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"We are not hippies / we are happies" proclaims Valpo's most-Instagrammed graffito.

And yet... in the madcap, hyper-coloured lanes that swoop up and down the steep little hills above this libertarian port, you're seldom out of earshot of a strumming guitar, or more than a couple of doorways from an "artist" with a gallery in their front room. Or a home-owner who went wild with the weathershield paint. 

"No wall unpainted!" must be the rallying-cry for Valparaiso's graffiti artists. Terrace house-frontages, back alleys, stairways and cable-cars all bloom bright murals, political portraits and fantastical landscapes. 

It's so pretty, it's got UNESCO World Heritage listing. 

Weekend getaway

Valparaiso is Santiago's coastal playground: an easy hour and half northwest of the capital by comfortable scheduled coaches that leave every quarter-hour from Santiago's downtown (no need for advance bookings).  

The short journey takes you out of the treeless central plain and the vineyards surrounding Santiago, through the edges of a national park, and the coastal mountain range down to the port that was the "Jewel of the Pacific" during its 19th century heyday.

Cafes and container ships

Come for a night or two of sea breezes, cafes and trippy-dippy vibe. But be warned: this is a busy working port. There's no beach, or kids fishing off the end of a jetty with a bent pin. But the cakes are more-ish, and the ice creams amazing. 

One of the loveliest places to stay is the Casa Higueras boutique hotel, in a sympathetically-converted 1920s mansion-house on Cerro Alegre. Its terrace pool more than makes up for the lack of city beach. 

Hillside strolling

There are walking-tours aplenty around the hills of Alegre and Concepcion above the businesslike downtown, but you don't really need a guide to enjoy the streetscapes of this "Little San Francisco." 

An easy downhill amble from Casa Higueras, or a ride in the Ascensor Concepcion cable car up from the main street of the port below, you'll find Cafe Turri where you can enjoy an elegant, sunny lunch on the terrace (The gorgeous seafood lasagne with squid ink will stop your afternoon in its tracks.) 

Buy a classic satchel or briefcase, or a soft leather wrist-bag, from the artisan workshop on nearby Galvez. Or if you're feeling more energetic (or you have children to entertain), wander down to Plaza Sotomayor and hop on the next boat to take you on a trip around the bay (sunbathing sea lions and a great view of the port). 

Poetic house museum

But for culture, a wander round La Sebastiana, one of Pablo Neruda's homes from the 1960s to 70s, is not to be missed. Chile's poet-diplomat spent three years completing the building of this modest house on Florida hill (in a life packed with drama and political intrigue, he said that his collaborations with builders were amongst the most satisfying). 

Wrap-around windows and a study tower give panoramic views down over the town, and the informal house-museum is stuffed with Neruda's pictures, furniture and evocative personal belongings (yes, that is a fairground carousel horse). 

The definitive champagne-communist, Neruda was a noted host who mixed his own punch in the extraordinary cow-shaped china tureen displayed on a table. He was an avid collector and browser of sale-rooms; his bargaining advice: profess to be very weary. 

Go early in the day to avoid congestion in these modest rooms. And then it will be time for more ice cream. 

Jennifer Stevenson 30/04/16  

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