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The Highs and Lows of Valparaíso!

Updated: May 30, 2020

Having complained about Posh Pucón not being like real Chile, I am now firmly in the rough and ready reality of the country. Valparaíso (known locally by the nickname of Valpo) is a colourful UNESCO World Heritage town with lots of character and not one but two Nobel Prize winning poets, including world famous Pablo Neruda. We are living round the corner from him. Well we would be if he hadn’t died in 1973. It used to be an important Pacific Ocean port before the Panama Canal was built because it was on the route north when ships had to pass round Cape Horn. There are signs of this everywhere in town where the building display elegant eighteenth and nineteenth century features in spades and the fountains and monuments point to a more affluent age before the town was blighted by poverty, graffiti, dog pool and litter.

I am in good company because both the Queen and Prince Charles have visited Valparaíso. The Queen in 1968 and Prince Charles in 2009. The British Arch was given to the town by the British Community to commemorate 100 years of independence and is clearly emblematic of the links between our two countries. No doubt, this brought the royals here but I bet they cleaned the graffiti off it for Her Majesty and His Royal Highness and cleared up the tonnes of dog poo surrounding it! No such treatment when I visit!

Our apartment is up one of the very steep hills that rise up from the narrow flat plain by the Pacific Ocean to make the town appear to be an amphitheater. We are on the ground floor so I am afraid we don’t enjoy any stunning views and it is very dated (think 1970s) but it has three spacious bedrooms, one with an en-suite. I think I must have been a bag lady in a past life because Christine and Heather think it is dirty. Whilst it has not had a deep clean so the skirting boards are a bit grubby and there are some coffee stains on the wall, it is not dirty. Christine admits to having OCD traits which she says are getting worse as she gets older. There have been signs. Other people’s hair in the shower bothers her. Her next stop after South America is India! I decide not to tell her my Indian rat and Delhi Belly stories. Heather cleans on a very regular basis. I have to make sure I am quick to wash up and that they see me doing my bit, but when they are both out I put my feet up on the sofa, get crumbs on the floor and shave my legs in the bath. Okay that last bit’s a lie, I don’t shave my legs but if I did, I would! Luckily, I don’t have this OCD problem with the residents of 31 Russetts, Basildon because they’re all much bigger slobs than me!

The apartment has cable television and Heather and I avidly watch “Outlander” every evening. There are five series to keep us going. Personally, I’m watching it for the beautiful Scottish scenery not the tall, handsome, sexy, male protagonist with rippling torso but I can’t, of course, speak for Heather!

We follow Avenue Alemania across the hillside and then drop down in to the old town. The buildings have colourful and creative facades and, as in the rest of the town, there are fabulous murals everywhere. At one point we are lucky enough to come across an artist painting a new mural. It has a bit of a ghost like feel because the restaurants and cafes are closed but the fact that it is an open air art gallery more than makes up for this. The same cannot be said for the rest of the town. No one here got the lockdown memo and the place is packed with little sign of social distancing. It is one big market. Every spare inch of the pavements is covered with market stalls. You can buy anything you like here from toilet brushes to matching bra and knickers. The fruit and veg stalls put Basildon Market, where I am a regular, to shame. And the size of the stuff means it would definitely win a rosette for “Biggest in Show”!

I am in fish heaven. Having had very little fish since I left home because Argentina is the meat capital of the world, I suddenly find I can buy fresh tuna and sea bream and it is as cheap as chips. Unfortunately, chips are not an option to go with it but we do buy delicious battered fish from a street stall. I purchase some seaweed and sushi for the princely sum of £1.50.

One day, Heather and I are walking through the old town and a stray dog barks loudly at us. It is as if it is trying to urgently tell us something rather than aggression. It is not the first time I have experienced this in South America. It follows us on our walk down in to the new town with occasional stops to go through bin bags but to no avail. It is thin and has a very matted coat. You can’t help but feel sorry for the poor creature. After it has accompanied us for about half an hour, Heather takes pity on it and buys it empanadas and bread which it eats ravenously. Once full up it makes its way back to its own patch and we carry on along the coast in a southerly direction where we see our first Peruvian Pelicans and men harvesting seaweed on the beach.

Still on the subject of dogs, it appears that everyone has a dog and often multiple dogs. The vicious beasts wait right until the last minute when I am inches from their jaws and then bark, snarl and growl loudly at me, resulting in me jumping several feet in the air and swearing at them. What I would like to do to them is not pleasant. If I didn’t have high blood pressure before, I do now! It is like a cross between Starlight Barking and The Hound of the Baskervilles around here because once one starts barking about 5,000 others join in. This goes on well in to the night. And don’t get me started on the tonnes of dog poo!

