Sunday, March 1, 2009
With a network of steep streets set on hillsides that are also sliced by equally steep staircases, Valparaiso
reminds me of a rustic but much more charming San Francisco. Just over an hour from Santiago, Chile, this port town is probably most identified by its 14 funiculars that drop off residents and visitors alike among the brightly painted clapboard houses. What a cool way of getting around this hilly city but, after taking a couple of these, I chose to walk to get a more intimate feel of the land. A walking tour is a slow endeavor, to be sure, not only because of the aerobic workout required to get about, but, more importantly, because of the many distractions including the boldly-painted murals along an endless array of facades.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is also dotted with several museums, from the Fine Arts Museum
that's housed in an early 20th century mansion to another that faces a panoramic viewpoint and displays the cartoons of journalist, Renzo Pecchenino, aka Lucas
Valparaiso's Central Market, where vendors hawk prickly pear, miniature avocados, giant brown seaweed and many more items, is a must-see before boarding the circa 1910 funicular.
But, though the town has a quaint aura, there are accommodations that radiate luxury. Casa Higueras, a restored mansion from the 1930s that went through a $2 million restoration in late 2006, is a sophisticated 20-room boutique property that provides guests with an infinity pool that hangs over the hill and an outside blue-tiled Jacuzzi. Rooms have plenty of antique touches, whether it's an old writing desk or a tiled fireplace. I enjoyed lunch at their restaurant, Montealegre, that features local-sourced seafood and amazing views -- after it, I sat on lovely umbrella-shaded terrace high above the city's port. My overnight was spent at the amazing Hotel Zero, which was once a house dating from 1880. Some of the nine rooms provide views of the sea but all come with alpaca blankets, Egyptian cotton sheets and work by local artists. (Despite so many sights to check out, I found it hard to leave this accommodation.) Interestingly, the name, Zero, refers to a "back to basics' approach, which translates to the idea that the hotel should be thought of as your home. In the terraced garden lush with bougainvillea and almond trees, I sipped first a beverage blended from cherimoya and then a glass of white wine while snacking on on olives and goat cheese.