48 hours in Santiago

22 Jun

Before we reached Santiago many other travellers and even some residents had warned us that Chile’s capital, can feel a little drab, unexciting and lacking of a cultural identity in comparison to its Latin American counterparts such as architecturally impressive Buenos Aires, height defying La Paz or naturally beautiful Rio De Janeiro. However, we thought we’d see the city for ourselves and we’re really pleased we did as we discovered a safe, clean, quirky and very friendly city. We had just over 2 days to immerse ourselves in Santiago life and this is how we did it.

Day 1

9.00am

We stayed in the very central Hostal Forrestal (ahh, the joy of having a double bed after camping) and enjoyed a rare buffet breakfast included each morning. In general throughout Chile breakfast isn’t a grand affair with tea or instant coffee and rolls, butter and jam. However, at this particular hostal the Chilean lady in charge of making the most important meal of the day took it upon herself to scramble eggs and bake cakes for hordes of hungry backpackers. Needless to say, we lingered a while over breakfast.

10.30am

Our first stop of the day was Cerro Santa Lucia, a centrally located hill 630 metres high with a castle-like monument at the top.

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From a beautiful fountain, a staircase led upwards to the firtress.

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We had views of the city in every direction and enjoyed the relative peace and quiet above the traffic chaos.

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The city dates from 1541 and some historical buildings remain, but the city centre is overwhelmingly modern and business-like in its appearance. There are many 1960’s and 70’s buildings with a functional but unattractive look about them and the facades, which once were white, are now grey and crumbly.

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The city’s numerous districts and suburbs stretch out into the distance finishing at the Andean mountains which circle the city but the range is usually very hard to make out due to a thick layer of smog that hangs over the metropolis.

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To quench our thirst we stopped at a small kiosk in the Japanese gardens at Cerro Santa Lucia and bought a popular traditional Santiago drink – ‘Mote con huesillo’. Our server placed a layer of barley kernels in the bottom of our plastic cup and then added whole rehydrated peaches and peach juice. We were given a straw with a spoon at the end so we could first slurp the juice and then scoop out the barley.

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We sat in a beautiful tiled seating area and looked puzzled at each other as we sampled the Mote which had flavour and texture combinations we’d never tried before – the liquid was extremely sweet and syrupy and the kernels, which had soaked up some of the juice, were soft but still needed to be chewed. Not an unpleasant experience and certainly refreshing on a warm day.

11.30am

We happened to be in the city on a day when a 10km run was taking place so we spent 30 minutes cheering on the runners and enjoying the upbeat and energetic atmosphere.

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We found the city’s population to be very active in general with runners, cyclists and roller-bladers enjoying the many parks and green spaces.

12.00pm

We visited Plaza de Armas which is Santiago’s oldest and main square dating from 1540 when the city was founded, and admired the grand, colonial-looking buildings surrounding the neatly trimmed grassy areas and the palm trees stretching to the sky.

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In one corner stood a small pavilion which was home to a group of men playing chess whilst others gathered around quietly watching and anticipating the next move. Vendors sold ice creams, candy floss and hot caramelised peanuts (which all smelt divine) and hundreds of pigeons squawked and hunted for any crumbs picnicking families may leave behind. Kids kicked footballs around and a number of friendly stray dogs slept in sunny spots or wandered around looking for a scratch behind the ear. If you like people watching, then this is the spot for you.

1.00pm

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Mercado Central (central market) is a dazzling fish market where rows of stalls sell a beautiful bounty of fresh fish and traders compete for your attention.

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Set around the market are small family run restaurants serving up mouth-watering dishes and the rule of thumb is the closer to the centre of the market you are, the more expensive and, some would say, more touristy the restaurant.

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We picked one of the smaller restaurants on the edge of the market where we spotted several locals eating and indulged in spicy prawns served in a sizzling dish with garlic and spices, a mixed salad, chips and crusty bread on the side.

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As you can tell by the big grin, it was delicious!

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2.30pm

West of the city across the Huerfanos footbridge is an interesting, up and coming area called Barrio Brasil.

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In contrast to the city centre, this barrio is very bohemian with brightly painted mansions, art deco churches, funky street art, boutique hotels and designer restaurants.

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Plaza Brasil is a focal point for locals and holidaymakers. Around the plaza cafes spill out onto the pavement alive with family lunches and buzzing bars serve cocktails and shisha pipes to an eclectic mixture of locals and tourists. Attractive graffitti enhances the already bright walls in the barrio and even the central children’s playground has a creative edge.

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3.30pm

The museum of Memory and Human Rights on the Western edge of Barrio Brasil is one of Santiago’s newest museums and a space dedicated to the years of terror of the Pinochet dictatorship under military rule between 1973 and 1990. The museum houses videos, photographs and press clips testifying to the years of repression and violence. museum

It’s incredible to learn about Chile’s very recent history and important to commemorate the thousands of people who were killed or simply disappeared opposing the regime.

5.00pm

On the way back to our hostal we stopped by Palacio de la Moneda which was the sight of a historically significant coup in 1973 where the former president Salvador Allende died when the palace was bombed.

