We had travelled 15 hours north by bus, from the glaciers of Chile’s Patagonia, to the middle of the country. For almost 2 weeks we had been surrounded by breath taking landscapes of snowy tipped mountains, icy waters and our personal highlight, Laguna San Rafael. Patagonia was an incredible, unique place but we were looking forward to being back in civilisation. There are only so many times you can play rummy with two people.
Our bus bypassed the hectic and smoggy Santiago, and headed for Valparaiso. We had heard Valparaiso was Chile’s city of artists, poets and painters – so naturally it was a must-visit on our ‘To-Do’ list. The coastal city is built on the steep surrounding mountains, and feeling lethargic and weary after our bus ride we grabbed a taxi to our hostel, perched right at the top of the mountain – great decision not walking.
The famous street art we wanted to see happened to be down the mountain and on the other side of town – we may have been travel partners for over 5 years but, not-so deep down we were still those naïve 19 year olds blindly stumbling around the world. A humbling moment for us both. With the sun almost shining and the want to stretch our legs we felt this was a perfect opportunity to walk off the excessive bus snacks and see a different part of the city.
We knew roughly the direction we wanted to aim for, and as long as we were walking downhill, we must be on track (we’d thought). The streets were quiet, dainty and windy. The houses were very modest and fairly well kept. There was an undeniable charm about the place, in a rustic and run-down sense. As we turned one of many sharp corners, a blacked out 4×4 passed us going in the same direction. It slowed slightly, then continued down the road.
During our quick twenty-minute Valparaiso research session (a skimread of an out-of-date Lonely Planet, and a quick Google search), we knew the city has had its problems and difficulties following the devastating earthquake in 2010 – some of which are still lingering around today. Common sense and a dash of good judgment seemed to be enough to keep you safe and still enjoy everything the city has to offer. We had both visited ‘riskier’ places in the past, and had somehow managed to leave them relatively intact.
Walking along a main road, in the daytime – didn’t appear to be one of those life-threatening situations.
Turning another corner, we saw the same blacked out 4×4 return – this time coming towards us. The front window rolled down as the car came to a complete stop. In the front were a man and woman who asked where we from, and where we were going. We were warned by the driver that these streets weren’t safe to walk around, and that it would be wise to turn round. He also pointed out that many of the children who lived in the area carried guns, and weren’t shy to use them.
After successfully scaring the life out of us, he continued driving away.
As grateful as we were for the heads up, we were already halfway down the mountain. Should we turn around and go the way we came, potentially straight into the hands of these gun-wielding 8 year olds, or should we continue risking it and head to the city? It was really a lose, lose situation for us.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to make that decision because 30 seconds later a police car turned up. With their limited English, our questionable Spanish and some crystal clear hand gestures, the officers seemed to be re-emphasising the ‘children-with-guns’ problem we had just wandered straight into. Just as we were finishing off our game of charades with the officers (thank you very much theatre degree), our 4×4 friends returned and offered to take us down the mountain and drop us off in the safety of the touristy spots. Not only did he do that, but once down there he asked a local security guide to keep an eye on us. Speaking in Spanish, I can only imagine what he was telling the security guard. And before we knew it we had our own personal bodyguard/tour guide showing us the sights and escorting us around the city. We really must have seemed like a hopeless pair to warrant the undivided attention of two locals, and we were more than happy to go with it.
Despite the kindergarten-mafia threat; Valparaiso is a beautiful city, full of some incredible art and very generous and kind people. (Albeit some questionable children). My only advise; spend an extra dollar a night to be in a decent location. Lesson learned… until next time.