Over the holidays we spent two weeks in Chile, the world’s most strangely shaped country, and it felt like four separate trips. Chile may have, as they say, only two directions – north and south – but its extremes of terrain and climate make it a vastly varied land. We began, as most overseas visitors to Chile do, in the capital, Santiago. From this cosmopolitan city of six million, we moved on to nearby Valparaiso, a storied port city of steep stairways and rich naval history.
Then we flew south to the big lush island of Chiloé, named for the screechy black-headed gulls that abound there. In Chiloé we stayed in a palafito, an old house on stilts at the water’s edge; visited islets full of penguins and an endless variety of flying birds; trekked into a vast national park full of natural wonders; and explored old wooden churches in tiny villages.
Finally, we flew north to the Atacama Desert, known as the driest desert in the world. Despite the altitude sickness that hit us pretty badly, we would not have missed for anything in the world the excursions to the volcanic Tatio Geysers, the lagoons, the salt flats full of flamingoes, and the unearthly Valle de la Muerte and Valle de la Luna.
Our two-leg journey to Chile began with an uneventful American Airlines flight from New York to Miami, where we transferred to a LAN flight on a Boeing 787 “Dreamliner,” our first encounter with this plane. Its battery-fire troubles now in the past, the Dreamliner initially impresses with its modern design and materials and new-plane cleanliness. Air travel carries precious little of the pleasure and excitement of years past when you could actually sit in a modicum of comfort, but I felt a hint of that old little-kid charge when I realized we’d be riding the “plane of the future.”
Alas, the rows of seats are squashed just as close together as on most other airliners today, so the novelty of the shadeless windows that darken at the touch of a finger wore off instantly and we settled in for 10 hours of claustrophobic discomfort.
Upon arrival, instead of a taxi we took a less expensive TransVIP van ride into the city, a quick 15- or 20-minute trip with light traffic. Santiago lies not on the Pacific coast but in the foothills of the Andes, as two centrally located hills remind you. The larger, the Cerro San Cristóbal, an Andean spur, can be climbed on foot, but the heat of the near-summer-solstice day induced us to wait on a long line to take the funicular to the top.
At the top, a P.A. system spread droning prayers. We ascended the stairs through the kind of dense vegetation that thrives in a semi-tropical climate. At the very top we discovered the prayers were being recited live by a young man dressed in plain clothes sitting calmly and speaking into a microphone inside the little chapel in the base of the huge statue of the Virgin Mary that crowns the hill.
The Cerro park also has a zoo (which the Rough Guide describes as “dismal”) and two swimming pools, none of which we took the time to see. We did, however, try a mote con huesillo, a cool sweet Chilean drink with peaches and wheat. It sounds strange, and it is, but it’s also really refreshing on a hot afternoon.
Before ascending the cerro we had stopped for an early lunch in the Barrio Bellavista, the bohemian neighborhood at its base. It was a sleepy hour, with not too many restaurants open, but we found homey Galindo, which turned out to be well known for authentic Chilean food, and so it was there that we had our first (and only real housemade) pastel de choclo. This Chilean comfort food is a corn pudding with meat, olives, and other surprises buried inside. It looks drab but tastes delicious when made right. I asked for avocado (palta) on the salad we ordered to go with the pastel, and got an entire sliced-up avocado, our first clue of how popular and plentiful avocados are in Chile. Back in the States they’re expensive (except during one short season) and very hard to find ripe in the store. In Chile they’re ubiquitous.
The other cerro, the Cerro Santa Lucia, is a much smaller, rockier protrusion, more dramatic because it juts up from the center of the city. We took advantage of an outdoor elevator that runs up the western side of the Cerro, operated by a grumpy old man who proved to be the only unfriendly Chilean we met in our whole two weeks in the country.
Naturally, it’s in the interest of hotel staff and waitstaff and excursion guides to exude a welcoming personality, but I perceived an honest warmth in just about every person we interacted with, right down to the lady on line behind us in the supermarket who ran back to the aisle to weigh and label the avocado that we, ignorant of the system, had selected but neglected to process ourselves. The grouchiness of the ascensor operator at the Cerro Santa Lucia stuck out like a sore green thumb.
Some of the Cerro Santa Lucia’s most beautiful sights are actually along its flanks, where gorgeous flowers and trees grow in colorful profusion. Here, they enfold a statue of José Victorino Lastarria, a 19th century jurist and revolutionary who is also credited as Chile’s first novelist.
We found Santiago’s metro system well-run and easy to figure out, and used it quite a bit to get from neighborhood to neighborhood. But one day we walked along the whole length of the Parque Forestal, which runs alongside the Rio Mapocho, Santiago’s human-channeled river. Little visited by tourists, this walk through pleasantly sculptured expanses – built on land that, before the late-19th-century channeling, used to be river – made us feel at home, almost like we knew our way around even though we really didn’t at all. Some cities have a sprawling cosmopolitan feel that reminds me of my own city, New York, and makes me feel comfortable and at home. Madrid is like that. I found Santiago that way too.
