The 6th Sense in Valparaíso


Perhaps one reason why Valparaíso enchants the pants off of so many visitors has to do with the sensual stimulation of the place.  The centuries-old port city presents a feast for the eyes, with expansive views of hillside homes overlooking the teal-blue sea, while intricately painted stonework, doorways, and murals overwhelm an artistic eye.  There are yeasty wafts from panaderías and sunlight warmed sidewalks where cats snooze. The sound of street dogs playing and fighting mixes with the hum of mid-century buses hauling the weight of their passengers skyward as tires screech around narrow corners.  Meanwhile, a clarinet player warms up as the chatty public pass under his window, and sometimes, if one is lucky, he or she can catch the sound of a fabled chincinero whirling in the street as monedas clank into an upside down hat.  Down by the port misty ocean breezes waft fishy, funky smells into one’s face. When tourists ask what there is to do in Valparaíso, the best answer really is to wander.  Get lost.  Take it all in.  All five senses are awake in a way that they rarely get to be in our normal working lives.

There is a 6th sense, however, that kicks in whenever the Llama and I head to Valparaíso.  That is the “sense” of having to pee.

Potty talk is not this lady’s favorite topic.  But I don’t know what it is about Valparaíso–this happens every time I am there.  Maybe it has something to do with walking up and down all those hills and drinking water to stay hydrated in the summer sun.  I’ve even stopped drinking water as often, knowing that it has a price. Just the thought of getting ready for an excursion a few miles south from home makes me feel the need to pee.

When this happens in the USA, and I am not within close range of a place I just patronized such as a bar or restaurant, I keep my eyes peeled for an agreeable bathroom.  If I can find one, my favorite places to “go” are hotels since I’ve worked in hotels for the past 10 years and they tend to be clean and hospitable to passersby. Otherwise, I look for a public restroom, a mall, a grocery store, a Starbucks or other chain.  I try to choose places where I have in the past or will in the future spend money, so I have the feeling of being a patron even if I am not one at the moment.  Understanding that these bathrooms see a lot of traffic, I know they are not always the cleanest or smell the freshest, and there’s a chance that that sometimes there won’t be toilet paper or paper towel.  But I’m grateful nonetheless, and I tend to think highly of businesses that have nice bathrooms so I am more likely to revisit or recommend them to others.

In Valparaíso, as far as I am aware, there are no free public bathrooms.  The best option, scantily available, is to pay to use the bathroom, usually anywhere from 200 to 600 CLP.  These bathrooms, located in gas stations and Subways, at the beach and near city parks, tend towards vile.  Broad strokes here, but I have found it to be overwhelmingly true that those that fall into this category smell, have no sanitary paper, and often don’t even flush.  So I enter, holding my breath, only to approach the waste of the last few people who paid up to use the services.  And still I am grateful.

There is an alternative option which seems to be the most popular choice for the residents and visitors to the great city of Valparaíso: to find a corner or empty alleyway in which to do one’s business.  In those iconic twisted hills and passageways there are so many wonderful nooks and crannies to explore and they have all been peed upon.  In corners, a putrid smell lingers to prove it.  It’s not unusual, whilst exploring, to accidentally come upon a man zipping up, or a mother holding her child in a suspended position over a spot of dirt in a plaza park.  In the middle of the day we’ve witnessed a gentleman stand in front of his lady friend as she popped a squat against a Chilean palm in the center of the main avenue that follows the coastline as cars whizzed past.  Often the sidewalks, fences, and facades of buildings have wet spots.  Sometimes this is from the many perros that live in the city marking and re-marking territory, or maybe from someone dumping out the bottom of his/her drink.  I like to think that not all of it is urine.  The power of positive thinking, I suppose.

Valpo Pee

Not pee–right?

The most frustrating element is walking through the city, looking for a respectable place in which to relieve oneself, and seeing evidence of so many others fulfilling the desire when it strikes.  It is simultaneously infuriating and then really tempting, whilst trying to hold it in. When in Rome?  I haven’t yet.

My saving graces thus far tend to be the small almacenes or the big grocery store chains.  While these places do not have bathrooms for anyone other than employees and have told me so, I’ve gotten lucky a few times by asking nicely.  The hotels in this area aren’t structured with big open lobbies with bathrooms; they are usually built in historic homes or apartment buildings with no available lobby facilities.  During off hours, you can catch a lucky break by going in a restaurant where a garzón isn’t paying attention, but most post signs at the door announcing that they do not have bathrooms available to the public.

