Viña del Mar and Valparaíso are two intertwined cities connected by a transport system of cars, buses, trains and even boats! As costal and port towns, the cities grew out of one single port into the sprawl they are today. Transportation in the cities grew with them, though not in any organized way!
Valparaíso has lots of options for transport. The majority of people own cars, the streets are filled with them, especially in the mornings and evenings. Another option is the micro, which is the name of the buses that are constantly charging the streets. These micros are organized in a disorganized fashion, if that makes any sense. They run predetermined routes but there are rarely any official bus stops for them. Instead people on the sidewalks can hail them down like cabs by whistling or raising an arm. The micros are pretty fast paced, once you grab one’s attention, be prepared to jump on board as soon as possible, even if the bus hasn’t come to a full stop yet! It’s also up to you to tell them when to stop. Generally you can pull a cord or push a button to indicate that, but it’s much better to walk up and talk to the driver. I don’t know how the drivers stay so focused, but they can count change, hand out tickets and even have conversations while driving.
A second option is the Metro or the train that connects Valparaíso to Viña del Mar. I tend to use the metro the most because it’s less expensive and much more organized. Plus as you stand in the train car, you get to look out at the ocean and watch the huge oceanliners lazily bob in the waves off shore. Colectivos are a third way to get around, but most people don’t recommend them. Colectivos are a mix of a taxi and a bus, they are individual cars but have predetermined routes, albeit many more routes than a micro or the metro. They also continually pick people up until the cab is full. There is no such thing as a private colectivo! I’ve been told not to use them, because once they see you’re a foreigner, they raise the prices since you wouldn’t know the difference.
Finally, you can walk, which is one of my preferred methods. Even though it’s winter in the U.S. it’s summer here, and I love strolling in the hot sun and losing myself in the stream of people. You catch a lot more when walking too, the slow pace lets you hear snippets of Spanish and you’re free to stop and examine any beautiful building or piece of street art you stumble upon.
When I stepped onto my first micro, I was incredibly nervous. In fact, anytime I had to travel to a new place I felt nervous! I stand out here, I don’t look like your typical Chilean and everyone knows it. I get stares in the street, and when I speak Spanish peoples eyebrows raise in disbelief. There is a general idea that foreigners can’t speak good Spanish and before I’ve even spoken to them people tend to assume I can only speak English. Attention like this makes me feel watched, I don’t want to look foolish or even more like a clueless visitor in their eyes. Luckily I got the hang of navigation here quickly. Most of the micro drivers can tell you if they’re going past your destination and the metro can only really go two ways! On foot can be a bit harder, I don’t really know where the dangerous parts of town are. Generally I go with a group of friends, and the shreds of our collective knowledge form a complete map for our travel!
All of Chilean transport is linked to the formation of their city. Valparaíso started out as a shipping port in colonial times and like most old cities, it grew haphazardly from that point. The public transportation is so haphazard because the streets themselves are. The metro bumps and twists and turns to follow the snaking coastline, and since the city plan isn’t a nice neat square, micros run all over the place to get people where they need to go.
There is one more historic bit of transportation I haven’t mentioned yet: the ascensores or hill elevators all over Valparaíso. Since Valpo is a city mainly organized by hills, ascensores were built to help people who had to walk up and down them dozens of times. It resembles a small train car, and works just like an elevator, except instead of going straight up, you move diagonally up the hill! Most of these ascensores have been abandoned and neglected, but recently the city put up the funds to restore five of the thirty ascensores in the name of cultural heritage. My trip program took us all onto Ascensor Baron one day. They cost about 100 Chilean pesos, less than a U.S. dollar, and are slowly dragged up the hill by a series of cables. I loved the experience. Since I live in Viña del Mar I don’t generally have a chance to used the ascensores and when my calves are burning from walking up stairs and my shirt is drenched in sweat I wish they were here even more!