Note: I visited Santiago twice for a day trip two weeks apart. For the sake of brevity, I decided to combine the two trips into one post.
Santiago, Chile was not on any list of places I had intended to visit in the near future. But when I was booking flights to Ushuaia, Argentina for a cruise to Antarctica, I realized that flying the Chilean airline LATAM was the best option. From LA, the itinerary had me connecting through Santiago on both ends of the trip. Rather than simply connect through, I took the opportunity to visit my 49thcountry.
Visit 1: November 11, 2018
The flight from Los Angeles took about 10 hours and we landed right around 7AM. From the air, I was shocked by how similar the natural landscape looked like to my hometown. The brown brush of the Andean foothills looked like eerily similar to chaparral of the Santa Monica Mountains.
After clearing customs, I got into a share van that took me to the Plaza de Armas. I would highly recommend against taking the share taxi. Although it only cost about $12 to get into town, the ride took nearly 90 minutes because we had to load up the van and then drop someone else off first. The right move is the $3 public bus.
9 AM on a Sunday isn’t the ideal time to tour a Latin American city, but here I was wandering a sleepy Santiago. In most Latin American cities, the Plaza de Armas is ringed by beautiful old buildings. Unfortunately here that was not the case because of earthquakes. The oldest and nicest building in the square was the cathedral.
It was easily one of the prettiest I have ever seen and can compete with the churches of Europe. A creepy fact about this church is that underneath the main altar is a crypt where all the former bishops are buried. That means that the bishop performs mass everyday above his future tomb.
I then walked around the rest of downtown. It was a weekend so nobody was around, but the place seemed orderly and pedestrian friendly. A few blocks south of the cathedral is the Palacio de Moneda aka the home of the Chilean president. Unlike most presidential palaces, this one is very much open to the public. Not only is the public allowed to tour the palace and courtyard, but there is actually a museum located in the basement. I got there a bit too early in the day so instead I got to watch the start of a 5K race. All the participants wore matching pink t-shirts which made for quite a scene.
My next stop was the Vega Central, Santiago’s main produce market. Produce markets are usually the most happening places in Latin American cities in the AMs. Vega Central was no exception. As I wandered the narrow alleys of the market, I was impressed by how orderly this market was. All the merchants had well-defined stalls and there was no yelling. Wandering my way to the back, I found the prepared food stalls. It turned out that all the stalls sold 2 things: empanadas (choice of Chilean or Venezuelan style) and fresh fruit juice. I went to the busiest stall and ordered my empanadas and pineapple juice for $5. It was amazing. I can definitely get behind this trend.
Just a few blocks south of Vega Central was Santiago’s main tourist attraction, Mercado Central. It opened in 1872 and today functions exclusively as a seafood market. The main touristy restaurants crowd the large hall in the middle while more low-key restaurants line the outside. I decided to visit one of the restaurants on the outside that looked busy. Even though I was full from the empanadas, I ordered a plate of ceviche. It was good, but not as good as Peruvian or Panamaian ceviche. Next time, I would probably order the grilled shrimp.
My final stop was Cerro Santa Lucia, a seemingly random hill next to downtown. This remnant of an ancient volcano has a 200-year old castle built at the top. By 1872, the city had expanded so much that the castle was no longer necessary for defense so an urban architect named Benjamin Vicuna Mackenna decided to turn Cerro Santa Lucia into a park. He built roads, footpaths, gardens, fountains, and a chapel on the hill. Today, it is a popular attraction for both visitors and locals. Once a day, the government fires a cannon from the castle.
From the top of the castle, there are 360 degree views of the city. Santiago truly is a massive place with sprawl as far as the eye can see in every direction. I felt like I could be in parts of Los Angeles here. I then walked back to the Plaza de Armas which has free WiFi to catch an Uber to the airport for my 3pm flight.
My first impressions of Santiago were quite good and I looked forward to my return in 2 weeks.
The Return: November 25, 2018
My flight landed from Buenos Aires around 9:30 am on Sunday. Unfortunately a bunch of other international flights also landed at the same time and immigration was woefully overwhelmed. The disorganized line/crowd stretched up an escalator into another room. Luckily, the authorities let me go into the Chilean lane and I only waited 45 minutes.