Our apartment complex is a thriving community. Heather and I join the local ladies for dance classes which include tango, salsa, Arabic and flamenco. The youngest member of our group is seven and the oldest eighty three! This helps us begin to get to know people, the most prominent being Ximena who lives in Belgium but has a holiday home in the complex. She and her partner Otto, who is Hungarian, were visiting when the Covid 19 virus hit so they have not been able to return to Belgium. They are retired and I can see why they are happy to stay because they have an amazing view over the bay and Pacific Ocean from their apartment which, unlike ours, is on the top floor. Ximena became a political refugee in 1973 when there was a military coup in Chile and Pinochet, good friend of Margaret Thatcher because he supported the U.K. in the Falklands War, took over by force from the democratically elected president, Allende, who committed suicide. The scars are still evident. Ximena’s husband at the time was an architect and she shows us a book that feature friends of theirs who were architects who disappeared, assumed murdered by the regime.

There is a thriving informal economy at the apartment complex. I buy some doughnuts from doorstop sellers and Ximena sources colemono for me, an alcoholic coffee drink, after I try a glass at her place and enjoy it. Others have fruit, veg and cleaning products for sale. You name it! In addition, they organise a food bank for the poor to which we contribute.

We have security at the apartments and there are three security guards that work in rotation. One looks at us as with a frightened rabbit look. I think he thinks we are aliens. Enrique is lovely and we exchange friendly greetings in Spanish. My favourite is Waldo who, unusually, speaks impressive English so we have a good old chat about the weather and our love of Valparaíso.

I get in touch with the British Embassy for information about a visa extension as my visa runs out in 4 weeks. They send me a website in Spanish and tell me to use that. Oh and by the way, it costs $125. This really adds insult to injury as the Chileans closed the bloody border. I go back to the British Embassy and tell them that as I don’t speak Spanish this is useless. They come back to me and say they can do no more. All my taxes have clearly gone on Ferrero Roche and fine wine, if you ask me! Luckily, Ximena and Otto have the same problem so offer to help. Otto, who speaks fluent Spanish, says the Chilean Immigration Website is useless. So it’s not just the British then!

Christine takes tablets for high blood pressure and her tablets are running out. She searches high and low for the right tablets and finds some but not all. Shamus, her husband, will have to send her the drugs she needs and comments that he is the only person in the world to be sending drugs to South America!

Christine decides she can’t cope with the state of the apartment and moves to another apartment in the richer part of the area. We keep in touch and she is happy that it is clean. I move in to the en-suite room so I am happy too!

We notice riot police in town. They have large vans with water canon and large guns. It was not long ago that there were violent riots here and you get the impression that it will not take much to light the fuse again with the ravages of Covid 19 taking its toll. We are aware that we could be looking at our next problem, not just here but throughout South America.

I have written about bus drivers in Argentina and there are parallels here. Local buses didn’t run during our time in Pucón but here it is definitely a case of you wait for a bus and then two come along at the same time. They are everywhere and very frequent. An endearing characteristic that I have noticed here is that the bus drivers do their shopping around town as they drive their bus. They just pull up and buy loo rolls, bananas, jammy dodgers, you name it!

Heather and I see a trolly bus in town that looks like something out of an old American movie. I do a bit of research and find out that Valparaíso has the oldest trolley buses in service in the world. The old Pullman buses were in Santiago but when they built the metro there, they were transferred to Valparaíso. Heather and I wait at a stop for one of the really old ones but give up on one occasion, however, the next time it appears as we are heading for the stop. We run to catch it and the driver, who has started to drive off, stops and open the doors for us again. It is amazing! It feels as if it should be in a museum but here we are paying 30p for a ticket to ride. As we go through the old streets you can imagine you are back in the 1950s, a time before Heather and I were even born. When we get to the end of the line, the driver lets us sit in his seat and take photos. He proudly shows us the registration documents that show it was registered in 1945! Very appropriate as it was VE Day 75 years today in 1945. I am shocked that they keep 75 year old registration documents just above the driver’s seat. Again, it doesn’t seem right. They should be with the trolley bus in a museum but I’m glad they are not at a time when all the museums are closed!

Another feature of this town that makes me feel as if I am in a living museum is cash desks. You select your goods, they give you an invoice and you go to a cash desk to pay and then go and collect your goods. It reminds me of the Soviet Union which I visited in the 1980s.

So there were signs of impending doom. My friend, Gill Sharp, who has been here on a cruise warns me that fellow cruise passengers had been robbed. A market stall holder told us to put our back packs on our fronts and several people told me not to get my mobile phone out. This is hard because it is my camera. Heather and I decide to go up the hill and on to a trail we have seen. We are missing the opportunity to hike in the countryside. We struggle to find a way up to the trail and stray in to a dodgy area. It all happens in seconds. A man with brown eyes and dark hair (like everyone around here!) approaches us. He says something but we are trying to get out of there so we ignore him. Suddenly, he blocks my way and points a gun at the money belt around my waist. He snarled, “Give me money!” I freeze and give him my money belt. He is gone in the blink of an eye with cash, driving licence and my phone. I am shaken and find it hard to think straight. I have insurance to cover the loss but as everyone knows who has been in this situation or similar, it is the resulting hassle and distress caused by the violation that has the greatest impact.

