Santiago: The Capital Of Laid-Back Life
Though Chile is known for its laid-back attitude, it doesn’t take long for one to discover its vibrant culture.
By Matt Stabile
Let’s just say I was already feeling a little light-headed before I found myself thousands of feet in the air, looking out over the Andes Mountains. Buenos Aires is not exactly known as a sleeper-friendly city, and the last five days for me there were no exception. So by the time I got to the Airport for my 5:45 flight to Santiago, Chile — after only heading to bed a few hours before — my head already felt like I had been aloft for several hours.
I was initially going to spend my entire trip in Argentina, but after finding out that my friend’s brother was living and teaching English in Santiago, I decided that I might as well try to see as much as I could in the time I had in South America. There are plenty of daily flights between the two capitals but no discount airlines operating in either of those countries, so I booked a ticket through the large Chilean airliner LAN for US$250.
On a bus ride back from San Antonio de Areco to Buenos Aires I met a trio of girls from Colorado who’d been backpacking around the continent for the last three months. The girl sitting next to me began showing me pictures on her camera and we came across some incredible shots of the Andes from her flight to Argentina. I told her I was flying out the next day and she recommended getting a window seat to get the best view. So the next day on my early-morning flight when the stewardesses disappeared behind the first-class curtain before takeoff, I sneaked into an empty window seat in the bulkhead aisle and promptly leaned my head against the window and shut my eyes, avoiding any impression of impropriety.
About an hour-and-a-half into the two-hour flight, the pilot announced that we were directly above the town of Mendoza and that we’d soon be flying over the foothills of the Andes. A few minutes later I looked out the window and I could see the gently sloping hillsides suddenly angling upwards, jutting towards the sky and revealing the precipitously angled edges and snow-capped peaks that make up this incredible mountain range; one of the most amazing sights I’d ever seen, and I grew up in Colorado.
Twenty minutes later we left the Andes behind and descended into the large, arid valley that Santiago calls home. The city itself is located 1,700 feet above sea level, and with five-and-a-half million residents it’s home to more than a third of the country’s population. From what I’d been hearing about the city while I was in Argentina, Santiago’s vibe is noticeably more laid-back than Buenos Aires but there’s still plenty to do if you know where to look.
We landed and I hopped on a bus heading near downtown. I took a seat near the back and I realized that I had no idea where I’d be spending the night.I took out the fold-out map that I’d found inside the airport and saw an ad for the Andes Hostel: a newly built hostel that was located in the center of downtown. After the bus dropped me off I took the subway downtown and walked a few blocks to the hostel. (The exchange was 475 Pesos to the Dollar, and the subway fare is about 420 pesos during non-rush hour times).
The hostel was located in a six-story building, with rooms on the top five floors, a lounge/lobby on the main floor, and a basement kitchen where a complimentary breakfast is served daily. I was given a bed in a room with three bunk beds for $8,000 pesos (or US$15). As the ad said, the hostel and its furnishings were brand new, making it one of the best deals in the city. The one thing they didn’t have was a lending library — only a small stack of books on a coffee table — so to help them out I left a copy of the “Lets Go” that I’d taken from my last hostel.
It was only noon when I got there, so I took a walk to get a feel for the area. I headed ten minutes west on Monjitas into the business section of Santiago where, several years ago, the city redesigned the entire district, eliminating all car traffic and making it the most pedestrian-friendly city-centers in the world.
At the symbolic center of the city is the plaza, Plaza de Armas, where there’s the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago, the Museo Historico Nacional, as well as hundreds of city dwellers out-and-about, enjoying the weather, having lunch, and listening to one of the many street performers that call the square home. I went into the historic cathedral where the noise and bustle of the city is immediately whisked away and absorbed by the solemnity of the church environment. Dating back to 1748, the cathedral’s ceiling was painted to resemble the frescoes of European cathedrals, and the numerous chapels located within the church are home to an impressive array of artwork ranging from sculptures to full-size portraitures.
After the cathedral I walked south to a second square, Plaza de la Constitucion, to see the Palacio de La Moneda, or “Mint Palace,” home of the President’s offices and his Cabinet. As I approached the plaza I began to hear a loud roar, and when I got close I saw the source of the noise: today marked the first day of a strike by the state museum workers. In the square there were several thousand protestors chanting and yelling towards the government buildings. Naturally I joined the masses for a bit, but the afternoon heat was getting to me, so I doubled back to the hostel and fell asleep for a few hours while Chile’s fledgling democracy continued on into the day.
