In the world of study-abroad programs, Valparaíso is rarely the first place on a student’s wish list.
The Chilean port town is home to some of the most rapid and distinctive Spanish speakers in a country known for its difficult-to-learn dialect. The slang-filled Chilean vernacular varies so drastically from that of other Latin American countries that even native Spanish speakers struggle to understand Chilenos. Among non-native speakers, even those who would consider Chile for a language program would typically choose the capital of Santiago. But Valparaíso’s off-the-radar status—and its distinction from any other city in Chile—is exactly what made it the perfect choice for my summer abroad.
My adventure began last July in the Santiago airport, where I started to have real second thoughts about studying abroad at the age of 15. It was my first time traveling solo, and I was thousands of miles from my home in Los Angeles. All I wanted to do was go back. Despite my mounting fears, I walked toward a group of four teenagers wearing the same bright blue CIEE High School Study Abroad T-shirts I was wearing and introduced myself. Without hesitation, the students welcomed me warmly—and erased my worries instantly. As the remaining 21 students arrived, I grew more and more excited at the idea of spending a month in a foreign city with people my age.
Arriving in Valparaíso, which would be my home for the next four weeks, I was immediately struck by how different it was from any other place I’d been. I’ve traveled quite a bit for my age, but had never seen such a colorful contrast between city and sea. Homes painted in countless vibrant shades line the rolling hills, which seem to spill into the shimmering Pacific. In the heart of the historic city, immense and spectacular works of graffiti fill the sides of almost every building. But this is not the stereotypical graffiti; it is a unique art form depicting an endless range of scenes and perspectives. Famed artists flock to Valpo to mark their territory with bright and lively illustrations, using the entire city as their canvas.
Despite the many hills in Valparaíso, it is quite easy to get around. I traveled by public bus much of the time, but as a group we also took advantage of Valpo’s numerous ascensores, or funiculars, which are scattered throughout the city and date back to the late 1800s. Our first of many rides was up the rickety tracks of Ascensor Reina Victoria, where the century-old cars climb tracks that appear nothing short of vertical. The first jolt sent us lurching upward on a bumpy ride filled with screams and shouts from our excitedly-frightened group. In addition to thrills, the short trip up the tracks provided a spectacular view of the city as the sun set slowly over the horizon and glistened on the water.
During my time in Valpo, I lived in an old, unsophisticated house on Cerro Esperanza—one of the less-visited hills—with my host mother, María, and her daughter, Fran. Every day I took a “micro” bus to and from our school, which was in the heart of town, sitting next to locals who were rushing to get to work or school with briefcases and backpacks in tow. It made me realize that, as different as Valpo appeared to me as an American, the people here were just like people back home—trying to make a living, get an education, and simply get by in life.
Of all the people I met on the trip, María had the greatest impact on me. She was the first—but certainly not the only—person who really made me feel comfortable in Valpo. Upon meeting her, she held out her arms with a smile and hugged me tightly. She immediately treated me like a daughter, which helped me settle in and feel at home.
Throughout the weeks that I lived with María, she introduced me to many sides of Chile and its culture. She cooked typical Chilean meals for me, and even took me on little excursions outside of Valparaíso. In the house we spoke Spanish—pure Spanish—and I got off to a rather rocky start. Even something as simple as asking to turn on the hot water so I could take a shower would end up with me struggling to find the right words, eventually waving my hands in the air saying, “Necesito calor!” I was determined, however, to build my skills and develop a better sense for the language. And through my CIEE immersion classes—and with María’s assistance and patience—I was able to hold real conversations with her within a couple weeks of arriving.
María’s warmth and patience were common traits in Valparaíso. Much like their colorful hillside homes, the people of Valpo are jubilant and welcoming. Even in a country notorious for its rapid speech and localized lingo—and in a city where very few people speak English—my limited Spanish skills were accepted respectfully. People I met were simply pleased by my effort to communicate with them in their language—and proud that I had chosen to spend time in their beautiful home city of Valparaíso.
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