The one country nobody had any tips for. The one Anthony Bourdain episode I haven’t seen. The one that’s just a necessary stopover for many.
And yet Chile was a required first destination for me. Partly due to it’s ranging geography, a country which just about snakes onto the map, but somehow has it all: a bustling metropolis, beaches, skiing, the driest desert in the world, and the hikers’ paradise, Patagonia. Also partly due to growing up watching Marcelo Salas on Football Italia every weekend, and signing Alexis Sanchez countless times on old Championship Manager games.
First stop: Santiago. I was immediately struck by the long, shady parks to escape the beating sun, and how they’re populated with familiar people. After 24 hours of travel from the grime of East London, it’s almost reassuring to still be surrounded by guys with neck tattoos and girls with buzzcuts and Doc Martens.
One of the other things that I hadn’t previously read about was the sheer size of Santiago. It’s surrounded by mountains, providing a postcard backdrop in every direction, and the city only stops where mountains start. That, combined with absolutely no plans or preconceptions, leaves plenty to discover (or many places to get lost).
We start at Bellavista, known for it’s bustling nightlife and plentiful street art. A stroll through the neighbourhood again feels very familiar – think of the commercialised graffiti of Shoreditch and women throwing menus in front of you for their overpriced restaurants in Las Ramblas, and you’re on the right track. It’s a no from me, but any disappointment is shortlived.
Heading back through Providencia (home territory for the following days), we stumble across something which instantly calls out to me. A humble bar packed with the local after-work crowd and students catching up during their summer holidays, over copious pints and comfort food. The sort of place where over the years I’ve spent a lot of time, way too much money, and been kicked out of at closing more often then I’d like to admit.
After drooling over the next table’s food for 10 minutes, dinner arrives. A “sandwich”. Quotation marks due to the fact it was less a sandwich, more a platter of meat topped with enough avocado to feed every Balham brunch-goer, and a piece of bread precariously placed on top. It’s messy, delicious, overindulgent, and life-affirming. Or as Chileans call it…a sandwich.
Our first full day includes a walking tour to get our bearings and learn more about Santiago. The 3 hour trip is greatly welcomed – it’s informative and interesting, beefs up the daily step count, and burns off the beef from dinner.
After that sort of physical exertion, lunch at the bustling Mercado Central is a must. With the port just 90 minutes away, there’s fresh catch on offer every day, to the extent that the clams are still alive until someone makes an order. Once lunch has been washed down with the local speciality, a Pisco Sour, all is right with the world and there’s no doubt that Santiago is definitely worth a visit. Ultimately I can go anywhere, but all it takes is good food and cold booze and I’m swooning.
As easy as it would be to park up in one of Santiago’s bars for the rest of the day, I have a challenge ahead of me. The gaze of the statue atop Cerro San Cristóbal overlooks the city, and making the trek up to it is supposedly a fun afternoon. What they don’t tell you is that’s it’s pretty steep, and after a sumptuous lunch it seems like a big ask. And indeed it is, but after an hour’s hike up the hill, the reward is spectacular 360 degree views of Santiago, stretching on until the mountains intervene. The other good news is that after a workout like that, you definitely deserve another one of those “sandwiches”.
While Bellavista may not have lived up to it’s artistic reputation, creative expression is abundant elsewhere. An unplanned trip through the quiet residential neighbourhood of Balmaceda is an unexpected delight, where the noise and frantic energy of the city is quickly left behind. The tree-lined streets are framed by picturesque buildings, each one a different colour to the last. As well as being pleasing on the eye, there’s messages of unity and acceptance of others throughout – a stark contrast to the unwelcoming Western powers of today’s world.
This walk culminates in a visit to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. While Chile is now a country of warm, friendly people, it has a very recent dark history. Santiago was at the heart of this with a military coup taking place in 1973, including the bombing of La Moneda palace, leading to Pinochet taking power. Years of Pinochet’s military dictatorship led to thousands of people across the country being imprisoned, tortured, or “disappearing” and never returning home. While democracy was reestablished in 1990, the scars are still visible throughout the country. This museum serves to remember those who suffered and retell these dark events to ensure it never happens again.
At around 8pm the sun finally relents, and a different sort of life breathes through the city. The generous green spaces become open air gym classes and dance studios (with breakdance crews and tango partners sharing the same park), while bars and restaurants fill up with the energy of Chileans setting the world to rights. The former seems like way too much hard work to me, and instead I’d heartily recommend the later – find a bar stool to squeeze onto and wash the day away with another Pisco Sour.