I don’t mean to complain—it certainly won’t stop us from exploring.  But I do think Valparaíso would benefit from more public bathrooms.  They don’t need to be beautiful, they just need to be available.  In the cities of Amsterdam and London, I’ve paid a pretty Euro to pee in peace.  A quick search revealed that San Francisco and NYC share concern regarding public peeing, and over the past 10 years have minimized the problem by installing more public bathrooms in parks and plazas, and recently starting to use a special paint that will make the urine spray back at the pee-er.  Perhaps the notorious graffiti artists of Valpo could add that to their arsenal!

More often than not, I sit with my legs crossed on the bumpy 45 minute micro ride home to Viña del Mar, trying to focus on anything other than how good it will feel to enjoy the nice clean bathroom when we get home.

backstreets of valpo-1


Panadería: A bread bakery.  Bread is a staple of the Chilean diet; I’ve seen statistics claiming that Chileans eat an average of 86 kilos of bread per person per year.  That’s almost 200lbs!  Panaderías are easy to find because they are everywhere, but also because they smell so good baking popular marraketa, hullulla, and pan amasado.  In our home, Nanny Blanca has made delicious hallulla. She makes it about the size of my palm or smaller, and calls the Llama and me to try one with butter as soon as it comes out of the oven.  Heavenly.

Chinchineros: A uniquely Chilean percussionist and street performer.  A chinchinero performs an improvised dance with a bass drum on his back and a cymbal attached to a cord on his foot.  As he performs at stoplights and in plazas, the effect is cacophonous and chaotic.  The centripetal force of the huge drum on his back as his spins makes me worry that he’ll topple over backwards! It is impressive to see, simultaneously looks really fun and really hard to do.

Monedas: Referring to coins of Chilean pesos.

CLP $200 to $600:  About $.30 to $.90 in USD.  While this seems like very little money to me, I think asking for money only serves as a barrier to popular use of appointed facilities. It makes using the streets and sidewalks that much more attractive to those who are accustomed to doing so because #1 it’s more convenient and #2 it’s free. That amount of money is not contributing to the cleanliness or functioning of the toilet, apparently.  So either perhaps charge more to take care of the nice services to make them more appealing, or don’t charge so that everyone, including the drunks and homeless, use a bathroom instead of the street.  And now I’m getting off my soap-box.

Perros:  Dogs.  I have seen statistics claiming that there are between 25,000 and 100,000 stray dogs wandering in the city of Valparaíso.  Some of these dogs were bred and born on the street, but many of them are abandoned pets or “secret pets,” fed by locals but left to wander the streets.  The presence of the dogs, though initially intimidating, has grown on me.  The Llama and I sometimes find ourselves accompanied by one or two as we walk through the city, and they seem to seek human companionship.  They  aren’t starving or begging, as residents leave food and water outside of their homes, and there is plenty of trash to rifle through.  But there are two big issues that come along with so many stray dogs.  The first is that one never knows if a dog will decide to bite, so we make an effort to stay on opposite sides of the street when passing if possible.  The other issue that goes along well with the above post topic is dog feces.  It’s everywhere.  Between dog poop and human pee, it’s somewhat incredible that Valparaíso holds onto any charm.  But it definitely does.

Almacenes: See previous post (Escape to Bahia Laguna Verde).  An almacén is sort of like a convenience store.

Garzón: In Chile, a waiter.

Valpo: A short, affectionate name for Valparaíso

Micro: Meaning “microbus,” or an urban collective mode of transportation.  It’s taken me some time to realize, but there are some subtle differences between the names of buses here, based on size and function.  So while “la micro” is what we ride on a daily basis to get to downtown Viña del Mar or Valparaíso, there is a slightly larger version in Santiago referred to as a “liebre,” and the bus that we take between the coast and Santiago or all the way to Pucón overnight would be an “autobus.”

3 thoughts on “The 6th Sense in Valparaíso

    • thehighwayisgreen says:

      True!!! I can think of a few reasons that would make Valparaiso a difficult destination physically, this definitely being one of them. I’ll have to write more about the qualities I love about it very soon! xo


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