Santiago is a big city and feels like a big city. Part of that could be that it is rather modern. A history of earthquakes kept destroying everything until they figured out new building techniques in late 19th century. Hence, almost all the large, grand buildings date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s and are in every neoclassical style imaginable. As you look out over the vast landscape that is the city, you see modern high-rise buildings everywhere. It also has a lot of smog. While the city is surrounded by mountains, there are many days you would not know that.
Although it’s a large city, between walking, the subway, and an occasional taxi, it is pretty easy to get around Santiago. While not rampant, we were surprised by the number of homeless people we encountered. On the way back to our apartment, we kept passing an entire family living in the park. They even had a TV. I mentioned the homelessness to a walking tour guide and he was surprised in that bemused South American kind of way, especially since I am living in Buenos Aires and clearly it has to be worse there. But then he pointed out a homeless guy in the next block that is always there.
After spending 3 months in Argentina, we couldn’t help but notice the difference in service. Chileans get service, especially in restaurants. And they have compelling need to be of service. You can be standing in a park admiring the view and someone will stop and ask if you’re lost. “No, just looking.” “Do you need directions?” “No, I’m fine”. “There’s a nice building over there”. “Nope, I’m good. Thanks tough”. “Ok, enjoy”.
A few highlights:
Cafes con piernas or “cafes with legs” are one of the more interesting Santiago traditions. Estimates consistently say there are easily over 100 of these around the city. You can spot these cafes in the CBD by looking for mostly old men standing around drinking coffee with attractive, young women in short, tight skirts serving them. No food or alcohol is served. Prices are 3 - 4 times what you would normally pay but then the patrons are there for the view. And the attention. The cheap old men just sit on benches near the cafe and ogle from afar. Check out Cafe Haiti or Cafe Caribe on Paseo Ahumada in the CBD. You can't miss them - they have a lot of mirrors on the walls.
Iglesia Santa Filomena is a neo-gothic gem with all the walls and columns painted to resemble marble and other materials or in patterns that resemble Victorian Bradbury and Bradbury wallpaper. It’s in good condition [it’s been restored several times after earthquakes] and the vaulted architecture with subdued colors gives it a calming feel. Simple but compelling. A walk around the inside perimeter will provide you with a depiction of the stations of the cross and simple statues of common bible stories.
The Mercado Vega Central dates back to 1895 when the north side of the Mapocho river was fertile farmland. You would never know that today as it is surrounded by slightly gritty city. However, many of the stalls have been passed down through the generations and it is definitely “authentic”. It is as raw as the produce sold there. And huge. It is one of the largest markets we’ve visited. It now provides about 4% of all produce sold in the city and includes items from surrounding countries like Peru. Don’t confuse it with the Mercado Central on the Plaza de Armas side of the river; this market has been “TimeOuted” for tourists.
The Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos commemorates the human rights abuses of the Pinochet regime in the 70s and 80s. The exhibits use photos, films, narratives and other items to personalize the deaths, disappearance and torture of thousands during this time. The visual and interactive experience is an excellent way to better understand the upheaval, fear and loss inflicted on the country by the Pinochet dictatorship.