Land Rover. They invited us over for a fish-bake one night, unfortunately Suzanne and the kids were not feeling well that night, so I did my best to represent at the party. I gave the Bells our email and said that when they make their way to Northern California they should look us up. Here is their blog.

Our room - with a view!

Our room – with a view!

Our time in Con Con was very mellow. Our apartment over-looked the ocean and the sound of the surf rolled into our apartment all night. IMG_2860-001For lunch we often strolled down to the beach area for empanadas after a morning of road school. We found the nearest super market and stocked up so we could have a little home cooked food as well. We certainly miss cooking our own food, and Suzanne misses having good pans and sharp knives.



Personally I’m looking forward to fresh brewed coffee when we get home again, rather than the ubiquitous instant coffee we have found everywhere in the world.

One day we decided to get in the car and see what there was to see in Valpariso. I was behind the wheel, Suzanne navigated with GPS in hand, and the kids were in their own world in the back seat. An hour later we were in Valpariso, a densely packed port city with lots of fast-moving traffic, aggressive taxi drivers, and no parking spots. I was forced to make quick turns to avoid collisions, Suzanne was doing her best to shout out advice, but the GPS was too slow. So finally she told me “follow that taxi”.

Valpariso has a little flat space - but all the homes are built on steep hillsides

Valpariso has a little flat space – but all the homes are built on steep hillsides

Next thing I knew we were winding our way up a very steep hill through a neighborhood – Suzanne spotted a couple old vernaculars as we climbed. A vernacular is a type of cable car used in the past to transport people up extremely steep hills. Anyway, after the cab gave us the slip, we decided to wind our way back off the hill and get out of Valpariso. Clearly we needed a better plan than “drive in and see what’s there”. As we drove out of town I asked Alex and Patrick what they thought of Valpariso, Alex’s response was “Where is Valpariso?” The kids were clearly in their own world in the back seat, and they had no idea what was going on.

On our way back to Con Con we decided to try the more gentile town of Vina del Mar. Eventually I found a parking spot a mere 20 minute walk from town. After checking that there were no valuables left in the car, out we jumped and headed into town to find a place for lunch. I am now back on my guard about basic security precautions after our issue in Salta. We happened upon a great place that served full warm meals. As I was standing outside trying to understand the deal-of-the-day on the chalk board, it started to rain. Bummer – maybe it would stop by the time we finished lunch. Nope! So we pulled on our new rain coats and made our way through the heavy rain to the tourist information office – where they didn’t speak any English and didn’t have much information. But Suzanne did pick up a few flyers for City Tours that turned out to be helpful. By the time we made it back to the car the rain stopped. We retreated to our apartment (the Bells had moved on and we were in the larger apartment). It took us a couple of days to work up the gumption to try exploring Valpariso again, but this time we went with a guide.

Easter Island statue outside the museum of Easter Island in Vina del Mar

Easter Island statue outside the museum of Easter Island in Vina del Mar

A few days later we picked up our guide in front of the casino in Vina del Mar and he guided us around while I drove. I still had to deal with the traffic, but it was much more effective in terms of exploring the area. Our guide took us to an Easter Island museum and expected us to only spend a few minutes walking through the displays.

REAL shrunken heads from Easter Island!

REAL shrunken heads from Easter Island!

Instead we were there for about 45 minutes learning about the Easter Island culture and history. Patrick particularly enjoyed the display of real shrunken heads. We then visited a park which was once the home of one of the originally families that founded Vina del Mar. Connected to this park is a famous amphitheater that hosts a big music festival every year.  While visiting the outdoor amphitheater there were a crew of fireman conducting training.

We were surprised to find out that ALL the fire fighters in Chile are volunteers

We were surprised to find out that ALL the fire fighters in Chile are volunteers

We learned from our guide that all the firemen in Chile are volunteers, which seems amazing to me when you consider the size of cities like Santiago and the complexity of fighting fires on the steep hills and narrow roads of Valpariso.

The tunnel leading to one of the remaining elevators that help people up the steep hills

The tunnel leading to one of the remaining elevators that help people up the steep hills

Our guide led us to one of the neighborhoods in Valpariso where we paid a few pesos to walk through a tunnel and catch one of the remaining elevators up to a tower at the top of the neighborhood.

graffiti art in Valpariso

graffiti art in Valpariso

After admiring the view for a few minutes, we walked down the funky stairs and walkways through the neighborhood, admiring the wall-art graffiti.

Next up was a visit to Pablo Neruda’s house. Pablo is a cultural hero in Chile because of his communist political views and his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.

The Poet's house in Valpariso - a very cool party house

The Poet’s house in Valpariso – a very cool party house

His Valpariso house is an interesting, quirky, fun, and thoughtful place. Unfortunately photos were not allowed inside the house. After the Neruda house our guide walked us through an old German neighborhood where the Lutheran church stands out from the rest of the buildings because the church was shipped piece-by-piece from Germany. This colorful, historical neighborhood is now a Unesco World Heritage site and full of good restaurants and boutique hotels.

Boat tour of the Valpariso port

Boat tour of the Valpariso port

Finally our guide dropped us off at the port where we joined a crowded boat of tourists and took a tour of the port of Valpariaso. Unfortunately, the tour guide who gave an ongoing narrative about the port only spoke “speedy Spanish” and Suzanne only picked up every 10th word. The other guests paid rapt attention and chuckled at the jokes, so we probably missed out on a good tour. The boat motored past a few sea lions, a floating dry dock, a long line of navy boats, and several commercial container ships.

Boat tour of the Valpariso port

Boat tour of the Valpariso port

Suzanne understood enough Spanish to pick up that Valpariaso is the largest port in Chile, and that it was a major stopping point for ships sailing around South America before the Panama Canal opened. The port now exports wine, copper and fruits from Chile to other parts of the world and imports many products from Asia and Europe to all of South America. Major shipping companies from Germany and Japan were unloading container ships with large cranes onto waiting trucks as our boat puttered by. We didn’t see any cruise ships during our visit but we understand that Valpariso is a major stop for cruise ships during the 4 summer months.

After our tour of Vina del Mar and Valpariso we returned to our apartment and prepared ourselves for the next leg of our journey – Peru.

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