I often wonder what motivates a traveler to pick her destination. Of course, television and advertisements play a big part, but sometimes the place itself summons people; otherwise, there was no reason for me to visit South America.
The only thing I knew about Chile when I first set foot in its capital city was that it is a thin strip of land that ends somewhere near Antarctica, literally at the end of the world.
I had never heard of Patagonia or the Fjord of islands in the South or the Atacama Desert in the South.
Yet the desire to see it all was so strong that a visit to three countries ended up mostly visiting Chile.
LAN airways’ flight landed at Santiago at 7:45 pm local time. Just before the plane stopped on the runway, I realized that one of my earrings had come off while sleeping. That generated a frantic search. I looked under the seats, in the pile of blankets, and at the back row, but to no avail.
Without disclosing it to my husband, I abandoned the search and walked with him through the airport’s long corridors only to get behind a wrong line at the immigration check.
We needed to be in a separate line to pay the reciprocity tax.
Payment could be made by credit card only. Two young guys behind us, barely out of college, only had cash. My husband paid for them on his credit card. They were profusely thankful, and so were we. We got some cash for the taxi fare.
It took us three hours to get out of the airport and another hour and a half to get to the hotel, which was way out of the city center, in Las Condes, Región. It was close to midnight when we checked in.
The hotel room had 180-degree views from the roof to floor glass windows. We dumped our backpacks on the bed and went out looking for food. The hotel was new and didn’t have late-night room service.
There was hardly any chance of finding anything open at that hour, but the hotel receptionist told us that a pizza place, two blocks down, was usually open until 2:00 AM.
We set out to find it. It was a suburban area, we weren’t expecting anyone on the streets, but there were plenty of people up and about. I could even hear music that too in English. For a Spanish speaking country, everywhere they were playing English songs.
We found the pizza place and the pizza was delicious but we couldn’t finish it. The waitress, out of habit, packed the rest of it.
There was no point taking it back to the hotel because breakfast was included, and we were going to be out and about the next day. I gave the box to a couple of men outside a shop where we stopped to buy water bottles. I couldn’t understand what they said, but the smile on their faces was worth the kind gesture I made.
The next morning I had a good view from the room windows. The rooftop of the hotel restaurant had a striking roof garden. Once we went there for breakfast, we were greeted by the lush green vertical garden.
We decided to take the metro to the city.
It was quite an experience.
Not being able to read Spanish signboards didn’t help. Which ticket to buy? How to describe the destination?
I asked a girl whether she could speak English. Luckily she did. She told us there were one-ride-tickets and multiple-ride- cards. We bought one ride ticket.
The train had fewer seats and more standing space. I stood by the middle pole when I opened my backpack to take out my reading glasses to read the map and left it half-open.
A lady buried in the crowd caught hold of my arm and gave me some stern instructions in Spanish. I couldn’t understand a word but understood what she meant. She wanted me to close my backpack. I thanked her and zipped my bag.
Moments later, a young man, stabbed me with his finger. He said something in Spanish but I didn’t understand. So he iterated it again, this time, with sign language.
Oh damn! Silly me!
He was telling me to carry my backpack in front.
So far, I was taking it easy. I was even carrying my money belt in the backpack carelessly tucked amongst the other knick-knacks.
I decided to wear it around my waist and empty the backpack of any valuables.
Foolishly I did that on the train in the full view of all commuters.
With iPhone in my hand, reading glasses around my neck, sunnies on my head, a money belt around my waist, a backpack with a spare jumper, water bottle, notepad, pens, and apples on my back, I was ready to see Santiago.
The next challenge was to figure out which station to get off. The hotel receptionist had circled off a station for us, closest to the city’s main attractions. When we showed that to a very helpful morning commuter on the train, he helped us to get off at the right station. When we got off, we were facing Santiago University.
The city center was nowhere in sight.
Plaza de Armas
Guided by the locals and a police officer, we found our way to Plaza de Armas, Santiago’s main square.
