Santiago, Chile: Getting a Feel for the Culture of the Chilean Capital

Prayers on Cerro San Cristobal, Santiago, Chile
Candles and Prayers on Cerro San Cristobal, Santiago, Chile

Even though I was born and raised in a small town, I’m really a city girl at heart.  Ever since living in Buenos Aires, I have craved city life, with all its energy, culture, and convenient public transportation.  Unlike most travelers, I immediately loved the chaos and confusion of Lima, which is partly why I returned to volunteer in the Lima area a few years later.  For these reasons, I was excited to visit Santiago and get to know Chile’s massive capital city.

Visiting a major city like Santiago is different than visiting a pueblo or smaller city.  It takes time to get to know the way the city works, to find the best routes on foot or by bus or subway, to learn about the neighborhoods and secret spots that give the city its character.  I often find you can’t really appreciate what is special about a city on a short visit (with Chicago, San Francisco, and Nashville being notable exceptions).

Luckily, my friend Francisca invited me to stay with her and offered to show me around her city.  She knew that I wanted to see the major tourist sites, but that I also hoped to really experience Santiago as a resident, as I wanted to see if it was a place I might like to live someday.  I had realistic expectations for how much I could learn in a week, but would benefit from an insider’s perspective.  I was ready to explore Santiago.

Cloudy and Smoggy View from Cerro San Cristobal, Santiago, Chile Mote con Huesillo on Cerro San Cristobal, Santiago, Chile
Smog and Clouds Over Santiago from Cerro San Cristobal; Mote con Huesillo on Cerro San Cristobal

On my first day in Santiago, Fran took me to Cerro San Cristobal, the second highest point in the city.  On clear days, this mountain gives you an amazing view of the city and the cordillera (Andes mountain range) that surrounds it.  Unfortunately, I was visiting in winter, when Santiago’s famous smog surrounds the city, coating it in a hazy grey cloud.

Cerro San Cristobal is a highly transited hill; you can climb it on foot, on bike, or in a car (as we did).  When you get to the top, there are a number of stands selling mote con huesillo.  When I was on Easter Island, I saw several signs advertising this treat, but had no idea what it was.  Fran was adamant that we try this delicious drink, as it is the traditional reward for making it to the top of Cerro San Cristobal.  As it turns out, mote con huesillo is a sweet drink made by stewing dried peaches in water, sugar, and spices, then mixed and served with chewy mote and eaten with a spoon.  In Peru and Ecuador, mote refers to cooked corn kernels, but in Chile it means fresh cooked wheat or barley.  We enjoyed our treat and the hazy views of Santiago below us.

Prayers on Cerro San Cristobal, Santiago, Chile Statue of the Virgin Mary on Cerro San Cristobal, Santiago Chile
Gifts to the Virgin Mary for Answered Prayers; Statue of Mary on Cerro San Cristobal

Afterwards, we walked over to the sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  While many of South America’s mountains and hills are dotted with statues of Jesus, Cerro San Cristobal boasts an attractive statue of Mary.  Chile is a deeply Catholic country, and believers visit the statue to pray, contemplate her power in the large amphitheater below, and light candles in the hopes that Mary will answer their prayers.  I was moved by the massive number of lit candles and the plaques and small trinkets left along the walls of the sanctuary thanking Mary for hearing and answering their prayers.

Flowers at La Chascona, Pablo Neruda's House in Santiago, Chile
Flowers at La Chascona, Pablo Neruda’s House in Santiago, Chile

After spending some time wandering around the Parque Metropolitano de Santiago on top of Cerro San Cristobal, we descended and headed to Barrio Bellavista, one of the most popular neighborhoods in Santiago. Our first stop was La Chascona, the Santiago home of Pablo Neruda, Chile’s beloved poet.  La Chascona is named for the crazy, tangled hair of his third wife, and the house has been converted into a museum with an attractive little cafe.  According to our guide, the home was vandalized when Neruda was forced to abandon it during Chile’s military dictatorship, but the Fundación Pablo Neruda has done its best to accurately restore it to Neruda’s vision.  We wandered through the quirky decorations and shapes of the rooms and took in Neruda’s style, but unfortunately visitors are not allowed to take pictures anywhere but outside the house in the lovely garden.  La Chascona is an excellent introduction to Santiago’s artsy side.

Street Art near La Chascona, Santiago, Chile
Mural Near La Sebastiana, Barrio Bellavista, Santiago, Chile

After La Chascona, we explored Barrio Bellavista on foot.  Barrio Bellavista is known for being an artists’ neighborhood, with murals covering much of the available wall space.  The streets are lined with cute shops and open talleres, or art workshops, where you can take a look at the art being produced by Santiago’s artisans.  We particularly enjoyed the quirky, humorous artwork displayed at Galería Cian.