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The doors to the palace were closed for many years and only re-opened to the public in 2000. Visits to the palace need to be booked in advance but we admired the colonial elegance and the guards from the outside wondering what those walls could tell us if only they could talk.

6.00pm

We bought a good bottle of Chilean red wine for a pre-dinner tipple and headed back to the hostel lounge to drink it. Chile produces over 700 million litres of wine per year and exports it all over the world. A simple but tasty bottle can cost as little as 2,000 Chilean pesos (4 USD) and the variety on offer is huge. We picked a red Carmenere which is a delicious grape unique to Chile. Originally brought over from Europe, the grape flourished in Chile’s warm climate but was later wiped out in Europe due to a phylloxera plague. We thought as we drank whether we’d be able to wipe out Chile’s supply single-handedly!!

8.00pm

Britain’s number 1 food is the curry and Dan and I are enthusiastic contributors to this statistic. After two months of travelling in Chile and Argentina we really missed some nicely spiced and hot food so we found a family run restaurant called New Horizon on Merced, just a few streets away from where we were staying, serving Southern Indian and Goan food.

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The dishes were mild in heat but had great flavours and we cleared our plates. On the way back home we stopped at a small Turkish cafe and bought two pieces of Baklava to have with a cup of coffee before turning in for the night.

Day 2

9.30am

After another satisfying breakfast we headed out to San Cristobal Hill for great views of the city from 870 metres.

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We took joined the back of a 15 minute queue and took the old fashioned Funicular from Plaza Caupolican which grinds and bumps its way to the top.

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We were welcomed to the summit by a giant statue of the Virgin Mary who looks out over the city and protects its residents from harm.

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She certainly is one lucky lady with that city-scape to feast her eyes on!

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At the summit we also found Metropolitano Park which is the inner city’s largest open green space. We joined many Chileans enjoying the fresh air and exercise and took our time to experience the sights on offer.

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Several companies were renting bikes at the summit so dare devils could get a fix and feel the wind in their hair as they hurtled down windy roads which could have been made for them. We took a casual stroll down the track which led back to the city.

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12.30pm

After walking for several hours we were in need of an early lunch and stopped by a small street stall for Completos – cheap and delicious hot dogs smothered in chopped tomatoes, avocado and mayonnaise. They were so tasty that after we’d devoured the first two, we ordered two more!

1.30pm

Pop up galleries and exhibitions are common in Santiago so it’s a good idea to check the listings for the week ahead. We were lucky enough to stumble across a New York Times photography exhibition at Santiago’s Catholic University. The exhibition included 126 works printed by the New York times magazine under the quarter-century long tenure of photo editor Kathy Ryan, and featured artists such as Lynsey Addario, Gregory Crewdson, Mitch Epstein, Nan Goldin, Annie Libovitz, Mary Ellen Mark and Steve McCurry.

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The exhibition contained beautiful and thought-provoking pictures of significant and world-changing events from the last 25 years – The World Trade Centre attack on 9/11, workers battling to cap Kuwait oil wells following the first Iraq war and American soldiers and local children living in Afghanistan to name a few. The photographs also had materials such as personal correspondence, emails, tear sheets and the original magazine articles with them to help the viewer better understand the context of the photograph.

3.00pm

The pedestrianised shopping streets of Santiago are a great place to spend some time browsing grand department stores, funky clothes outlets and music shops selling old vinyl LP’s. For us, after 2 months of travelling in rural Patagonia, it was a great opportunity to stock up on toiletries and treat ourselves to some new clothes to replace the scruffy ones which we’d worn day after day.

The city centre’s commercial streets hummed with suited businessmen falling out of board room meetings and heading out to central ‘cafes con piernas’ (cafes with legs!) where the female waitresses wear extremely short skirts (and sometimes low-cut tops) to ease the stress of a busy day and to compensate for a culture dominated by strict Catholicism.

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5.00pm

We headed back to our hostal via Avenue O’Higgins and stopped at a local cafe for some dinner. We ordered a Chilean speciality called Chorrillana to share which is a huge plate filled with chips, cheese, grilled onions, grilled peppers, steak, an egg and tonnes of mayonnaise! Enough to stop even the strongest of hearts! Our waiter could barely carry the dish and we couldn’t see his face as he approached the table as the mound of food was piled so high.

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We left feeling very full and with the top buttons of our trousers undone! If only we could be those skinny travellers everyone told us we were going to become…but our love for good food and drink will never allow that!

We wanted a drink before heading back to the hostal so we headed to a central area called Bellavista – a vibrant and trendy area where the young, pretty things come out to play. Holding neither of those qualities we didn’t really qualify for a night out here but we thought a couple of beers would go down well. There is an excellent choice of restaurants here serving modern twists on Chilean classics and European fare, along with lively bars where you can drink and dance into the wee small hours. Wherever we go in the world, no matter how small or remote the town, there is usually a decent Irish bar just around the corner and we opted for ‘Dublin Irish Bar’ to enjoy a cold lager, a few tunes and some good craic!

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Our 48 hours in Santiago were drawing to a close and we were tinged with sadness to be leaving the fine city. Santiago probably wouldn’t win any prizes if pitted against some alternative Latin American hotspots but we had really enjoyed our short stay in this modern, nature loving, warm, cultured and livable city.

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