Valparaiso de mi amor


By Russell Hobart

If you’re one of those eccentric types who enjoys, on occasion, breathing air that is less visible, flavorful and tangible than that of Santiago, then heading to the coast for the weekend is just what you need. And if you tire of the beach, Chile’s main port town of Valparaiso, dubbed «La Joya Del Pacifico» («The Jewel of the Pacific») in one classic song, might be the place.

There is a street in Valparaiso, that like many streets in Valparaiso, winds, in almost perfect roundness, up through an old water drainage system. The buildings roll along like the water and pleasantly remind you that nature abhors a straight line. This alone, in a city as curious and lovely as Valparaiso, would be almost undistinguished if it were not for the fact that it’s saturated with bars, bar-restaurants, and bar-restaurant-music-clubs.

If it’s not a tradition at this point to ascend this impressive monument to entertainment drink by drink, let this article be a directive to that end. Maybe for graduations or other celebration with no exact sense of reverence, people can start at the Plaza Ecuador and work their way up the hill in alcohol-soaked increments. This comes with the warning that if you go too far you end up in a strange old cemetery with ancient above-the-ground graves. If you go even further you end up near a perhaps even older, stranger prison that leaks a brown liquid that smells of something hardly human. With these institutions looming over, you drink in honor of two of our greatest human limitations, mortality and law.

Of course, as every great journey should have a solid base, this one has the Cinzano. Cinzano lies at the base of this hill along the Plaza Ecuador. The ambiance is a chunky mix for which the Germans kindly invented the word «kitsch.» The art includes a painting featuring a blue-suited 50’s-type «cruisin'» sort of fellow with a New York background, which in an attempt at surrealism places the Washington monument alongside the Empire State Building. Others from the same artist (his number is listed to promote sales) feature half-naked women of leisure doing leisurely things.

Overhead lighting at the bar is fluorescent and eye-burning. Perhaps the most impressive key of this multi-faceted club environment is the live entertainment. There are numerous levels of «entertainment»; the music is only one spoke in the grand wheel of diversion. It goes something like this:

In the first act, a tall, thin, plainly dressed man on guitar, balances out a thick-glassed woman in a faded flowery dress. This would-be Polish housemaid ostensibly has the job of singing through a Mr. Microphone-quality audio-system and grooving to the tunes.

The second act belongs to three 50-something guys who you would guess have been friends since they grew-up and out of the same test-tube. They’re oozing with camaraderie and not a small bulb of quirky talent. A specialty of these three is «Valparaiso Mi Amor» and other songs of whimsy, which often involve the audience joining in for several bars. It should be advised to take a back seat in the audience if you are not the singing-in-public type or are Spanish-impaired. One of the finest sights is to see these guys share the praise after a well-played song. They point back and forth at each other insisting that the others are the true geniuses behind the group.

Finally, the accordion player gives a wonderful performance, seemingly almost wandering off to sleep only to burst out with a cacophonous and melodic solo that proves a long-held belief of this writer that the instrument is not completely ill-suited for rock and roll.

As for the rest, each individual must be his own judge in the dangers of making his way up the hill. There are some «must-sees» along the way. The J Cruz is famous for being a nightÕs-end hang-out. About half-way up the hill a little hole in the wall serves what could best be described as an Arab version of a taco made with something that looks like waffle-cone bread. Just past that is the Liverpool Club, which has such Fab Four things such as cheap beer, exceedingly loud music, and various pictures of John Lennon. The Wall serves a hipper crowd and has a finer construction that you might expect in the affluent neighborhood of a big city. The rest are an assortment of impressive names with rather unimpressive formats or odd concept bars (like a castle that you have to enter the lower caverns of before you can even get a drink), but either way, itÕs a good excuse to visit a beautiful town.

The bus is always a good way to get to Valparaiso. Take the Metro to Universidad de Santiago, where there is underground access to the bus station. A round-trip ticket to Valpo can be bought for 2,700 pesos (ask for an open-ended ticket). Plaza Ecuador can be reached by micro if you follow Avenida Brazil to Concepcion.