What a crazy
Your mounded head
You never finish combing your hair
Life has always surprised you
– Pablo Neruda, “Ode to Valparaíso”
It only takes five minutes of walking through Valparaíso to determine that this place is more contemporary art gallery than city. Sure, there are cars and trolleybuses, sidewalks crowded with pedestrians and street dogs, restaurants whose patrons spill outside to have a cigarette and talk about the national football team, all of which are active participants in the city facade. Dig a little deeper, though—which is to say, feel your quads ache and your lungs burn as you purposefully lose yourself on the steep and winding streets—and your eyes will soon feast on a series of murals which transform city blocks into an urban canvas.
Valparaíso—or Valpo as it is affectionately called—is a labyrinthine colonial city located 90 minutes from Santiago which sprawls across a series of hills facing the Pacific Ocean. It’s salty and industrial, befitting of a port city in whose harbor are docked a number of gigantic container ships, but it’s colorful in a way that few other cities are. In the city’s historic quarter, proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, the exteriors of houses resemble the multicolored cargo containers stacked up by the water—robin egg blue, sunflower yellow, lavender, and cherry red permeate your vision as you seek out a hidden street sign.
I spent a misty December day in Valpo with no real objective other than visiting Pablo Neruda’s house, La Sebastiana. Carved into a hillside with precipitous views of narrow streets below and the mighty Pacific spanning the horizon, this quirky abode offers a window into Neruda’s artistic mind. Like the city in which it’s located, La Sebastiana is a seemingly inanimate thing come alive—each room has a theme, a unique purpose, and a vibrant soul.
It doesn’t take long after you leave La Sebastiana to realize that the same can be said of Valpo’s streets. Each one is utterly dissimilar from the next, but taken all together they create a symphonic pièce de résistance. There is a mural of Hugo Chávez promising its viewers that the fight continues. Further on, you’ll find a painting of Salvador Allende humbled by the street dog that rummaged through trash at its feet. Later, a fish whose orange and blue colors bled onto the cobblestones of the street. Stairways became piano keys; house sidings show a hilly landscape; a white front door opens amidst a crimson motif depicting swirling fish, a llama and an indigenous child. I found most of these murals in two neighborhoods: touristy Cerro Concepción, closer to the water, and artier Cerro Alegre. But the truth is, I don’t really know where I walked that afternoon. Valpo is zany and distinctive and utterly delightful. It’s as if some kindergarten art class let its 5-year-olds out to roam the sidewalks with paintbrushes in hand. Paint whatever you want; be creative—they were told. And so the world became a lot brighter and more charmingly nonsensical. Or maybe it’s just the inner child in me who was unexpectedly awoken for an afternoon.