Like most of the Spanish towns, Santiago is also designed in a square grid pattern, with Plaza de Armas being the centerpiece.
We headed straight for the Santiago museum, only to find that all museums were closed on Mondays.
So were the gondolas in Metropolitan Park.
Basically, we couldn’t do anything.
We spent the day enjoying the lively street music and performances and local artists, roaming through the central market and having a peek at the Metropolitan Cathedral.
What stood out were the chess tables where anyone can go and have a game with very patient spectators watching over your shoulders.
Built-in 1800 Metropolitan Cathedral is the main church for Chilean Catholics. The neoclassical cathedral has spectacular artwork on the ceiling.
We wandered through the Mercado Central de Santiago (Central Market), which was full of craftwork. I particularly liked the wooden artifact. Many pieces had Indian influence. I wanted to buy the coasters but refrained. It was our first day, and I was already buying stuff.
Coffee with Legs
In downtown Santiago, a strange phenomenon not to be missed is cafe con piernas or “coffee with legs.” – where skimpily-clad waitresses serve coffee to well-suited businessmen. We managed to find one. It was called Haiti Café. Waitresses wore miniskirts, yellow tops, and unusually high heels sandals. Business people in suits stood at the high bar-style tables consuming tiny cups of coffee. I had hot chocolate, and Vipan had tea. We paid for the beverage, but hugs from waitresses were free.
The Chileans seemed to be obsessed with shoes.
Every second shop was selling shoes. Some streets around the plaza had six or seven shoe shops next to each other. One brand, Pizzeria, had multiple outlets in a single street, all selling the same shoes. Most of the sandals and even the boots had platform heals, some nine inches in height. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could even stand on those, let alone walk. But when I tried one, they were remarkably comfortable.
I found a pair I really liked, but I ended up not buying them. The shopkeeper wanted me to select another pair so that I could have two pairs for $20,000 (Chilean currency). While a single pair cost $17,000. How the hell was I going to fit two pairs of platform heel shoes in my suitcase.
I said goodbye to the shoes and walked away. My husband was relieved.
Probably the best way to see Santiago is Hop-On/ Hop-Off Bus
We bought tickets valid for two days. The bus has about 12 stops. Even in two days, we couldn’t see all of them all. Lucky for us, the starting point of the bus was at the mall Parque Arauco which was walking distance from our hotel.
Parque Arauco is Latin America’s most important mall where the best brands have their outlets. On top of that, it is a center of entertainment, with an open-air boulevard and excellent gastronomical choices.
San Cristobal Hill
It is the first stop off the bus. At 860 meters above sea level, San Cristobal Hill is the highest point in Santiago. There are two ways to get to it; you can walk or take the gondola. Our two day Hop On/Hop Off bus ticket came with free gondola passes, so we used that.
The area surrounding the hill is called Metropolitan Park, and it occupies 722 hectares. It is the largest in Chile. The sky was overcast, and the view was not very clear, but we still enjoyed the gondola ride. We were rewarded at the top with a 22-meters high statue of the Virgin Mary, an amphitheater, and a chapel.
This is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. Seems like Santiago artist like using crosses as a canvas. All the way down from the chapel, we came across several beautifully painted crosses. Some of them quite nice.
We came down the San Cristobal Hill through the last functioning funicular of Santiago. It was an amazing experience. The slop is almost 75 degrees, and when the two railway cars were about to cross each other, it was quite a sight. A must-do thing while at San Cristobal Hill. Although sometimes funicular may not be working.
I love taking photos of the fruit and veggies in other counties. They always look so much better. Have a look at the tomatoes and asparagus.
Despite the abundance of fresh produce, food in Chile is somewhat bland as few spices are used. On top of that, Chile has to fry everything. The beef, chicken, potatoes were all fried. Chile has the best walnuts in the world.
I traveled to Chile, Argentina, and Peru with my husband in November 2018. I will cover the trip over several posts.
Here is a list of some: