By Marilyn Diggs
Flying Chile’s longitudinal air routes displays this slender country’s unbelievable geographical diversity bordered all the way down by the majestic snow-capped Andes on one side and coastal beaches on the other. Between this fabulous framework is a myriad of colors as you fly southwards over the ochre desert, emerald valleys and indigo lakes to the aqua glaciers. No matter your destination, a stopover in Santiago is a given. It is not only the capital, but the gateway to these varied landscapes. On a 2-day stopover between Patagonia and Easter Island, I wanted to see the most in my limited time. Here was my solution along with some tips and insights.
Before leaving home, I hired professionals to show me Santiago. Being met at the airport by a guide and driver freed me from wasting valuable time looking for a taxi and I could already start learning about the city. Traveling to my hotel I noticed the contrast between old and new, high-rise constructions and low earthquake-proof buildings (my guide said 20 per day), and the scads of trees, especially beautiful in the spring. Seventy per cent of the trees are of European origin brought back by wealthy Chilean families. Most are decorative; some are functional like the oriental pltano (maple tree family) that absorbs the pollution through its bark and then sloughs it off. The marked French architecture in public buildings constructed after the 1810 Independence Treaty from Spain is not a coincidence. The rebellious colonists wanted nothing to do with the mother country and even tried speaking only French for a while.
Santiago, with over 6 million inhabitants, is the economic, political and cultural center of Chile. The thriving metropolis was born from a bloody history. The fierce Mapuche Indians weren’t about to hand over their land to the conquering Spanish invaders from Peru. In 1541 Pedro de Valdivia, who lost an eye in fierce Indian combat, founded the city on Santa Luca Hill (cerro) (pictured above), but it was only in the 18th century that the colonials found stability, due to Indian uprisings. The Spaniards, both men and women, fought tooth and nail. Ruthless conquistador Ins Suarez decapitated Indian warriors and threw their heads down the hill in a battle to maintain a foothold in Santiago.
After a quick stop at Cerro Santa Luca, I headed for the Plaza de Armas, another good place to take in historical Santiago. A bronze replica of the city map from 1712 is set in the plaza floor. This traditional Spanish city plan has been respected even though the urban silhouette has changed drastically.
Bordering the Plaza de Armas (pictured left), The Museum of National History (Musu Histórico Nacional) is small but gives a good overall notion of Chile’s history and colorful personalities. Crossing the street, the Metropolitan Cathedral immersed me in gold Baroque decorations, showed off two Chilean saints, and treated me to Gregorian chants during an on-going mass.
There is something invigorating about a bird’s-eye view of a city. If you’re lucky and the day is clear, you’ll get an extra perk from Santa Luca Hill: a glimpse of El Plomo Mountain (meaning breast), which looks like a woman lying on her back. The Cerro San Cristóbal with its spectacular 870-meter high vantage point is located inside one of the biggest urban parks in the world, Parque Metropolitano. Take the funicular railway up one side of the hill to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception statue and return via the gondola ride on the other side.
Time for close encounters with the locals. Charming pastel-colored houses, the best ethnic restaurants, lively nightlife hangouts, and crafts shops characterize Bellavista (pictured right), the bohemian quarter at the foot of San Cristóbal Hill. Poet Pablo Neruda adored the area and lived there in one of his three eccentric houses, which you can visit. I couldn’t resist the lapis lazuli souvenirs and sported my new earrings with pride.
World famous wines are produced in valleys around the city whose soil and climate are just right. Don’t worry if you don’t have time to do the 4-5 hour winery routes in the outskirts. Head for Concha y Toro, the major winery in Latin America and one of the most important global wine brands, located right in Santiago. In 1883, its owners imported a selection of the finest vines from the Bordeaux region in France; the grapes thrived. The vineyard tour that included a glimpse at the family mansion and the legendary devil living in the century-old cellar ended with wine tasting.
It was a hurried trip, but I had gotten a good feel for the city thanks to experienced guides, some stellar panoramic views, the history-in-a-nutshell museum visit and the winery tour. I consoled myself as the plane took off: I’d see more of the city on my next trip to Chile as all routes lead to Santiago.
Where to stay:
Caesar Business Hotel – in downtown Santiago, close to metro and Cerro Santa Luca. Brand new. Contemporary restaurant serves international cuisine. Great location and perfect infra-structure for the businessman. Alameda Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins, 632. Tel: (56 – 2) 595-6622. From Brazil call: 0800 55 7275 or (55 11) 3049-6666. www.caesarbusiness.com.br
Hotel Eurotel El Bosque – in one of the best residential areas of the city, Las Condes, which is a haven for young professionals and gourmands. Close to a gambit of restaurants and nightlife hotspots. Modern. Kitchenette in some rooms. Restaurant serves breakfast only. Av. El Bosque Norte 0124, Las Condes. Tel: (56 -2) 658-5330. email@example.com
Where to eat:
Akarana. Dell, the hospitable Kiwi owner, knows what foreigners want: Happy Hour, happy times, remarkable food. Recipes from her native New Zealand, using Chilean ingredients will wow you. Modern decór. Garden bar. Casual chic. Reyes Lavalle 3310, Las Condes. Tel: 231-9667. www.akaranarestaurant.cl
Caf Melba. Same owner, same excellent quality meal and service. Typical Kiwi caf. Breakfast and lunch only. The only place in town for a “real” breakfast. Don Carlos 2898, Local1, las Condes. Tel: 232-4546.
Freeway – tour operator for all your travel arrangements. English-speaking. Works directly with VIPS Travel Services in Chile. Phone in São Paulo: (11) 5088-0999. www.freeway.tur.br and www.vipstravel.cl
Abercrombie & Kent Chile – destination managers for personalized tours and services. They pamper their clients! Av. 11 de Septiembre 2353, 14th Floor, Office 1403. Providencia. Tel: (56 – 2) 334-5087. firstname.lastname@example.org; www.akdmc.com
Concha y Toro Vineyard: Virginia Subercaseaux 210, Pirque. Tel: (56-2) 476-5269
Lan – Lan has 5 convenient daily flights from São Paulo to Santiago and 4 daily ones originating in Rio de Janeiro. Your flying time is only about 4 hours. For more information visit: www.lan.com or call: 0800-761-0056.
Marilyn Diggs is an American living in Brazil for over twenty years. She is a freelance writer, artist, lecturer and author of nine books – two about Brazilian art history. As an art reporter and travel writer she has two monthly columns in Sunday News, Brazil’s English language newspaper that circulates in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. She has written for the Miami Herald and Museum International, a UNESCO publication. Marilyn has a degree in Latin American Studies and is often contracted by intercultural training services to give talks on expat challenges. www.mdiggs.com
Previous articles by Marilyn:
The Enchanting Easter Island
Nature and Nurturing in Chile’s Lake Region
Chilean Patagonia: Going to the Ends of the Earth
Around Brazil: Adventure in the Pantanal and Bonito Part 2
Around Brazil: Adventure in the Pantanal and Bonito Part 1
Spending the Night in the Lost City of the Incas – Machu Picchu
Brazil: Happy Moonlit Trails To You
Brazil: Paradise Found – Fernando de Noronha“