Read part one of two on Santiago de Chile, a primer.
I landed just past midnight on a Monday morning with only enough time to get to my hotel and collapse. The driver who picked me up offered a bit of a contrast to Allende’s description of Chileans, speaking proudly of his country and city.
“This is the best city in all of South America,” he said without hesitation.
I met with Benjamin Granucci of AirlineReporter later that morning in the lobby, waiting for our Chilean host to take us around to see the sights of Santiago. After exchanging greetings, we set off for the heart of down where we spent the next several hours walking throughout the city — my kind of travel.
We started near the Palacio de la Moneda, the capital building of Chile where the U.S.-supported coups of Allende happened just a few decades ago. Fittingly a statue of Allende stands just outside of the capitol with the caption, “Tengo fe en chile y su destino” (I have faith in Chile and its destiny) from Allende’s final radio address on September 11.
It wasn’t all tragic history. In fact, the rest of our walk took a decidedly upbeat turn following La Moneda as we turned down pedestrian-only thoroughfares surrounded by buildings with incredible attention to detail in their architecture. This is what North American travelers are told to expect of Europe, not South America.
We continued through a line of food counters at Portal Fernández Concha, a popular spot for locals and travelers to stop for a quick bite, alongside the Plaza de Armas — a common name for any city center park in a Latin American city. A number of museums surround the park along with Catedral de Santiago. We made the obligatory stop into the church, marveling once more at the beauty one can find at seemingly every corner of the city. But for me, I could’ve spent the rest of the day sitting in the park, people watching, only moving to get another sandwich.
My only sense that Santiago would be a more traditional, planned city came from Plataforma Urbana, an urbanism publication out of Santiago that I had been keeping tabs on for some months before I even knew I’d be traveling there. After Central America, my thought was that any kind of cycling infrastructure would be a rarity if it even existed at all. Santiago proved me wrong. I was thrilled to see separated, protected bike lanes lined throughout the city. Yes, I really could live here.
One of the said bike lanes traveled near Mercado Central, filled with an array of delicious-looking seafood. The strong smells and character of the stands reminded me San José, Costa Rica’s central market only with fewer people owing to the time of day we were visiting.
Next we made our way up to Cerro San Cristóbal, part of the Cordillera de los Andes standing about 300 meters over Santiago. The winding road serves as a popular climb for cyclists, especially on select days sin carros (without cars) where pedestrians and two-wheel travelers can conquer the hill without worrying about inhaling the poison left from the mufflers of passing cars. You can see that Santiago could, perhaps, use more days without cars, not just at the hill, but across the city.*
Since the city rests in a valley, smog hovers over Santiago like an ominous cloud, and it’s clear as day — the pollution, not the city — when looking over the many vistas from Cerro San Cristóbal. It’s an admitted problem amongst Chileans and it’s not like they don’t have viable alternatives. There seemed to be a good amount of rail transit, and bike infrastructure not only existed, but was also protected to a far greater degree than anywhere else I had seen thus far in Latin America.**
After giving our obligatory admiration every tourist must give to the giant statue standing above us — in this case, la Virgen María (Virgen Mary) — we met with Juan Lopez of Turismo Chile at Tierra Nobel Restaurante for lunch where Ben and I stuffed our faces and washed it all down with an afternoon pisco. Juan welcomed us to Chile and Santiago, noting that he was glad that we were taking time to explore the capital city, something tourists typically treat as a stopover before Valparaíso or getting lost in the mountains. Fact is, Santiago de Chile is very much worth at least a day if not two or three of any traveler’s time, the same one would spend in Paris or Berlin before moving on. It quickly dispels this myth — in the same way I’m sure Buenos Aires does — that one can only find inspiring architecture among people-friendly sidewalks in Europe. Simply put, Santiago de Chile is a must for city lovers.
Step outside of Santiago and you’re in wine country. For us, it was Concha y Toro — the largest producer of wines in Latin America with one of the most respected brands in the world. I’m of course talking about Casillero del Diablo. Legend goes that more than 100 years ago, vineyard founder Don Melchor began noticing that some of his bottles of wine were disappearing. To scare off potential robbers, he started a legend that the wine cellar was inhabited by the devil himself. Thus the Devil’s locker was born — casillero del diablo.
Legends aside, it is some pretty fantastic wine that even my $10 palate could appreciate.
Come Tuesday, I had an event back at the airport to cover with LATAM Airlines before heading back to the city until my flight just after midnight. By the time I returned to Santiago, I opted for lunch at the locally celebrated The Clinic. Celebrated not just for the sandwiches, but because the restaurant also happens to be home to the satirical publication of the same name. Inside, both the restaurant and menu feature comic depictions of Chilean politicos, namely the current, incredibly unpopular President Michelle Bachelet and General Pinochet.
From here I went off to continue playing fantasy as I walked around the city, imagining myself as a new resident of Santiago de Chile. I admired the various bars, restaurants, street art and shops. Though not typically a shopper, I proudly walked away with a Made In Chile “Un Auto Menos” (One Car Less) pillow as gift to my wife Melanie in celebration of being car-free.
Time running short, I milked every fading second I had in Santiago. The pale ale from Guayacán sealed the deal. I was indescribably infatuated with Santiago. Like the timid schoolboy with his first crush way out of his league, I knew the likelihood of a future for me in Santiago was dim. But damnit if I wouldn’t soak in every moment I had the good fortune of being in that city.
Look, I know I had barely two days in Santiago. It’s easy for any traveler to fall in love with a place in such little time, let alone when as a foreigner you inherently escape the inevitable annoyances that, despite our temptations to believe in greener grasses, exist everywhere. I’m sure Santiago is no different and the last thing I want to do is downplay their history or modern struggles. We all know who that tourist is.
“It was so rewarding spending two days with those poor families in the mountains! Sure, everyday is backbreaking misery, but they just get it!”
Nobody likes that tourist.
But sometimes the woman you meet at a bar ends up being the one. Sometimes that special feeling is reality and not the fog of something new. After considering all that I had seen, I feel confident in my admiration of Santiago de Chile.
*This is, of course, a global issue. Almost every city the world over could use fewer cars.
**Lima has a couple of protected lanes, but Santiago seems to have a greater number. I’ve yet to see Buenos Aires or Bogóta, which I hear take pride in their bike infrastructure.