So, you’ve decided to go to South America, and with the Atacama desert in the North, and Patagonia in the South, how could you possibly bypass that long skinny, chilli-shaped country, Chile. Chances are you’ll be arriving in Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport anyway, one of South America’s busiest airports, but if all you see it as is a transport hub, you will miss out on experiencing one of South America’s greatest cities. If you take the time to really explore it, you’ll find it has more to offer than just hustle, bustle and clouds of smog.
The history is important
To really appreciate Chile, you need to know about her history. In the 16th Century the northern regions were occupied by the Inca’s and the Southern regions by the native Mapuche people. In the mid-16th century Spanish conquistador, Pedro de Valdivia, came to Chile and defeated the Natives and founded Santiago, becoming its first royal governor. It wasn’t until the 19th Century the Chilean declaration of Independence from the Spanish Empire was signed. The first Chilean Governing body was formed on September 18, 1810, and is celebrated annually with patriotic parties, or Fiestas Patrias.
The more modern historical aspect of Chile that is still felt very strongly today is the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990. In 1973 the democratic government lead by Salvado Allende was overthrown by General Pinochet and became under military dictatorship until 1990. The regime resulted in thousands of deaths, tortures and forced many Chileans to flee. While the pain of this regime can still be strongly felt today, it has fostered a feeling of strength and togetherness in the people, who remain very proud of and very patriotic towards their country. If you don’t believe me, try to be in Santiago for the next Cup America or the World Cup. I was there in 2015 when Chile won the Cup America and the celebration was bigger than that of New Year’s Eve, car horns were sounding, glitter covered the streets, and as we made our way through the city towards the train station a family grabbed our hands and brought us into their circle to dance and chant and hug and cry with them. Chile had won. CHILE HAD WON. No matter the hardships that had been experienced in the past, or that the people may still be being experiencing now, achievements are to be celebrated. And Chilean pride can certainly not be suppressed.
Londres street is my favourite in the whole city. Aptly named “Londres”, it is reminiscent of Europe with its cobblestones and European architecture. However, behind its beautiful exterior lies a dark and oppressive history. Londres 38 is the address of one of the detention and torture centres for those who opposed the regime. Originally an office of the socialist party, it was seized by the military and the number was changed to 40 in an attempt to cover up the horrors that occurred there. Ninety-six people were killed at its location and their names now line the cobblestone street in little plaques of memorial. There were many musicians and artists that used their talent and their fame to stand against the regime. One such artist is the poet Pablo Neruda, whose death remains controversial to this day. Neruda’s three houses in and around Santiago have been transformed into museums where you can learn about the history of Chile and the mind of this remarkable and highly creative man.
City Orientation and Transport
Santiago is a huge, bustling city, so it can feel quite daunting and disorienting when you first arrive, but most tourists will be moving along one main metro line, the red line, line 1. It runs parallel to the main street in Santiago, La Alameda. The metro is highly efficient, you never have to wait more than a few minutes for the next train, but it is extremely busy, especially during peak hour. The good news is, that the line 1 metro stops are within walking distance of one another, in fact, if you have to travel 3 stops or less, I would definitely choose to walk it, and because you just follow along La Alameda, it’s difficult to get lost, and you see more! If you do need to travel to other parts of the city it’s pretty easy to do so, the metro lines are well connected and separated by numbers and colours. There are also buses for the areas that are not well connected to the metro, as well as ‘collectivos’. Collectivos look like taxis, but have a fixed rate per person, for a maximum of 4 people. They are definitely more comfortable than buses, and only slightly more expensive, but unless you’re a local, it’s difficult to know which collectivo to take! Each collectivos has one pick up point and are designed to take people where the metro doesn’t, but a heads up, they will drop you off to a particular part of town, but they do not come back to pick you up, so make sure you know how to get back if you take one! The most important thing to know about collectivos as a tourist, is that they look very much like taxis, so just be sure you realise the difference before you try hailing one on the side of the road, or you risk looking a little silly!
When travelling though the city, don’t be surprised if you find yourself travelling alongside a stray dog! Santiago is full of them, and they often hop on and off buses. While you might want to give them love and affection, be aware that if you do they might want to follow you all the way home, and it only gets more and more painful the longer they try to follow you! Most of them don’t give you any trouble and it’s best to leave them be, however, if you find a street dog in need of help or medical attention, there are dedicated facebook pages that you can post on such as: sos gatos and perros chile: https://www.facebook.com/groups/291479237594858/.
