Santiago is a sprawling city of frenetic boroughs of grungy buildings extending to one side of the historical center and of gated mansion suburbs meandering out from a financial district of modern highrises on the other side. Hectic sidewalks connect tranquil parks. Tree-lined streets of luxury boutiques parallel massive shopping malls. Readily available fast food attracts those who don’t have time for four course lunches.
The frenzy of the city sits in a basin valleyed between Andes foothills, split in two by the contaminated Mapocho River that gushes ugly brown water through the middle of the city.
The bus ride to the Argentina-Chile border from Mendoza was a few hours of calm cruising through a whirl of imposing mountains. After an exasperating three-hour wait at the border, I was ready for more of the same smooth ride. Instead, five minutes into Chile, the bus began teetering down a road of twenty hairpin curves to the base of the mountains. (Admittedly, “teetering” might be a bit of an exaggeration.)
Our driver had apparently made the trip before and expertly maneuvered the bus around the tight corners, although the shrieks from half of the passengers as we 180’d past each turn didn’t help my confidence.
I think I have had more scary bus rides since I began this world trip than I knew existed in this world.
After getting settled into the city, I decided to explore Santiago from past to present, starting with the historical sights and ending with the modern day haunts.
What better place is there to start a historical tour of a city than at the very place where its founding ceremony was held? Pedro de Valdivia, a Spanish conquistador, officially founded Santiago in 1541 with a celebration on the top of a hill in the middle of the city.
Today, the hill is called Cerro Santa Lucía and is a rise of meticulously maintained landscaping, gardens of flowers, benches canopied by thick trees, and stone steps weaving up to a castle-like hilltop fort. From the viewpoint at the top of the brick fort, I could see the entire sprawl of Santiago, medium-tall skyscrapers fading into suburbs and the cloud-capped mountains obscuring any onward view.
I got lost for a while wandering around the paths and up and down the curving steps before making my way back to the bottom and continuing to the heart of old Santiago.
Despite being such an old city, Santiago’s buildings are fairly new, mainly because the city is a major earthquake hub and because the city saw a surge in urban development after Chile declared independence from Spain in 1817.
The city’s principal historical buildings center around Plaza de Armas, which remains Santiago’s main plaza today. In colonial Santiago, this was the place where residents would congregate and receive defensive arms in the event of an attack on the city. The facades of the neoclassical Catedral built in the late 1700s and colonial government buildings, including the city’s main post office and city hall, both of which were rebuilt in the late 1800s, and the old Supreme Court building built in the first decade of the 1800s, which is now a museum, look onto the square.
The plaza today is a melange of young couples intertwined on benches, locals circling around a man preaching from a loudspeaker, artists selling the endowment of their talent, musicians performing for subsistence, and tourists eagerly following their tour guides around the perimeter of the plaza, earnestly asking questions about each of the historical monuments.
Next it was time for a more modern experience of the city. I took advantage of my hostel’s prime location in the middle of the bohemia of Bellavista and aimlessly walked the streets of hip bars, vogue art galleries, and artistically painted houses, dodging the crowds of university students hanging out near their school despite it being mid-summer and half enjoying the stale stench of beer permeating from underneath the closed doors of the discotecas. (What can I say, the smell always brings with it nostalgic memories of college.)
Just a few blocks from Bellavista is Lastarria, another bohemian quarter of avant-garde art galleries, trendy design studios, and artistic residents. My rumbling stomach demanded lunch as soon as I started walking down the neighborhood’s main street of outdoor cafes, so I sat down at a tree-shaded table on the outdoor patio of an inviting restaurant. The waiter proceeded to recite the menu por día, of which I understood about half. I thought it would be fun to be surprised. (Truthfully, he had me at “appetizer of pisco sour.”)
For 6,000 pesos (that’s about $12 – things are surprisingly expensive in Chile), I savored my pisco sour, Chilean style (don’t ask me what the difference is from a Peruvian one, but apparently there is one), followed by an unlimited salad bar, some sort of white fish, and grilled tomato filled with quinoa, washed down with red wine and finished with watermelon sorbet covered in cucumber sauce and an espresso.
I was pretty glad I didn’t succumb to one of the countless fast food places pervading the city.
My next mission in Santiago was to climb to the top of Cerro San Cristóbal, the second tallest hill of the curiously few hills in the city. Being so close to the Andes, Santiago seems unusually flat.
I ascended the hill via a road that spirals around the hill’s circumference. It was only after I reached the top, sweaty and breathless, that I saw the “shortcut” hike for pedestrians. Well, at least I burned off some extra calories from my four course lunch.
Almost 1000 feet above the city, the top of the hill flaunts a huge white statue of the Virgen Mary that is visible from any part of the city that has views of the hilltop. From next to Mary practically the entire province of Santiago can be seen, a view stretching way beyond my quite extensive city map.
I finished my exploration of Santiago with the modern day pasttime of many, many Santiaguinos. Shopping! If there is one thing that this city does right, it’s shopping.
Providencia, an arterial connecting the city center to the financial district, is a long stretch of mainstream shops and cafes. Circumventing the teeming sidewalks of Providencia, past the financial district, through affluent park-like suburbs of highrise condos, to the Parque Arauco mall I went.
A mall of outdoor courtyards framed by palm trees and an indoor compound complete with all of the mall staples: department stores, chain stores and restaurants, a food court of fast food, a movie theater, and of course, Starbucks.
It was like home away from home. I reassured myself that it was an authentic travel experience because there were so many locals overflowing the place.
A short walk from the mall is Alonso de Córdova, the city’s high-class shopping street. A long, quiet street with wide sidewalks and trees, it could be mistaken for a residential neighborhood except instead of homes, its house-like structures contain exclusive luxury boutiques and fashion labels like Hermès, Armani, Louis Vuitton. I contented myself with strolling the street and looking into the windows from afar.
To make sure I was getting the full Santiago mall experience, I also paid a visit to the city’s other major mall, Alto Las Condes. Just like its counterpart, it fulfilled all of my mall expectations.
And now, on to my next Chilean destination, the coastal town of Viña del Mar!