Little Palermo Soho, Santiago, Chile Fun Shop in Barrio Bellavista, Santiago, Chile Fun Shop in Barrio Bellavista, Santiago, Chile
Storefront of Little Palermo Soho and Art Displays inside Galería Cian in Barrio Bellavista, Santiago, Chile

Barrio Bellavista is also a good place to sample Chile’s restaurant and bar culture.  Patio Bellavista is an upscale outdoor mall which has become popular with locals, but we ended up eating at Viva La Vida, which had a number of vegetarian options.  I was intrigued by all the happy hour options displayed on the signboards in front of the bars in the area, but it was too early for a drink!

Cathedral, Santiago, Chile
Santiago’s Cathedral at Night

After filling our bellies, we headed back into the center of Santiago.  Fran wanted to show me Barrio Lastarria, another artsy neighborhood with impressive colonial architecture.  We saw a street fair and I ended up walking away with a Chilean children’s book about a boy whose parents took him to the United States. 🙂  By this time, dusk had fallen and Fran took me through the downtown historical district so that I could see some of Santiago’s architecture and landmarks at night.  When we passed by the Plaza de Armas, I snapped this photo of Santiago’s brightly illuminated cathedral.

This whirlwind tour of Santiago was a great introduction to Chile’s capital.  Fran then whisked me off to the coast for the weekend; we’d been invited to dinner at her parents’ house in Curacaví, and we were going to take the opportunity to visit Viña del Mar and Valparaíso.  (I’ll talk about those beautiful cities in the next two posts!)

On my second day in Santiago proper, Fran had to run some errands, and she offered to drop me off at Parque Arauco, an American-style shopping mall. After a year volunteering in dusty Huaycán, I had dropped about 10 pounds and destroyed all but one pair of my pants, and my stretched out, faded jeans did NOT fit Santiago’s chic aesthetic. I was desperate to visit the GAP and buy some skinny jeans (seriously!); after putting them on, I immediately started looking less like a gringa backpacker and more like a Chilean.  I also headed to the bookstore to pick up another book by Isabel Allende, one of Chile’s most famous authors; I’d read her gorgeous family memoir Paula earlier that year and wanted another of her books as a souvenir.

Chasing the Cordillera in Santiago, Chile Chasing the Cordillera in Santiago, Chile
Chasing the Cordillera on a Drive Through Santiago, Chile

Afterwards, I acted even more like a stereotypical expat – I went to Starbucks to read and use their wi-fi over chai tea and had a Chipotle-style burrito in the food court.  Hey, every traveler needs a break sometimes!  When Fran picked me up, the clouds had cleared a little bit, revealing the cordillera; we drove into one of the neighborhoods located at a higher elevation to get a better look at the mountains.  This was the closest I got to seeing the Andes during my stay in Santiago!

That night, another student-turned-friend, Alexandra, took me out for a proper night on the town, Chilean style, in fancy Vitacura and Las Condes.  Unfortunately, I’ve become a bit of an old lady and had to call it a night around 2AM, whereas Chileans usually party all night!

The next day, Santiago was hit by intermittent downpours, and I spent most of my day inside, avoiding the rain and planning the next part of my trip.  I ventured on foot to the supermarket and got drenched, but later explored Providencia on foot.  While Santiago is definitely a car and subway city, its residential neighborhoods are pleasantly walkable due to the wide sidewalks and tree-lined streets.

Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile
Plaza de Armas, Santiago, Chile

On my last day in Santiago, we’d hoped for the skies to clear after so much rain, but the smog remained.  Fran suggested we visit the Centro Artesanal de Los Dominicos to take a look at the artisan offerings.  After, she dropped me off at one of the metro stations so that I could head downtown on Santiago’s efficient and easy-to-understand public transport system.  I was interested in exploring downtown Santiago on foot, and visiting some museums and other landmarks.

Mercado Central, Santiago, Chile Santiago, Chile
Mercado Central and Colonial Building in Santiago, Chile

My first stop was the Palacio de La Moneda, the presidential palace, which was undergoing renovations at the time.  From there, I wandered down the pedestrian street, Paseo Ahumada, to the Plaza de Armas.  You can’t visit Santiago without seeing the historical buildings lining the colonial central plaza, like Santiago’s Cathedral and the old post office (Correo Central).  Like every main plaza, the Plaza de Armas was filled with combination of political signage, performers, tourists, and businesspeople and elderly Chileans sitting in the park and enjoying some fresh air.  I moved on to the Mercado Central, hoping for a vibrant, bustling market bursting with local foods like in Peru, but while it was interesting to see (and smell) so much fish, there wasn’t much exciting street food.  I quickly grabbed a greasy lunch at a cheap Fuente de Soda and headed back to the Centro.

Opera House, Santiago, Chile
Teatro Municipal, Santiago, Chile

I enjoyed wandering around the tall, shiny office towers interspersed with ornate colonial buildings, but city photography has never been my strong suit, so I didn’t pull out my camera too often for fear of drawing attention to myself. Fran (and my guidebook) had warned me that the downtown area could be a little unsafe, so I decided to focus on experiencing the city vibe rather than recording it. 🙂 I made sure to visit the gorgeous Teatro Municipal and the massive Biblioteca, which takes up an entire city block.

