Society in Chile is a stratified one, and it is possible to identify class and political leanings by people’s preference for Viña del Mar or Valparaíso.
Valparaíso, known as 'Valpo,' is famed for its alternative culture and nightlife, while next door Viña del Mar is a more upmarket place of golf courses and “sporting clubs.”
“Viña has less soul but great beaches and a better range of restaurants and hotels,” says musician Caro Perez, who lives there. Her hometown is now a popular playground for wealthy Santiaguinos – people from Chile's capital, Santiago – and visiting Argentines.
However, the wealthy Santiaguinos have a point. The seafood restaurants around Viña are some of the best in the country – and the Pacific Coast beaches are beautiful. “That’s one thing Santiago has over Buenos Aires,” she says. “The porteños have no great beaches within an hour of the city.”
Chile moved its Congress to Valparaíso in an attempt to rejuvenate the town after its decline as a center of commerce – one reason Neruda wanted a home here when he was elected a Communist Party senator – but its downtown remains rough and run down. However, its hills are alive with the sound of rebuilding, growing into another world of retro cafés, vintage clothing stores and boutique hotels.
Sitting on one of town’s characteristic rickety funicular ascensores, Caro tells me that the subversive nature of Valpo’s counter culture attracts students and backpackers in equal measure. At the top of Cerro Constitucion, we sit in bright sunlight to share fantastic views of the port and town below. Artisans set up stalls here in the early evening, selling jewelry fashioned from the country’s famed copper, silver and minerals. A bracelet made of lapis lazuli, Chile’s national stone, can be picked up for a steal.
At night Valparaíso is a draw for goths and emos, all of whom seem to enjoy the dark, sweaty nightspots that play 1980s music into the small hours. “Valparaíso kind of sucks you in,” says Dan, an American visitor I meet in a bar.
“It’s the mixture of picturesque charm, counter-culture and seediness that comes with its history as a port town. The place is rife with prostitution, and crime makes the docks a no-go area at night, but possibly the only one in the whole country. Valparaíso is unsanitized and edgy but, under it all, it is still safe and traveler friendly.”