Santiago is a city of great contrasts and variation, a mix of old Spanish colonial architecture, modern wealth and the slowly crumbling reminants of the military dictatorship that ended in 1990.
Arriving from the airport on the bus took us through areas that were closer to third world than first, reminiscent of a brief experience of Tijuana, Mexico. As we got to the centre though it gradually became more and more like home, until you could have been forgiven for almost mistaking it for a southern European city.
After a little bit of grief with obtaining some cash, we navigated the metro and got to our AirBnB, which was a simple room in an old rundown apartment of a young Chilean about to complete his IELTS English test required to take up the scholarship he’d been offered at King’s College in London. With little except for a good WiFi connection to keep us in the apartment, we joined the typical free walking tour of the city and got going.
Like so many places with Spanish heritage Santiago has a large central focal point, the Plaza De Armas (Weapons Square).
A large cathedral that managed to look relatively unassuming from the outside, and other colonial era buildings line the square, with some of them converted to museums and the main post office.
One great perk was that most museums were free, and the National History Museum occupying one of the Spanish buildings was no exception. Completely by accident we found out it had a tower overlooking the plaza when one of the staff there offered to take us up. After figuring out what they were actually asking us we agreed and bemusedly walked past the “guide only” sign up the spiral staircase we hadn’t even noticed.
The Museum of Memory and Human Rights is another great free museum about some of the many human rights abuses and genocides inflicted by regimes and governments, with a strong focus on Chile and South/Central America. We only realised part the way through that audio guides were available, which would have helped immensely with understanding the details which were almost all in Spanish. Nevertheless, the displays were still powerful, with the multi level feature piece depicting photos of the many people who were ‘disappeared’ or murdered in Chile being a highlight.
While not as famous as the Christ The Redeemer statue overlooking Rio De Janeiro, Santiago has its own equivalent of the Virgin Mary that can be seen from much of the city. Until the construction of the Sky Costanera tower it was the highest point in the city.
A funicular or 45 minute walk offers the chance to take in the views, so we headed up for a sunset and soaked in the panoramic city skyline. Wandering down the hill provided arguably even better views than the peak, and we had the company of one of the million street dogs who call Santiago home. They have to be some of the most well looked after street dogs in the world, better than half of the ‘pets’ in Australia – lush coats and lovely temperaments. You can even find dog houses in some parks, just to give you an idea how well loved these dogs are by the Chileans.
There aren’t a significant amount of must see sights in Santiago, especially for a city of 7 million people, but it does have a sense of stability and security that has allowed it to grow into the position of being arguably the best placed of the large South American cities to find success in the future.
One thing Santiago does have is a reportedly burgeoning food scene, which we didn’t really get to experience as we stuck to our new backpacker budget, with the exception of some wine and cheese tasting where we started to explore the excellent Chilean wine.
Burgers piled high with pork (Lomito) or beef (Churrasco) and copious amounts of mayo, tomato and avocado (“Italiano” style, from the colours of their flag), which they called sandwiches, and empanadas made up the majority of the rest of our diet.
There were plenty of food markets to enjoy as well, from the touristy seafood focused Mercado Central, to the large Mercado Vega where the fruit and veg options were endless, including some varieties we’d never seen.
In general Santiago is quite an easy city to get around in, it has a good public transport system (with the exception of airport connections) and lots of taxis driving around. Much of the areas tourists want to visit are either in walking distance or a few metro stops at most.
To take advantage of the metro system you need to get a card to load value on, but this is where Santiago is leaps and bounds ahead of the pack. Where other cities give them names like Oyster Card (London), Opal (Sydney) or Smartrider (Perth), Santiago got a lot more creative. The “Bip!” card can be bought for 1500 pesos (A bit over $3AUD) from machines in the metro stations, or more reliably from the ticket windows, and loaded with at least one fare (740 pesos). Multiple people can use one card and as it is a flat fare for up to 3 transfers in a 2 hour period there is no tagging off. And each time you use it you get to listen to its trademark “Bip!”.
A word of warning for anyone else visiting Santiago and trying to get back to the airport, we attempted to use Uber for an early morning trip as our Airbnb host listed it as the easiest way to get to his apartment. However when he arrived a few minutes later and we told him we wanted to go to the airport he didn’t want to take us, he was worried about the police. There is also the equivalent app for taxis “Safer Taxi” but it crashed whenever it came to get a price – YMMV. In the end we got lucky and we were able to flag down a taxi within a couple of minutes which was great because we were now locked out of the apartment with no internet. As an extra bonus the taxi was also cheaper as Uber had club closing surges.
But we almost didn’t make it to Santiago in the first place.
From the mild issue of losing all of our flight seat selections (and the much loved window seat), to the not so irrelevant, but thankfully temporary, loss of my passport, it has to be the most stressful start to a trip for us to date.
After an anxious phone call to Jacinta’s sister, thinking I must have left it there where we stored our belongings for the year, luckily Jacinta found the passport in a little pocket of my carry on bag.
I’d obviously thoughtfully put it there a few days before to make sure it was accessible, then promptly forgot in the haze of last minute preparations at home and closeout of work items.
Once that little hurdle was jumped, the next in line was checking in, with the Qantas staff member apologetically telling us she couldn’t less us check in because we had no proof of onward journey.
We were planning on taking a bus from Chile to Argentina in a couple of weeks, and had accommodation and Spanish classes booked, but that wasn’t enough.
Thankfully Chile has relatively modern systems and we were able to book said bus in less than 5 minutes and present that for approval.
The restful business class journey to Santiago (how we got that is a post for another time!) almost made those tribulations a distant memory, at least until I Ieft my bank card in an ATM and quickly discovered that Chilean Spanish is rather hard to understand. (Note: ATM’s in Chile give you the money before returning the card unlike in Australia where it’s the other way round, so make sure you don’t walk off before getting back the card!)
Maybe our little trials and will make you feel a little better that’s it not all smooth sailing and piña coladas on the beach while travelling (although I’m sure we’ll share some photos of those too).