Instead of the share-van, this time I took a public bus for just $3. The bus runs every 10 minutes and takes approximately 30 minutes to reach downtown Santiago. This was definitely the best way into the city.
The bus drops you off at the Los Heroes stop on Santiago’s impressive subway system. Here, I met up with my college friend Sarah who works for an educational company in Santiago. She originally studied abroad in Santiago and loved it so much that she decided to return. Her first job was teaching English but soon was able to find this new opportunity. She has loved her first 18 months in Chile and was excited to show me around for the day.
We hopped onto the train. Tickets are approximately $1 USD/ride and run every 5 minutes on weekends (1-3 minutes on weekdays). The train was busy and decently clean.
In just 10 minutes we had crossed underneath downtown Santiago and were now in the eastern neighborhood called Providencia. This is where Sarah and much of the middle/upper class lives.
Immediately, I could tell that this was a nice area. The most prominent sign was that there was no graffiti anywhere. The streets were cleaner and there was more foliage around than in the western neighborhoods. Despite not being in downtown, Providencia had a number of tall buildings and is a major employment center. In fact, South America’s tallest building, the 984-foot Costanera Center is here in Providencia.
Sarah is an avid runner and trains with a local track club regularly. We decided to go on one of her favorite runs up Cerro San Cristobal, a giant hill a few blocks north of Providencia. When we arrived, it was obvious that many other people dressed in fitness apparel had the same idea. The city closes the road to motorized traffic every Sunday: only runners and cyclists are allowed. Booths handed out free water, Gatorade and snacks lines the hillside. This is now the second city-sponsored running event I have seen in Santiago.
The trip to the top of Cerro San Cristobal was not easy: it took us about 30 minutes of jogging and gained about 300 meters (1,000 ft) of elevation. At the top we were met by smarter tourists who took the gondola to the top.
The view was incredible: 360 degree views of the city that were considerably better than Cerro Santa Lucia. While enjoying the view, we snacked on mote con huesillo – a sweet drink made with peaches, cinnamon, and husked wheat.
My next stop was the Museo de Bella Artes (art museum). While the building was pretty, I was not impressed by the collection. Luckily, admission was free so it’s hard to complain too much.
A few blocks away from the museum (and Cerro Santa Lucia) is the Barrio Lastaria- a hip and artistic neighborhood. It is often described as “bohemian”. The streets were lively. There was a street market with people selling items such as old maps, weed paraphanalia, and books. Street performers also popped up regularly. The neighborhood was very walkable.
I visited 4 places in Bario Lastaria:
- Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center aka the GAM. This beautiful community center has art exhibits, meeting areas, and classes in dance, art, and performance art. The building opened in 2010. This was far better than the art museum and was easily one of my favorite things in Santiago.
- Emporio de la Rosa. A famous ice creamery recommended by my friend Ignacio. I got acai and raspberry/mint sorbet. Perfect on a hot summer day!
- A no-name café for Once. The word once is Spanish for 11, but in Chile it also means an evening snack generally served between 5-8pm. Sarah and I sipped homemade lemon soda and chatted.
- Jose Ramon 277. According to Sarah, Chile is not known for its cuisine (I can’t ever remember going to a Chilean restaurant until this trip). However, I discovered that Chilean sandwiches are delicious. In addition to my sandwich, I also had a saison. Craft beer is taking hold in Chile even though wine and pisco sours still rule the land. I learned that Santiago has a rule that you have to order food with drinks at a restaurant.
It was now 9pm and time to head back to the airport to catch my flight back to Los Angeles.
While I didn’t see it all, I can say with certainty that this was the most livable city I have seen in Latin America. It felt relaxed despite its size. The economy is strong and there are plenty of jobs. The currency is stable, inflation is low, credit cards are widely accepted. People were quite friendly and welcoming to foreigners. The public transit is spectacular.
While I didn’t get to see any of the surrounding areas, Santiago is perfectly situated in between the Andes mountains, the beach, and one of the best wine regions on earth. The quality of life here seems very high.
My two gripes were the graffiti and the Latin culture of late-ness (events start late and people never show up on time). While the nocturnal culture won’t change, I can see Santiago following the lead of Bogota and creating a vibrant street art culture. Overall, those issues are very minor.
I really hope to return to Chile to see the rest of the country. There appears to be so much here!