As in other South American countries that we Americans tend to think of as homogeneously Spanish-speaking and “Latin American,” the modern nation of Chile has a complex multi-ethnic history and composition much like that of the United States. We found dramatic evidence of this later, in the cemetery in Valparaiso, but right here in the Parque Forestal is another indication. Europeans from many countries have settled in Chile over the centuries, and the grandiose German Fountain honors Santiago’s large German immigrant population.
The city has much colorful graffiti, some political, some not so much. Chile is a modern democracy today, but the memory of Pinochet’s military dictatorship is very much alive, as is the artistic spirit.
For real understanding of the Pinochet era, the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights) is the place to go. With its monumental modern architecture and technologically advanced exhibits, it’s a worthy testament to the victims of the regime, starkly conveying the message: “Never again.” We spent a couple of intense hours inside.
Another big museum well worth seeing is the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino with its huge collection of art from the many Precolombian cultures of Chile and other parts of South America. On our first attempt to visit this museum, which was high on our list of Santiago destinations, an electrical problem had closed it for the day. Fortunately we had a few hours the following morning to slot it in, and we were glad we did.
The Museum of Precolombian Art is just off Santiago’s central square, the Plaza de Armas, formerly a marketplace and now a square busy with trees, tourists, and locals and ringed with notable buildings.
Near the Plaza de Armas is the Ex Congreso Nacional, where Congress met until the coup. Now it’s home to the Foreign Ministry, so I had to take a picture of it through a tall fence.
Dating from 1769, the Casa Colorada is considered Santiago’s best-preserved colonial building. It also houses a museum (which wasn’t open).
A number of interesting sights can be seen near and along the Alameda, the popular name for the wide, busy thoroughfare named for Bernardo O’Higgins, a national founding father whose very name is another reflection of Chile’s multiethnic story. Every town in Chile seems to have a street named for O’Higgins. He’s like the George Washington of Chile.
Inside the monastery adjacent to the Iglesia San Franciso is the Museo Colonial, whose main attractions are a peacock and a turtle – unless you count the several big rooms whose walls are covered with an enormous and spectacular series of paintings depicting the life of Saint Francis. A guitarist provided a soundtrack to our visit (we had the place almost to ourselves). No photos, of course. This astounding sequence of paintings is a must-see if you ever get to Santiago. Never mind that the rest of the museum is dim and understated. Don’t miss it.
If you look at old TV footage of the 1973 coup, you’ll see that it was an early example of “shock and awe,” with planes dropping bombs and tanks rolling down the streets. And you’ll probably see the Palacio de la Moneda – originally built as a mint – at the heart of the action.
Today the grand building and its surroundings look thoroughly peaceful.
Speaking of money, it was almost Christmas, and the Paseo Ahumada, a pedestrian street lined with stores, street vendors, and musicians, was jammed with people.
By contrast, the cobbled streets and small mansions of the picturesque little district known as the Barrio Paris-Londres were mostly quiet.
The Museo de Bellas Artes is more impressive for its architecture than its contents, though some of the modern art installations were interesting and one was even kind of scary, all darkness and hanging screens to walk through.
Another of Santiago’s sites not to be missed is the Mercado Central, with its heavy focus on seafood. As the Rough Guide advised, we ate lunch at one of more “authentic” holes-in-the-wall around the edges rather than the fancier “restaurant-y” places in the center. Here we tried traditional local seafood stews and soups (chupe) while watching men at the next stall violently chopping up large sea creatures.
Someone else who loved the seaside was Chile’s most famous poet, Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda, who had three homes in Chile. His Santiago house, called La Chascona, is one of Santiago’s prime attractions. (So is his Valparaiso house, which I’ll cover in the next installment of this travelogue.) La Chascona is the house Neruda shared with Matilde Urrutia, his third wife and the love of his later life. Carefully restored by the resident Fundación Neruda, the home is a testament to the poet’s capacious love of life and art. A portrait of Matilde by Diego Rivera with Neruda’s profile hidden in her hair is just one of the artistic highlights. But for a literary type like me, the library held the most excitement.
The house itself is, or at least feels, more like a complex of rooms climbing a hillside than a simple house. Naturally, picture-taking isn’t allowed inside.
Before ending this first installment, here are a few Santiago recommendations.
- The Hotel Orly did right by us.
- We had a very memorable meal of Peruvian-inspired cuisine at the Santiago branch of Astrid y Gastón, one of the top-rated restaurants in South America, where a fabulous dinner costs no more than a middling dinner at a middling restaurant in New York. (Chile is not cheap to get to, but, once you’re there, you’ll find just about everything a bargain if you’re from the U.S. or Western Europe).
- If you’re in Santiago on New Year’s Eve, don’t plan on finding a restaurant open for dinner. Get to the supermarket before 7 PM for your take-out dinner, and have a hotel room with a kitchen so you can heat it up!
- Like shopping malls? The spiffy new Costanera Center is your place. Stop by if only to check out the tall waterfall-thingie inside.
Continued in Part 2: A few days in the historic city of Valparaiso.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=140538980X][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0872864286][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0811217299][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1608198960][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0822353601]