Anyone searching the coastal Chilean town of Valparaiso on the net will be greeted with pictures of sweeping hillside vistas filled with a patchwork of multicoloured houses leading out to a Pacific ocean sunset. It is hard not to become a little bit enchanted by these idealistic images. I have to admit that, while winding down the valley roads on our bus from Santiago, I was picturing holidaying in the Almafi coast of South America. And while I have never been to Almafi, I can reassure you that Valparaiso is an entirely different beast.
Arriving at the Valparaiso bus station we felt very exposed. Gone were the tourist-friendly spaces of Buenos Aires and Santiago. This was the true Latin America, and it hit us hard. The streets were dirty and locals looked more likely to mug you than to assist you with directions. Fortunately, we did have one local we hoped we could rely on, as we had organised two weeks of volunteer work while in Valparaiso with Grant and Camilla at Winebox.
We were greeted by Grant at his hillside home after getting a first-hand taste of how steep the streets of Valparaiso were on our cab ride there. Grant, a winemaker and New Zealand expat who has called Chile home for 17 years, did not exactly allay our fears. “Welcome to the pick-pocketing capital of Chile” he said wryly. “I would not walk up any of the staircases after dark” he continued. “The locals use them as places to drink and you wouldn’t be our first volunteer to be mugged.” Good to see that our intuition was on point. We were then run through a long list of house rules, it quickly became clear that Grant was a veteran and had been through both and the best and the worst of putting up volunteers in his house. Grant had a number of Australian specific clauses that our previous countrymen visitors had been responsible for (mostly involving public urination and nudity) but despite this, we hit it off pretty well with Grant. We were introduced to the other volunteers, 10 in total at the start of our stay, and taken down to Winebox where we would be both working and staying.
It was with a fair amount of trepidation that we turned up for work the next day. To be honest the work was hard and continued to be hard for our two weeks. I became proficient at carrying bags of cement and boxes of tiles up 5 stores of steps, sanding, painting, shoveling gravel and cleaning rooms, while Cass worked with Grant and Camilla on Winebox’s website. This sounds like a much better deal, but to be honest we had both left Australia to leave behind the frustrations of our occupations for 7 months. Cass was glad to be on painting and cleaning duty the second week. At this point, you are probably thinking that we are less than likely to recommend a trip to Valparaiso and volunteering at WineBox to any fellow travelers. But luckily life is not always about first impressions, Valparaiso turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip so far.
The concept of WineBox is what really attracted us to participate in this project. After seeing how Christchurch’s government helped rebuild parts of the city after the 2011 earthquake with shipping containers, Grant was inspired and started to develop WineBox – a 5 story hotel, wine bar and shop made from shipping containers. Camila was the architect on the project and they set about the less-than-straightforward process of building in Chile. They chose the neighbourhood of Mariposa for the hotel. This was a neighbourhood that had no tourist infrastructure before the hotel and Grant really wanted to help develop the area he called home.
When we arrived the project was several years old and running way over time and budget. There seemed to be an endless amount of bureaucratic hoops to jump through (if you think dealing with council regulations are bad in Australia, it is a whole new level in Chile). Chilean workers were less productive given the nearing end of construction (as they are paid by the hour) and Grant and Camilla were engaged in a fine balancing act of opening the hotel each weekend, while volunteers worked throughout to finish the seemingly endless list of jobs that needed to be done. Seems like a mess? I doubt anyone involved with the project would disagree. You always felt surprised at the end of each day that everyone had managed to complete what was needed to keep the project running.
All this aside you couldn’t help but LIKE the project. I have to admit we became attached to the hotel in the short two weeks we were there. WineBox stood above everything around it, locals would frequently stand on the footpath and oogle at the sheer scope of it. The thought and creativity put in by Grant and Camilla was apparent as the Winebox was starting to take shape. Oh, and the view from the top roof was to die for – uninterrupted 360-degree views.
The other thing that really made this an unforgettable experience was the other volunteers. There is a fairly pessimistic side of me that reasons if you are placed into a group of 10 strangers, you may get on with 1 or 2 of them. But the WineBox team was a different matter. I think everyone just knew that banding together was the best option for survival. The travel stories alone were amazing. Quick shout out to Adam from New Zealand who was riding from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina (check out this lunatic and genuinely nice guy at http://www.adamglovercycling.com). We also established one of the best rotating dinner rosters I will probably ever be a part of with people creating the most amazing of dishes from the fairly basic ingredients.
Other highlights of Winebox included a crash course in distilling, wine tasting with some top winos, meeting the mayor of Valparaiso (admittedly in passing as we cleaned a room for his meeting with Grant), partying at the launch for Trakal (it is seriously good stuff! http://trakal.com), group BBQs around the fire pit on Sunday nights and enjoying Chilean wines while taking in that million dollar view from the roof.
In between all this, we did manage to wander the more touristy side of Valparaiso in the Concepción neighborhood. Some of the best street art and definitely the best pizza of the trip so far was found here along with stunning colonial buildings.
Valparaiso may be not what google images had us believe, but the reality was something I preferred to the clean-cut internet version. Valparaiso can be dangerous dirty and smelly, but when do you ever get anything good without some bad as well? The counterpoint between this and the beauty of those coastal sunsets over the hills of Valparaiso made this a highlight of the trip. We definitely will return, although next time we may splash out to stay at Winebox rather than work.