There’s a dance in Chile called cueca where both partners wave a handkerchief in hopes of luring their partner. They pull close, but never touch. Their contact is limited to the connection between their eyes and movements.
Santiago had that effect on me during a short 48-hour visit back in April. I was drawn to the architecture, the markets, the green spaces dotted throughout the city and the vibrancy prevalent the Chilean capital. Having no idea of what to expect initially, I was pleasantly surprised and anxious for another 48 hours.
Unfortunately, like the cueca dancer, I feel as if I was left wanting more from Santiago. The city remains a hypothetical reality, someplace I could live if I had the opportunity. Meantime, I at least have those 48 hours to look back on.
Chile is one of those countries you know about at a young age because of its bizarre shape, stretching 4,300 kilometers between Peru and Antarctica, but merely 350 kilometers at its widest point. I knew I’d get there someday, but the opportunity suddenly became reality when LATAM Airlines invited me down to check out their new VIP Lounge at Santiago International Airport. This was a last-minute invitation with about a week-and-a-half to prepare. I was in Lima at the time. In fact, I was still getting over the shock that I had finally made it to South America.
With that, I set out in preparing for Santiago as best as possible. I discovered the beautiful tragedy of Violeta Parra, considered by music aficionados to be the Bob Dylan of Chile. She garnered international attention with her folk music featuring lyrics full of melancholy and the occasional call to protest. Somehow she even found time to be a renowned artist with a collection of her oil paintings premiering at an exhibition in the Louvre in 1964 — the first solo exhibition of a Latin American artist at the museum.
Needless to say I was heartbroken watching the film Violeta Se Fue a los Cielos depicting her life. Having just learned of her work, I was legitimately surprised at the end when she committed suicide. Usually you’re prepared before going into a biographical film. I was not. As tragic as her life was, she thankfully left behind a mountain of material that continues to inspire and emanate throughout Chile.
There was also Isabel Allende’s My Invented Country (Mi País Inventado) that served as a crash course on the mindset of Chileans. In general she finds her countrymen and women to look down on themselves when compared to the rest of the world. This is something I found to be surprisingly accurate — surprising considering that Santiago is a city I hold in very high regard. I was told the bike infrastructure isn’t great or that public transport is an issue. My experience was incredibly limited, but Santiago was as an oasis for me in a world literred with poorly-planned, sprawling cities. There was international cuisine, culture, architecture, green spaces. A pedestrian could be busy for days in Santiago.
Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy a bout of chaos as much as the next traveler. But at the end of the day, I crave a city like Santiago.
If Allende the author’s name looks familiar, it’s because she’s related to Salvador Allende — a name that should be seared into the memories of all U.S. Americans. Salvador Allende was a democratically elected leader of Chile that scared the collective crap out of the Nixon administration — in particular Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who infamously said of Allende’s election, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”
The year was 1973 when on September 11 –Yes, September 11 — the U.S. government assisted in a military coups that put General Augusto Pinochet in the Chilean presidency. Allende committed suicide in his office after giving his final radio address to the Chilean people. His weapon was allegedly a pistol given to him by Fidel Castro.
The Nixon administration liked that Pinochet was an avowed capitalist with a thirst for commie blood. Unsurprisingly, Pinochet went after not just communists but any dissenter with a fury that would go down as perhaps Latin America’s most ruthless dictator.
His reign would only come to an end following international pressure that forced an election that asked if Pinochet should remain in power. The story of the successful No campaign is depicted brilliantly in the 2012 film of the same name by director Pablo Larraín. Reports later determined that over 2,000 were killed, nearly 32,000 tortured and 1,300 exiled during Pinochet’s 16-year stay in office.
Chileans continue to feel Pinochet’s legacy despite the decades that have since passed. Protests have become a relatively regular occurrence with students taking issue, among others, with the absurdly high cost for an education.
But Santiago is more than its troubled modern history. It’s a cosmopolitan city that to me rivals any other major city at the top of a traveler’s itinerary. There’s Paris, New York City, Shanghai, and yes, Santiago de Chile.
Stay tuned until next Monday for part two covering 48 hours in Santiago de Chile.