Things to do…
In the central area:
There are 2 famous hills in the city: Cerro Santa Lucia – which is the smaller of the two and very pretty to walk up. It also has a nice market opposite it called Feria Artesanal Santa Lucia that is worth checking out, especially if you’re looking for unique, non-gimmicky gifts for loved ones back home!
The other, larger one is called Cerro San Cristobel. It is a good hike to the top, and a favourite for the more sports inclined Chileans who take to the mountain by bike or foot, and reward themselves at the top with a typical Chilean dessert called Mote con Huesillo. But if you’re not interested in the climb, you can still reach the top by funicular, and enjoy the view and dessert all the same! I recommend ascending the hill via the trekking path, you don’t have to share with the many cyclists and you see more of the park. It’s steeper, but you also get the top faster. At the bottom of the hill you will find a zoo, and often there will be a man out the front with his llama waiting for tourists to pay him for a photo. If you’re like me and you don’t want to indulge this kind of animal tourism, a better option is to visit Pablo Neruda’s Santiago house, La Chascona, which is right around the corner!
La Moneda was the old Mint, and now the presidential house of Santiago, where the most important meetings in Chilean politics take place. You can attend day tours there by booking online in advance (don’t forget your passport). La Moneda was also a target during the military coup and the tours are another great way to learn about the history. There’s also a museum underneath which holds different exhibitions and serves a nice coffee (without legs!) You might be wondering ‘what is coffee with legs?!’ Café con piernas, as the Chileans call it, is the Chilean café culture. While the coffee mightn’t be great, it doesn’t seem to matter to the clientele, who often go there for business meetings and are served by, as the name suggests, very leggy waitresses. Not uncommon is to see cafés with blacked out windows, in these cafés the waitresses show off more than just their legs!
If food is more your thing, you must check out a biggest food market, La Vega. It’s a place of chaos to say the least, but something really not to be missed. Here you will find people selling everything and anything, and the best part is, it’s all great quality and very cheap. You’ll also find smaller street markets, ‘ferias’ around the city, which are also cheap but less chaotic. If you’re going to be in Santiago for a while, find the one in your neighbourhood, it beats going to the supermarket, at least for your fruits and veggies!
A day trip away:
Santiago is also a great base to take some day trips. I highly recommend taking the time to go and see the port city, Valparaiso, which is about an hour or so from Santiago by car. There are plenty of buses heading there daily and you can find the schedules at Station Central. The city is UNESCO world heritage listed because of the way it has been built up into the hills. It’s very colouful and has amazing street art on every corner. You can do free walking tours run by local guides which I highly recommend. They work for tips and do a good job so it’s always good to take some cash with you to hand over to them at the end of the tour.
Another nice day trip is to Cajon del Maipo, a town built into the Andes. It’s also about an hour’s drive away, but here you really feel like you’re leaving the city and entering the ‘real’ Chile. You feel your breathing start to change as you enter the fresh mountain air. Definitely don’t forget to take your camera as, even if you’re breathing easier, the views are breath-taking!
Places to Eat
Now this wouldn’t be a vegan traveller’s blog if I didn’t recommend some good vegan eateries. Veganism is not yet part of the Chilean culture, but it is becoming increasingly more common and people are catering for it, if you know where to look! Non-vegan restaurants are not likely to have any vegan options. If you’re lucky you might be able to convince the chef to cook you something off the menu, but you’ll need to specify exactly what you don’t eat, and it still may come with eggs or mayonnaise!
So here’s some of my recommendations:
- Evergreen – not strictly vegan as it’s a vegetarian buffet style restaurant where you pay for as many dishes as you’d like on your plate. It’s very cheap and the people serving are happy to tell you which options are vegan and what the ingredients are.
- Soju – Mostly vegan, although some options have cheese so if you’re not sure, ask. The menu changes daily and are usually vegan versions of typical Chilean plates. They also make fantastic vegan deserts and chocolates.
- El café vegan de La Tribus – The café is strictly vegan and make the most delicious vegan mayonnaise that you can also buy to take away. It comes in different flavours and will make even egg and dairy consumers turn from their regular mayonnaise – I guarantee it!
There are also monthly vegan markets held at the Centro Arte Alameda, where you can find many other vendors selling and promoting their vegan products, check their Facebook page for details of the events: Feria Vegourmet.
So get ready to say ‘hola’ Santiago and don’t forget that sometimes the best way to see a city is to sit down and let the city come to you. Take your time in Santiago and don’t go rushing around with your eyes closed. Definitely don’t use it as a transfer hub.