That night I met up with my friend’s brother who was with his cousin and girlfriend and we drove to her friend’s house and watched Chile get beaten by Ecuador in football on a T.V. set up in her backyard patio. (Apparently the Chilean football team has been less than spectacular the last few years.)
The next morning I took a short taxi ride into Barrio Bellavista, the eclectic, exuberant neighborhood just north of downtown that’s the center of Santiago’s nightlife. It’s also the home of the city’s historic bohemian culture, and where you’ll find one of the houses of the Chilean icon, Pablo Neruda.
Neruda, the nobel-prize winning poet who, at the height of his fame, was forced to flee Chile due to his leftist political leanings, is revered hroughout the country both for his timeless poetry as well as for his political accomplishments. (He was elected as a Senator in 1945 before being exiled, and in 1970 he was nominated as a candidate for the Presidency which he gave up to support Salvador Allende.) His house in Santiago, La Chascona, is one of three houses he owned, and is actually a complex of small buildings nestled in the hills of Barrio Bellavista. Each building shares a nautical theme, complete with porthole shaped windows and crooked floorboards to simulate a ship’s deck. Neruda was known for his playfulness and this is exemplified in each house by his vast collection of trinkets and eccentric artwork.
After La Chascona I got on the subway and headed an hour south out of the city and into the Maipo Valley to visit Chile’s most famous and largest wine producer: Concha Y Toro. Far from the bustle of downtown, the Maipo Valley’s land is fertile and the climate is temperate, making it an ideal place to grow high-quality grapes. Concha Y Toro beganas a family affair in the 1800’s, and as the winery grew and made the family rich, they built an amazing mansion overlooking the well-tended grounds, viewable during daily tours. (Reservations are required so call ahead if you want to visit.) For many winery tours, the requisite walk around the grounds is usually a pretext for heading to the bar, but here you’re taken to both the grounds as well as inside and down under the winery into the basement where they store their most famous wine: El Diablo (a name derived from a ghost story concocted to keep the workers from heading into the dark recesses of the building to steal bottles).
My friend and I hung around the bar for an hour or two and sampled a number of their wines, including their Carmanere — a grape once thought to be extinct in Europe, only to be rediscovered flourishing in South America — and their Cabernet Sauvignon, along with a generous fruit and cheese platter. The bar quickly emptied out and we chatted with one of the waitresses who told us how she spent a semester in Wisconsin (she hated the cold) and how much she loved her current job (the waitresses are required to try all the wines in the morning for “quality control”).
Like most places, Thursday night in Santiago is the unofficial beginning of the weekend, and nowhere is this more evident than along the street, Pio Nono, with its outdoor cafes, hopping bars, and various nightclubs. We sat at one of the café tables for a while, taking advantage of their happy-hour and enjoying the warm, night air, and then headed to a couple of clubs where the DJ’s played a rotation of samba and reggaeton with a few 80’s songs mixed in for good measure.
The benefit of flying out Friday night was that I had one more full day to enjoy the city. Friday was a beautifully clear day — perfect for hiking around the downtown park, Cerro Santa Lucia. The park sits on what used to be a large pile of rocks and dirt. The cityhad no idea what to do with the eyesore, so in 1872 they transformed it into a giant park where there’s now a huge variety of floral life, hiking trails and open space for gazing out over the city landscape. I hiked to the center of the park and up a castle-like structure sitting at the top of a bluff where I had an incredible view of the towering downtown skyscrapers and the snow-capped Andes off into the distance, forming a ring around the city.
I decided to escape the heat and head indoors to the Museo della Bella Artes for the afternoon to view their large collection of modern art and works by contemporary artists. Thebuilding’s design was based on the Petit Palais in Paris down to the Art Nouveua glass dome adorning the roof of the museum that had to be brought over piecemeal from Belgium in 1907.
After hiking around both the park and the museum I was feeling exhausted, so I wandered across the street to the Parque Forestal. With its massive palm trees providing ample shade and its closely cut grass, the park must be one of the country’s best places for a siesta. I laid down in a quiet section of grass near a couple of dogs that were asleep and I drifted away for an hour, enjoying the last bit of time I had in Chile before I had the chance to return once again.