Feeling shell shocked, we make our way to a nearby area that feels safer. The locals try to help but they don’t speak much English as a rule. A teenager calls the police for us but no one comes. Heather gets her daughter, who lives in London, to call Richard, Kathryn and Helen. They track the location of my phone and cancel my credit card.

Eventually, the helpful locals call us an Uber which takes us to the local police station. I must be getting old because all the friendly and helpful police officers looked not much older than sixth form students. They send a car round to the property my phone has been tracked to. I have visions of them kicking in the door and arresting everyone in a den of thieves with shouts of “spread em”. They ask Heather to ring my phone and we wait with baited breath but, alas, no joy. They revert to the model used by British police. Prepare a police report for insurance purposes and send us on your way. Mind you, they do drop us home in their heavily armoured van. I’m not sure you’d get that service in the U.K.

I go to see Ximena to get her help adding more details to the very brief police report. She and the other members of our apartment community are wonderful from start to finish. They really help to restore my faith in humanity. Ximena comes with me to a closer police station (they seem to be on every corner) and she gets them to return to check the property where my phone is again. We go with them but it is down an alley way so we don’t see the property itself. When the police return, very out of breath as it is down steep steps, they say it is a drug den and a squat. Now, as a good Christian (okay, perhaps not good, the last time I went to church was 24th December 2018) I would be forgiving the bastard who stole from me. He probably had a violent father and an alcoholic mother. Unfortunately, no such sentiments cross my mind. What I actually have in mind was very slow, very painful and involves lots of blood!

Ximena puts out a call to arms. She gets five offers of a lift to take us back to the original police station to get a formal copy of the police report. We meet Monika in the car park and back at the police station they give up their valuable time to help me. Next we go to the local department store to buy a new iPhone. This being South America, the options are limited. They say there is no iPhone 8 Plus but their Viña del Mar store has a 7 Plus. We head over there but no, it doesn’t. All these things are sent to try us! I sleep on it and decide to buy the only option, the iPhone XL. I’d like to say at this point that my luck changes and all goes smoothly but, of course, it doesn’t. My second credit card (the first having been nicked) blocks the transaction. Richard rings Santander (yes, the bank with the worse customer service in the world) and they say I have to ring them to unblock it. He points out this is impossible because my phone has been nicked, but it remains ‘computer says no!’ Eventually, Heather kindly lets me ring on her phone to get it unblocked and she buys the iPhone on her credit card and Richard does a bank transfer to her. I don’t know what I would have done without Heather at this very difficult time. It is painful just writing about it.

Afterwards I keep playing things through in my mind. He said,”Give me money!” Should I have just opened my money belt and given him some notes? If I could have taken a deep breath and thought it through, I would have taken this course of action. Problem is, in my 57 years on this planet, I have never had a gun pointed at me so the deep breath was definitely not an option. In addition, a few weeks before I arrived in Buenos Aires, a British man was robbed and he resisted. The result was not something he could contemplate in his blog. He went home in a body bag. I thought then, if that happens to me I will just hand over my valuables rather than knee him in the testicles as I set off my rape alarm. I consult Tommy, my American friend who agrees I did the right thing but I do wish he’d been there, even though he’s 83 years old, with his colt 45!

So this little incident has shot in to first place in my list of robberies abroad and now comes above:

Broken in to in the middle of the night in South Africa when we were sleeping;

Car stolen by Russian Mafia in Stockholm;

Mugged by street kids and various other ne’er-do-wells in Brazil.

It would in the past have been a great story to tell in school. My nearly eaten by a shark and attacked by a Peninsula Tiger Snake, the second most deadly snake in the world, stories are legendary. Obviously they have a sprinkle of exaggeration for dramatic effect, done so well that I realised even my teacher assistant was taken in!

I will now have to save my mugged at gunpoint by a masked robber story for future grandchildren. No pressure Andrew, Kathryn and Helen! By then Covid 19 will hopefully be consigned to history so I will be able to really exaggerate the ‘masked’ robber bit.

I chat to my friend, Sue Collard, who suffered a break in at night while she was asleep. I remember comparing our night time break ins at the time and she reminded me that although it is very distressing, time helps to dull the pain of it.

The kindness of strangers continues. David next door strengthens our security at the apartment which took 10 seconds to break in to when the key was stolen as it was in my money belt and Patricia changes our lock for us.

To take my mind off things I go on a therapeutic bus trip up the coast. Two hours on a bus for a pound. There is a quaint fishing village with lots of Peruvian Pelicans, a sea lion and attractive views at the end of the line. It feels right, after all, I should be on Week Eleven of my Dragoman Bus Trip, chugging my way through the Ecuadorian Amazon Jungle if I was not in this mad, mad world. The security of a bus trip was the reason for spending so much money on an organised tour. Money Dragoman have refused to return but don’t get me started on that one.

I ask myself a key question, do I wish I’d flown home in March? The answer is, of course, no!

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