“Lancha! Lancha!” (Boat! Boat!)
I already knew I wanted to take a boat tour of Valparaiso, Chile, which is why I was making my way towards the docks at Muelle Prat (Prat Pier). I’d barely set foot at the waterfront – I wasn’t anywhere close to the actual pier yet – when I was bombarded.
“Lancha, lancha!” … “Lancha, LANCHAAAA!!!”
“Okay,” I said to the first of dozens of men trying to fill his boat, “I’ll go with you.”
On the Orion II, none of my hosts – including the captain, two mates and tour guide – spoke English, and I hardly speak a lick of Spanish (damn you, high-school-self-who-slept-through-two-years-of-Spanish-class!). But that didn’t stop us from having a ton of fun in our attempts to communicate!
During the 30 minute ride (a steal at 3,000 Chilean pesos, or around $4.50 USD), none of which I understood, we were given the complete history of Valparaiso as we cruised along, passing cerro after cerro (hill after hill). Luckily, the walking tour I’d done a few days before was narrated in English, so I was able to follow along somewhat.
I’m sure if I’d taken the time at the dock to ask, at least one of the other boats would’ve offered the tour in English. But where’s the fun in that?! A tour that I didn’t understand is a much more fun story to tell!
In any case, I really just wanted to see the city from the water’s perspective after viewing it from atop the cerros on the walking tour. It was cool to look up at its’ many hills (about 45) and see the various ascensors that transport folks up and down. These outdoor lifts are essentially elevators on nerve-rackingly rickety tracks. Ride at least one while you’re there – it’s a unique experience.
As we launched, I looked back to see the city’s Plaza Sotomayor just across the street from the pier. Near the corner of the plaza sat two square buildings with modern glass façades. I couldn’t find much information on these buildings that stick out like sore thumbs, but a local told me they were built by a South American shipping company a couple decades ago. They look completely out of place in a historic district who’s architecture dates back to the late 1800s (much of it, anyway).
During that time, the Port of Valparaiso was a primary stopover point for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Straits of Magellan. Since it’s importance as a major shipping port decreased significantly after the Panama Canal was constructed, the historic structures didn’t undergo the typical updating you’d expect over time in a bustling port city. So (most of) Valparaiso’s historic architecture remains as it looked in the late 19th century.
That is, until these all-glass-sided buildings went up (and a couple other, more modest ones). They were actually the inspiration behind Valparaiso’s request to become a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) world heritage site. The designation would mean that no more modern architecture could be built in the area, therefore preserving the feel of the local square and neighborhood. The city was granted the designation in 2003.
As we rode along, our guide discussed the history behind some of the more well-known cerros and ascensors, such as Cerro Concepcion. We spent a lot of time exploring this neighborhood, and all it’s kick-ass street art, on our walking tour. This hill is home to Ascensor Concepcion, the first ascensor in the city, built in 1883.
Although most of what was said went right over my head, there was one part that I understood. It was when the guide started talking about the 3,000 Americans who would be arriving the next day on the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (my husband being one of them), and how excited the locals were to take their money!
I guess it was pretty obvious that I had someone on the carrier, considering I perked up when he started talking about it. All four of my hosts noticed, and didn’t miss a beat giving me plenty of winks and thumbs-ups!
About halfway through the tour, we came upon a family of South American sea lions (Otaria, for my fellow biologists out there), soaking up some sun on a buoy. These boat tours apparently don’t phase them, as they didn’t move a muscle when we approached, or even when our boat tapped the buoy they were perched on (not cool, captain)! I swear, they just look at us and rolled their eyes like a couple bored teenagers.
I can’t decide if I was lucky, or if the crew was just highly amused by me, but near the end of the tour I even got to drive the boat for a minute! I ‘d asked for a photo, and they didn’t just oblige, they went all out, posing with me while I was at the helm (unfortunately, the pics were lost during a cloud-upload glitch… DAMMIT!). Thanks anyway, gentlemen, glad I was good for a laugh…
If you go
There’s not exactly a website for these tours. Sotomayor Plaza is across the street from Muelle Prat and a taxi will drop you right there, as will the bus (though we didn’t use public transit, so I can’t speak to it). We had a car rental, and used the public parking deck just adjacent to the plaza (you’ll see cars parked in the plaza, but don’t do it or you’ll get ticketed!).
Don’t worry about having to seek out the tour. Once you enter the waterfront area, you will be approached by several guides. “Lancha, lancha!” is all you need to listen for. Enjoy!