Santiago, Chile
Basilica de la Merced
Mini Moai in a Church Museum in Santiago, Chile
Moai Carving in the Basílica Museum

My goal was to visit the Museo La Merced inside the Iglesia Basílica de la Merced as they had an entire room dedicated to relics from Rapa Nui (Easter Island/Isla de Pascua).  On Easter Island, I hadn’t been able to visit the island’s museum because it was under renovations, so I took every opportunity in Chile to learn more about Rapa Nui culture and history.  The museum also had some interesting exhibits about colonial art and religious dioramas of the baby Jesus which used to be displayed in the homes of elites.  In the center of the building is a small garden, surely a nice place to sit for a while when it’s sunny.

Views from Cerro Santa Lucía, Santiago, Chile Views from Cerro Santa Lucía, Santiago, Chile Views from Cerro Santa Lucía, Santiago, Chile

Fountain on Cerro Santa Lucía; Cerro San Cristobal Seen from Cerro Santa Lucía; Dog Love on Cerro Santa Lucía

At this point in the afternoon, the sun had finally appeared from behind the clouds, so I decided to climb Cerro Santa Lucía, Cerro San Cristobal’s shorter sister hill.  Between my guidebook and the signs over the park, I knew to keep an eye on my surroundings and stick to the main pathways, as petty theft is pretty common around this hangout for young, bored Chilean teenagers.  Cerro Santa Lucía boasts a number of fountains and monuments, including a number of statues of dogs!  From the top, you can see Cerro San Cristobal and take in great views of downtown Santiago.

Views from Cerro Santa Lucía, Santiago, Chile
Views of Santiago from Cerro Santa Lucia

I was lucky enough to spot the cordillera breaking through the clouds.  As this was a clearer day, I was able to get a clear sense for the massiveness of the capital.

Views from Cerro Santa Lucía, Santiago, Chile View of Santiago from Cerro Santa Lucia
Sun Amidst the Clouds Over Santiago, Seen from Cerro Santa Lucia

I was also relieved that the sun brought some warmth to this chilly winter day, illuminating the buildings and making for some moody photos!

Posing on top of Cerro Santa Lucia
Posing on Top of Cerro Santa Lucia

Of course, I couldn’t resist posing for a classic Santiago photo, trusting my camera to some visiting businessmen.  This photo makes me smile because it reminds me of my independent explorations of Santiago. 🙂

La Moneda, Santiago, Chile

Rear View of La Moneda, Santiago, Chile

I took the long way back to La Moneda, walking along Chile’s main thoroughfare, La Alameda (or Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins), just as the business day ended and the streets began to flood with people heading home.  I stopped by the Museo Chileno De Arte Precolombino, but I had neglected to do my research in advance and found that it was closed for renovations (it reopened in 2014!).  I’ll have to try again on a future visit!

While I was downtown, I bought my bus ticket for the long journey back to Arica.  Fran had been trying to convince me to fly and save myself 32 hours in the bus, but I was looking forward to seeing a bit of the coast.  In retrospect, I should have spent the extra money; even on with a comfortable bus cama seat, 32 hours is long.

For my last night in Santiago, Fran took me to a yoga class at her studio.  It was a very different style than I’m used to practicing, but it felt good to stretch out my body.  We followed the yoga class with Indian food, a nice, spicy break from the simple meals I’d been eating all week.  Even though it was not the most Chilean way to say goodbye to Santiago, it was a perfect way to wind down my week exploring Santiago.  Santiago’s multifaceted culture certainly piqued my interest, and I’m sure I’ll be back! 😀

Recommendations for Santiago, Chile:

  • This is a great English-language compilation of all the things you can do in Santiago.  I wish it had existed when I visited in 2013. 😉
  • Visit La Chascona, one of Pablo Neruda’s homes, in Barrio Bellavista.  Entry costs $5.000CLP (about $10 USD) and now includes an self-guided audio tour.
  • Stop by the small but interesting Museo La Merced to see some relics from Easter Island and learn a little more about religious art in this Catholic country.  Entry costs $500 CLP (about $1 USD).
  • Check out the newly remodeled Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino to learn more about the cultures that inhabited Chile before the Spanish arrived.  Entry costs $3.500 CLP (about $7 USD).
  • Don’t forget to visit La Moneda, the Plaza de Armas, the Mercado Central, the Teatro Municipal, and the Biblioteca, some of Santiago’s most distinctive buildings.
  • Absolutely climb Cerro Santa Lucía for some nice views of the city, but stick to the main paths.  You should also visit Cerro San Cristobal for some exercise and mote con huesillo.
  • Visit Providencia to experience one of Santiago’s nicer neighborhoods and Barrio Bellavista and Barrio Lastarria for its more artsy and social side.
[Santiago, Chile: August 3 + 6-8, 2013]

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