Santiago (29 November – 1 December 2013)
After having spent a few days in a part of Latin America that felt so un-Latin, I was returning to a very Latin part of the continent. I was returning from Polynesia to white South America.
I arrived at the Santiago airport at about 8 pm and got myself to my hotel without a hitch on one of the share taxis at the airport. After all those adventures in the past two weeks, the plan was to explore urban Chile aimlessly and give my body a bit of rest.
Santiago was a little reminiscent of Buenos Aires. And I do always tell my friends that Santiago was like a smaller version of Buenos Aires. I know that this may be quite an unfair comparison but here was another major Latin American city that was really quite European in feel unlike those other cities I had visited on this trip. However, I somehow felt more comfortable in Santiago than I did in Buenos Aires. It was either I was becoming more confident of going about South America on my own or I had more affinity to the city.
Despite the frantic pace that I encountered in the city, Santiago still strangely felt like quite a relaxing place. I started my visit at the Plaza de Armas. It was a crowded Friday and although it was still working hours it felt like the weekend had already started.
The Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral was quite a beauty and I noticed that it was the one place that received the most visitors at the Plaza de Armas.
The National History Museum at the Plaza de Armas was a nice place to hang out in and see some of the items connected to Chilean history exhibited there. In any case it was a nice refuge from the crowd and the heat of the South American summer outside.
Another small museum in Santiago was the National Museum of Fine Arts. Despite its grand Beaux-arts style architecture, the building houses a somewhat small collection. It was nevertheless worth a visit. The pretty building was badly damaged during the earthquake of 2010 but I did not notice any trace of that during my visit.
The fine arts museum is located in the Parque Forestal. This was long public park in central Santiago and very close to my hotel in Baquedano. While the Parque Forestal was very green, the one on Santa Lucía Hill was full of interesting structures. The hill is what remains of a 15 million year old volcano and was once used as a fort.
Another hill that was worth getting up to was San Cristóbal Hill. Although its summit is around 300 metres above the city, it is not necessary to go up the hill on foot if one does not want to, or is not mad enough to. There is a funicular for people like me who had not gone to Santiago to keep fit.
There is a sanctuary on the summit of San Cristóbal dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. The highlight of the sanctuary is this 14-metre tall pure white statue of the Virgin Mary standing on an 8-metre tall pedestal. The statue is so white that it blinds in the strong sunlight. There is a small chapel within the pedestal.
The best part of my visit however was the view of the city below.
The Mercado Central, or Central Market, of Santiago has an interesting wrought iron structure that reminded me so much of Lau Par Sat in Singapore. It is mainly a fish market though the area in the middle of the market has been given away to overpriced seafood restaurants. It is not far away from Plaza de Armas and I have to say that it was the smell of the goods traded there that alerted me to the fact that there was a market in the area just as I was wandering about.
There are however other far more exciting markets in Santiago and I would not have known about them if I had not joined the Tours4Tips tour of Santiago. Tours4Tips is a series of tours conducted only in Santiago and Valparaíso by guides dressed like Wally (of “Where’s Wally?”) and who are paid in tips. The guide Carlos, originally from Colombia, took us on a 3 hour tour of the city.
It was a Sunday morning when I joined the tour and Carlos brought us to La Vega and Tirso de Molina, two markets both separated by only a street. These were not like the Mercado Central at all. They are where Chileans go to get fresh food at apparently good prices. I had always considered real food markets to look, feel and smell like these two. Mercado Central definitely had the smell but not too much of the look and feel, and I definitely did not appreciate its touristy middle.
Another place that Carlos brought us to was quite a surprise for me. It was the Cementerio General of Santiago and I was really surprised that there was such a place in the city. I had thought that the Recoleta Cemetery of Buenos Aires was the only one of its kind at least in South America. This one in Santiago however was better I thought. Better and bigger! Even the mausolea there looked bigger and more elaborate than the ones in Buenos Aires.
Nice buildings are not reserved only for rich dead people though. Barrio Lastarria is a rather hip place with some pretty buildings. I took a walk there on a Friday afternoon but it felt a bit too hip for me to stay long. I did enjoy walking under the pretty jacaranda trees on the street though.
I had quite a nice weekend in Santiago. I had not expected much out of my visit but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Santiago was a nice place to spend a few relaxing days in. And did I mention that I think I prefer Santiago over Buenos Aires?