Valparaiso: Chile’s open-air gallery of street art

Valparaiso was already one of the most colourful cities in the world. And then the street artists came along…

I have never been anywhere quite like Valpo (as the locals call it) for street art. Nearly every flat surface boasts eye-catching works that make parts of the city pretty much an open-air art gallery.

Street art Valparaiso, Mr Papillon

You can see colourful, poignant and technically brilliant creations all over town, by artists including local heroes such as Charquipunk and Teo, plus collaborations such as Un Kolor Distinto. These are two of our favourites from the more tourist-heavy of the hills that characterise this town, Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepcion.

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Here’s one featuring the face and poetry of Nobel prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, who lived in Valparaiso.

Street art, Valparaiso

But for the most densely-concentrated collection, head to the working class hilltop area of Cerro Polanco. You can access it via one of the city’s many ascensores and the only one that runs vertically. The area hosted a street art festival in 2012, transforming humble houses into beautiful works of art, with the consent of residentrs of course.

The entrance to the ascensor isn’t that easy to spot, so here’s a pic.

Entrance to Cerro Polanco lift

After a walk through a gloomy tunnel and a short journey in a dilapidated old lift, you’ll step out from this rather impressive structure.

Top of the Cerro Polanco ascensor

Many tourists only make it this far, fearing to tread in a non-touristy neighbourhood. We felt perfectly safe though. As in any area you don’t know, just keep your wits about you and don’t be stupid with your camera. We made our way down through the hilly labyrinth, enjoying the art as we descended.

Street art, Valparaiso

As you can see, it’s a mind-boggling mixture that is at turns surreal, political, whimsical and beautiful. Oh, and for some reason there are lots of works featuring cats.

Street art in Valparaiso

That’s it for verbiage from me. Just enjoy the street art…

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valaparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valpariso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

Street art, Valparaiso

As someone who can barely draw a stick man, I was mightily impressed.

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Dreams and desires in Buenos Aires

El mundo es mi suelo, el cielo mi techo, Buenos Aires donde cosecho mis anhelos y mis pasiones…

(The world is my floor, the sky my ceiling, Buenos Aires where I reap my desires and my passions…)

– Gotan Project, Mi Confesión

We landed in Buenos Aires after dark. The cab sped north towards the city centre, the cluster of lights that an hour earlier we’d craned our necks to squint at from the air, now rushing upon us. First, along the freeway, the street lamps and billboards, then a car park and an apartment block, it’s lit windows vibrant rectangles against a column of black. Then come the residential streets, cafes, bars, shops and supermarkets.

Through net curtains a television flickers while its three viewers chat animatedly over its noise. Fairy lights hang over the door of a bar outside which a girl with a camera is ordering her friends into a line. Through the darkened windows of the closed shops we make out the silhouettes of chairs, bed linen, power tools, shoes, lamps, mannequins.

A glimpse through the window of a restaurant, or bar, or kitchen, or bedroom shows glasses half full, forks mid-air, anecdotes mid-flow, confessions about to be heard and apologies just made, tears being fought back, laughter on the verge of brimming over. The city flies by in a sequence of light and dark, seen and unseen. Like frames from a movie, each scene appears frozen in time.

I love arriving in a city at night. Those snatched moments, lives lit for a fraction of a second before they disappear from my view, seem to be brimming with promise. By day a city seems ordinary, however vibrant and chaotic. Business is carried out, transactions are made, conversations and arguments are had, and the cogs of life, of industry, of society, turn.

But at night the ordinary evaporates in a gentle hum. Then, when the buildings sleep and the world exists in chiaroscuro, that’s when inspiration flickers into life, when hope hangs in the air and anything seems possible.

A new day approaches. What will tomorrow hold?

Buenos Aires sunset

I loved Buenos Aires before I even saw it. Described repetitively and unimaginatively as the Paris of South America, it seemed inevitable. A European-syle city in the heart of Latinoamérica, accessible yet alien, I knew that on a straighforward level, I could feel comfortable there.

Buenos Aires market San Telmo

Grafitti in Buenos Aires

But Buenos Aires is not Europe and it is most definitely not Paris. The grand architecture, the boulevards and plazas, the wine bars and coffee shops are reminiscent but deceptive for beneath it all burns a spirit and identity that is entirely Argentinian. Not only is Buenos Aires unlike any European city I have visited, it is unlike any South American city I have visited.

Buenos Aires architecture

San Telmo flea market

Its history is familiar enough: colonisation, international trade, the growing of power and the subsequent attempts to consolidate this power, attacks from the British and French, independence from Spain, unification, immigration on a grand scale, art, literature, theatre, music and vast economic growth. And all this before the start of the 20th century.

Buenos Aires opera house

La Boca Buenos Aires

In the last 100 years, Buenos Aires’ story has been laced with the dark thread of political conflict. Grand ideologies gave way to sinister levels of control and politicians were hailed as demi-gods even as thousands of former Nazis were escaping justice and setting up home in Argentina.

Buenos Aires is a city that was bombed by its own navy. It’s a city that watched, helpless, as thousands of people vanished, were tortured and murdered under the military junta. Now walking through the vibrant streets, lingering on street corners to chat, one cannot help but be acutely aware that only thirty years ago such liberty seemed impossible.

Palermo, Buenos Aires

La Bombonera

Even now, it’s fair to say the city’s future is not exactly certain. In the week we visited, a Jewish lawyer was found dead of a gunshot wound, just hours before he was due to present evidence against the current government’s role in covering up the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre. The government claimed it was suicide.

For all its beauty, its culture, its vibrancy and its quality of life, Buenos Aires has a deeply ugly side. And that, for me, is what makes it so much more than just a tourist destination. Buenos Aires is not a fantasy. It is real, it is dark, it is complex and after the sight-seeing is done, there’s still so much more to learn, to understand.

San Telmo, Buenos Aires

La Boca Buenos Aires

La Recoleta Buenos Aires

Try as I might, I can’t shake off the feeling that I have not finished with this city.

Street art in Buenos Aires