When originally planning our trip through South America we thought of Chile only as a vehicle from which to pass from Argentina to Bolivia. Other than Valparaiso, we didn’t really have any plans to stay in Chile for long—a day or two at most. A number of travel guides informed us that Santiago did not deserve to take up much space on a traveller’s itinerary, and so with relatively low expectations of the city we booked a hostel in the colourful BellaVista area only intending to stay for two nights.
I was not expecting to be blown away.
From the first time I saw the vast sprawl of the city, lying deep in a valley and enclosed on all sides by the towering peaks of the Andes, I was entranced. How can a city exist in such a place? The only way out in any direction is to cross the mountains. We had crossed over the pass between Mendoza and Santiago on a narrow road that wound its way through the mountains, snaking steeply downwards from the Chilean border and from there the scenery got more and more spectacular—beautiful mountains and verdant vineyards making way to the urban sprawl of another South American city.
Santiago does not feel like any other of the South American cities I have visited so far, which admittedly are few. It is more chilled out, more relaxed and decidedly less pretentious than Buenos Aires. Maybe it does not have as much to offer in terms of culture and cuisine but it more than makes up for it in character. Siesta does not seem to exist here; you will not walk down deserted city streets at the height of a sunny afternoon—here you will find people out on the streets eating, drinking, and enjoying the warmth of the spring sun at any time of the day. The party does not end here: these same street-side bars will still be buzzing as the sun rises the following morning, most probably filled with the same lunchtime drinkers because Chileans seem to have boundless energy. The noise of drums reverberates around the alleyways from street-corner and one-man bands.
It’s hard to pin down why I love Santiago: large parts of it are shabby, taxi drivers don’t seem to know anything beyond the city centre, and the local food is terrible. So what do I love?
- Santiago seems safe
I think about cities in terms of if I could live there and for me that is based on how I feel when I’m there. I didn’t find any city in Uruguay or Argentina where I felt ‘the spark’, in most of them I felt unsafe, and if I didn’t feel unsafe it was because they were probably too small and far away to be of interest to a potential expat. In almost two weeks in Santiago I have never felt threatened or intimidated—even when I was warned to put my camera away on a busy street in broad daylight. I’m not saying that it couldn’t happen, after all the guide books warn of potential crime and I met people who experienced it in Santiago but it is not something that would make me question living here and personal safety is my highest priority when choosing somewhere to live.
- Santiago is easily navigated by foot
I love a city that you can walk around. As much as I loved living in Saigon it frustrated me that the streets were too bad, the humidity too high and the roads too dangerous to walk far. I would try but my attempts would end in my getting angry to the point of tears and hailing a taxi. In Santiago most things are within walking distance and the walks often take you past colourful street art and through lush parks.
- Santiago has parks, and mountains—lots of them
Any city with a lot of greenery is a winner in my book. I don’t want to live in the countryside but I want to feel like it is not too far away and Santiago’s parks are plentiful enough to ensure that you can always see greenery. What’s more, the public parks here have cross-training machines in them, what a brilliant initiative for a nation obsessed with greasy meat, chips and fried eggs.
Not only that but Santiago has two huge hills right in the city centre, Cerro San Lucia and Cerro San Cristobal, both of which offer great vantage points over the city. San Cristobal also has an ancient funicular that hauls visitors up its steep incline to the giant statue of the Virgin Mary standing with her arms outstretched over the city in a way reminiscent of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer.
- Santiago has GREAT shopping malls
They are not in the town centre; the town centre itself is a bit of a let-down but the malls out of town are sensational, and huge. You can find decent clothes shops, including a newly opened ‘Topshop’, and recognised food chains such as Starbucks, Taco Bell and Dunkin Donuts. Before you criticise me for my last statement let me make it clear that I know travelling is all about new cultural experiences and not about finding things from home but, as I said before, I think about places in terms of whether or not I could live there and one thing that living in Asia for four years taught me is that sometimes you NEED a taste of home or you will go crazy. You also need to buy underwear that fits so a decent shopping mall is integral to creating a happy expat life.
- Santiago is diverse
Each barrio (neighbourhood) in Santiago has a different character, in one day I went from Bohemian BellaVista to affluent Los Trapenses, which looks like it could be a suburb in Beverley Hills. Fancy leisure clubs like Santa Marina offer members the opportunity to go paintballing, zip lining, horseback riding or just lying by the huge outdoor pool with the Andes as a stunning backdrop.
You can eat empanadas from a cheap roadside stand or Indian curry at the Majestic hotel, cooked by an ex-chef of the Sheraton, New Delhi and wash it down with a frozen yoghurt at Yogen-Fruz in fancy BellaVista Patio’s courtyard.
So there you have it: I am in love with Santiago and just like any human love it is hard to justify it other than to say that it just feels ‘right’. It is a city I could live with—it does not have a shiny, glossy coating like many European cities and it may lack the culture of some of its South American neighbours. It has more than its fair share of poverty and it is not particularly easy or cheap to fly in and out of but it is fun, relaxed and has a great view of the mountains. Which is why my two nights has stretched to two weeks and I am still in no hurry to leave 🙂
Has any place you have visted ever blown you away? Where? Can you explain why? Please ‘like’ or share this post to spread some Santiago love!