It was the kind of ‘unplanned’ thing that I had ‘planned for’. Instead of going to Salta for new years, I decided to follow a travel friend I had met in Bariloche to Valparaiso in Chile. He’d said that it was THE place to be for New Years Eve in South America. I was in Mendoza at the time, 2 days before the end of the year, and convinced Chile would be a better choice than Salta. Why the hell not, I thought.
So off I went that afternoon to book a bus ticket for the next day to Valpo. When I arrived at the bus station, teeming with people, I approached bus counter after bus counter looking for a ticket to Valpo via Santiago. It seems they were all booked out. For a fleeting moment I became panicked at the thought of spending NYE on my own… but to my relief I eventually found a bus company that would take me directly to Valpo – the catch was that the bus was leaving in a few hours. More panic set in. I quickly paid for the ticket and ran back to the hostel to book my following nights’ accommodation. I quickly discovered that all hostels in Valpo were at least $50 a night over the new years period. $50! For a BED! in a DORM! It was daylight robbery! But I had no choice… I booked 3 nights in the same one my friend was staying in and proceeded to hurriedly packed my bags. I had been in Mendoza a good 10 days and had crap everywhere – the area surrounding my bed and locker was a disaster zone of clothes, shoes and toiletries. I didn’t get time to say proper goodbyes to all the great people I had met (starting to become a speciality of mine!), I simply paid my bill, jumped in a cab and was back at the bus station in no time.
The bus station was even more packed than before – there were literally dozens of buses all going to Chile. I eventually found my bus and settled in for a nice overnight sleep. The ride was meant to take 7 hours – but it actually took 12 after an inconvenient and very annoying 5 hours at the border at 3 in the morning.
Arriving in Valpo I was greeted with heart-attack steep hills (my hostel was on one of them), and bohemian charm oozing from the streets. I found my travel buddy and we headed to climb these hills (with the help of an ascensor – a railway/lift that takes you up) to find a place to have lunch. He describes Valpo so eloquently: “like a mutation of Buenos Aires after a favela and a toilet exploded in its middle” – but this is said in quiet affection, for despite the ‘toilet explosion’ (of which the million dogs and their resulting excrement contribute to the polluted streets), the town really is charming.
On new years eve, after a few drinks at the hostel, we headed up to the lookout at about 10pm. Knowing we’d be out-and-about until who-knows-when, we set ourselves up with a travelling bar – a bottle of champagne, a dozen beers, and a few bottles of spirits, all in clear plastic bags, the backpackers handbag: cheap, mobile and expendable.
After wandering aimlessly lost in the hills of Valpo, we eventually made it to a lookout with an amazing view of the bay; we scored a free slice of quiche from some Swiss people, and settled into our spot to watch the fireworks. The countdown was a bit of an anti-climax – we were about 20 seconds off – but when the fireworks started it was a magical sight. These fireworks are world famous; they launch fireworks off no less than 5 barges around the bay with the biggest ones right in front of us. For like an hour. Normally when I get to see new years fireworks, I have to look above me – this time, for the first time, the fireworks exploding in front of us, not above. I almost had a seizure from the flashing lights – one of the best shows I’d seen in a long time (sorry, but Sydney still tops it!). We popped our bottle of champers, exchanged Feliz ano nuevo’s and the celebrations began.
After the show, we followed the crowds (chanting ‘Viva Chile!’ the whole way down) and sounds of music back down to the main part of town. There were crowds everywhere and you had to push and weave to get through. The streets were building to building full of people – I eventually lose all of my friends and find myself dancing to the sound of drums with a bunch of Colombians. We kept dancing until who-knows-when to the sound of these drums – I remember the sun starting to rise and the sky turning blue. The roads on the walk back to hostel were paved with broken glass and streamers; the sight of drunk people in the daylight almost made them look like zombies. I arrived at my hostel, where the party continued with the help of the hostel owner’s ‘mystery’ blended drinks.
Most of new years day was spent in a lazy haze, lying on the crowded beaches of Vina del Mar. Our last evening was topped off with a lovely dinner at a posh restaurant in the hills, where I had my first meal of seafood in a month, and the bartender tried to pick me up. During dinner conversation that night, we decided we would treat ourselves to a nice ‘luxury’ hotel stay for a night in Santiago. We arrived in Santiago the next afternoon to a hotel which was amazing – rooftop pool & jacuzzi with views all over Santiago. After spending the afternoon laying around drinking beer and chatting up locals in the jacuzzi, we made dinner and drank ourselves silly, dancing around the hotel room, celebrating the start for what we all knew would be a great 2011.
All photos in this post were taken by the author and subject to copyright.