OYOP: Santiago, Chile
After a mere two hour bus ride from the beaches of Vina del Mar, we were in the bustling metropolis of Santiago, the capital of Chile and home of 7 million, over a third, of Chile’s inhabitants. For the first time in South America, we were travelling in a large, developed and modern city.
Santiago has similarities to many of the larger cities in the United States. It has no shortage of upscale restaurants, museums, skyscrapers, or parks, and it has an efficient public transportation system of metros and buses. I was quickly reminded that diving into the city life often means taking part in the pricey activities of tasting the cuisine, roaming the museums and experiencing the nightlife. It is much easier to indulge in these when you are employed and are not concerned about a year-long traveler’s budget. Even so, there are still ways to enjoy any city on the cheap, as long as you, at least some of the time, resist the omnipresent temptations to spend. Upon arriving in Santiago, we did just that, and after quickly finding our room, we put down our bags and headed out to the city center for a free walking tour. The Free Tour of Santiago was not quite as impressive as the other walking tours we had experienced so far. This tour didn’t include samples, music, or other entertainment and at four hours, it was a bit long. But having just arrived, it was still a helpful introduction to the city’s history and culture. We spent time in the center of the city, where the Plaza de Armas and La Moneda Palace, the presidential palace, are located. We also visited the beautiful Cerro Santa Lucia, a popular park and viewpoint of the cityscape. We moved on to the opera house, a couple museums, and Santiago’s most spacious, urban park, Parque Forestal. The highlights were walking through the beautiful Bellavista and Providencial neighborhoods, culturally rich with outdoor cafes, secondhand bookstores selling Spanish poetry and old classics, sidewalk tables selling art, handmade crafts, and antiques, and corner stands selling fresh juice. We finished the tour at one of the homes of the poet, Pablo Nerudo, where he kept his mistress in Santiago.
The next day, we walked down to the El Mercado Centro. We had seen so many near identical markets throughout South America in the past two months, but we walked in anyway and found that it was a different experience. This market was filled almost entirely with fish stalls, seafood restaurants, and a overwhelming smell of fish so strong you might forget you are in the middle of a city and not in the middle of the ocean. Dozens of locals were eating Sunday lunch at the market, but even though most other restuarants nearby were closed on Sundays, we couldn’t quite stomach lunch in the strong fish smell, and we grabbed empanadas down the street instead.
On Sunday night, we ventured out to experience the nightlife and watch the SuperBowl. With the help of our Free Tour guide, we settled on a pub showing the game in the Bellavista neighborhood, where the streets were lined with locals sitting in outdoor cafes, splitting liters of beer and smoking cigarettes. On nearly every street corner were local musicians and food trucks selling churros. For a Sunday night, it was quite lively. We found the two last seats at the bar of the pub just in time for the start of the game. The seats happened to be next to a local who was very drunk and chatty. We struggled to communicate however, a little bit because Chilean Spanish is difficult to understand, but mostly because slurred drunk Chilean Spanish is almost impossible to understand. After leaning in to try to comprehend his incoherent phrases and conceding to his requests to cheers every two minutes for over an hour, we were finally able to watch the game when he stumbled out. It turns out going to a bar to watch a sports game in any country is a pretty similar experience.
The next day, we ventured to one of Santiago’s main attractions, the statue of the Virgin Mary who rests hundreds of meters high overlooking the entire city. The statue is at the top of Cerro San Cristobal, a hill in a park that also houses a zoo, botanical gardens, and two public pools. Most people stood in the long line at the bottom of the hill to take the funicular ride and reach the top in only a few seconds. Instead, we decided to hike, an experience that I always find more gratifying. After 40 minutes hiking up, we reached the top and were rewarded with a towering view of Santiago’s endless skyscrapers and mountainous background. The view, however, is always slightly hazy from the city’s smog except immediately following rain. From some angles, the smog was a clearly visible browish smoke floating alongside the clouds. Below the statue were a church and an amphitheater used for religious purposes. We rested for a while at the top, then hiked down and walked to the General Cemetery of the city. The cemetery is one of the largest in South America and has over 2 million people buried in it. We only scratched the surface, but a walk around revealed a lovely space, beautifully shaded with large green trees.
With many vineyards in the Maipo Valley on the outskirts of Santiago, it is easy to escape the busy city life. We visited one of the oldest vineyards in the region, and the easiest to get to with public transportation, taking the metro to the end of the line, then a bus straight to the vineyard. The Concha Y Toro vineyard was started in the late 1800s, and it produces an internationally popular wine, the Casillero del Diablo. A tour of the vineyard includes a stroll around the property’s gardens and vines, where you can pick and taste many varieties of grapes, a tour of the cellars, and a tasting of three wines. It was a nice upscale experience, and we did our best to fit in despite our backpacker clothes as we swirled the wine in our glasses and used phrases like “that’s quite oaky” and “what a nice acidity.”
Undoubtedly, the most unexpected experience we had in Santiago was from the tremors we felt around 9:30pm on Tuesday night. We were sitting in the hotel room when everything shook for just a few seconds. A look out the window once the earth settled revealed that the rest of the city seemed to be carrying on as usual while a few lights in the building across the street still slightly swayed back and forth. The next morning, we found out we’d felt the tremors from a 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck 202 miles away from Santiago.
We decided to save some money in Santiago by using hotel points to book a room at our first hotel chain, a Hyatt, in a nice area of the city. It was luxurious with a king-sized bed, a pool, and most importantly, air conditioning. We are living like royalty for free to save money for Patagonia, where a one-person bed in a hostel dorm room with 4 or 6 beds costs more than a private room with a bathroom in the other cities we’ve visited. It will be difficult to go back to hostels after being so spoiled here, but we are just soaking up every drop of luxury while we can. This is our last stop in Chile. We will soon be in the next country, exploring the wine regions of Mendoza, Argentina.