Why should I choose Valparaíso for my year abroad?
Perched on a dozen hills above a huge bay, the colourful and ecclectic architecture and the unique funicular system give Valparaíso a quirky character. Pack some decent shoes as the hills round here are rather steep, but as you're breaking into a minor sweat, you'll find plenty of cute little cafés to sit one out in. What you will notice, once you do get up, up and away through the little town is the economy - Valparaíso's population is of a modest background; shantytowns spread out across the hills and there is some petty crime in a few neighbourhoods. As long as you don't flaunt your state-of-the-art camera or go round Iphone GS4 Series in hand, you'd be hard-pushed to find somewhere more enchanting in Chile.
During the summer season, the city and surrounding towns become a magnet for beach-bums and cruise ships. Popular nearby towns and beaches include Viña del Mar and Reñaca If there's one thing you'll get to know to travel a little faster across the town, it's going to have to be the ascensores (funicular lifts), taking you from one cerro to the next faster than you can...well, walk it, at least. Some are remarkable engineering works, with many constructed in the late 19th century. The Cerro Concepción is really something to look at: brightly coloured houses and European-fashioned mansions, it's easy to see the architectural influence of past settlers (mainly the British and Germans). The Iglesia Catedral de Valparaíso is worth a visit, being the biggest church in town, and it overlooks the Plaza Victoria, a nice place to stop over for a quick bite to eat or bask in the sunshine on a nice day. Pablo Neruda's house, La Sebastiana, is a sight not to miss - a token to the poet's ecclectic and surreal style, legend has it he makes a point of spending New Year's here because of the spectacular view and atmosphere.
More on the lines of poetry, you might want to check out the Museo a Cielo Abierto, with its abstract murals from the late 1960s, by student artists. Parque Cultural Ex-Carcél is yet another showcase of how alternative this place really is: a converted prison space, it's now the top hag-out spot for local artists and musicians. If hippy and bohemian arts and crafts float your boat (and how couldn't they, in this port town - yes, another pun...), then head on down to the weekend festivities around the Feria de Artesanías where street performers and nomads mingle to create a particularly pleasant ambiance.
Depending on whether you're more of a slow drinker than all-night raver, Valpo's nightlife may or may not have you tapping your feet with joy. Serial clubbers may have to travel out to close-by Reñaca for their music fix. However, if you're up for some live music, cool, experimental bars, this is going to be the right place for you! Literally bar upon bar populated the barrios of Plazuela Ecuador and Barrio Puerto so you'll have plenty to choose from, be it food, drink, or a bit of both. Casino Royal J Cruz is as far removed from James Bond films as possible - but in a very, very good way as it has tabletops sprawled with graffiti, a goulash of furniture and one of the tastiest chorrillana in the country. Cinzano is an old classic in terms of the bar scene in Valpo, and between checking out the wall photos of crooners of times past, you'll gladly take in the chilled beer and sensual tango shows, whilst if you fancy something a little, say, more high-brow, you can make your way to La Piedra Feliz, where good live jazz and tango are de rigueur. Plays and concerts are held in the town's theatre, Teatro Municipal, which hosts live show bi-monthly. So why not take in the relaxing vibe, sip on a few beers and make the most of boho Valpo? You'd be a fool to miss out on living this easy...