Santiago Days (The Long Way Home)

By 17 May, 2011

As I write this I’m sitting in a Sao Paulo airport waiting for my flight connection heading home from my time in Santiago. I’ve slept two hours of the last 24. I smell strongly of perfume, after the lady sat next to me applied it liberally upon landing. I also can’t get the taste of LAN’s “coffee” out of my mouth.

So this seems the perfect time to share with you some of my impressions of the land they call “The Bottom of the World.”

Chile is the land of contradictions you would expect from a country stretching from the Atacama desert in the north to Antarctica in the south. Yes, they are in the process of claiming regions of the frozen south as part of Chile. How, I’m not sure, but the propaganda war includes giving the weather for the region every night on the news. It’s usually cold.

Stray dogs will wait for a green man before crossing the road, but it can take three people to sell you some bread.

The country produced the great poets Neruda, Rojas, Parra, and street art flourishes, but the major galleries seem sparse, almost empty, both of artwork and visitors, and books are hugely expensive due to a random tax.

Santiago houses around 40 percent of the total population of the whole country, yet step out of the city limits even a mile or so and the feel and culture of your surroundings changes completely, more traditional, more how you would have pictured it.

Chile is a country in transition, still trying to find itself a modern, global identity.

Coming off the back of the socialist Salvador Allende, followed by the period of military dictatorship until 1990, this is hardly surprising.

Along with political repression Pinochet brought huge economic reforms to the country, laying the foundations for Chile to become one of the leading economies in Latin America. Large supplies of copper are still the backbone of the economy, but diversification is the name of the game over the next decade.

Many people in the country are still vocal in their praise of Pinochet for his role in Chile’s economic present. People’s opinions of the period are highly variable, largely depending on the style of school they attended at the time, and during the 90s. Each school has more freedom in Chile than the UK and large numbers of private and semi-private institutions all through the educational journey accentuate this.

Since 1990, after a national vote over whether military rule should continue, the next twenty years were dominated by the left wing Concertacion coalition. Michelle Bacholet, the final left wing President in the sequence, left office with over 80 percent approval ratings.

But in the next election, the right’s billionaire candidate with the crazy brother, Sebastian Pinera won. Chile feels like a conservative country in its attitudes, and approaches, but large sections of the country remain very poor, with copper mining providing significant allure due to high wages.

It is only recently Chile felt comfortable voting for a right-wing candidate, despite voter affinity with such candidates.

Protests were extremely rare during the 90s but a new generation is beginning to find its voice, unscarred by the experiences of military rule.

Traditional values are still extremely prevalent, with many young people, women especially, living at home until marriage. Yet the traditions of the indigenous cultures of the Mapuche and Rapa Nui are largely ignored as not part of Chile.

Claims over land seized from both people have caused furious protests over the last year. The Rapa Nui on Easter Island occupied a hotel and Mapuche activists have faced punishments under terrorism legislation. Yet most of this was conspicuous in it’s absence from much of Chile’s mainstream media.

Away from politics and history, when looking for that which is quintessentially Chilean, you need look no further than the institution of the asado. To say they are a BBQ would diminish them, to say house party would downplay the communal feeling cooking the food brings.

Often multi course, and good quality, choripan (small spicy sausages) usually kick off proceedings, followed by chicken. Then, when the coals have cooled, a slab of beef is laid on the grail. As the outside cooks, it’s cut off, sliced and handed round so that everyone takes a piece.

This usually goes on well into the early hours. On the occasion of Brujula’s lead singer’s birthday, I was the first one to leave, and only did so at 6 in the morning after I saw the sun peeking over the horizon.

Needless to say high quantities of beer and pisco provide the fuel to the festivities.

But what if summing up a country’s character and culture in 700 odd words isn’t the aim of you visit? What is on offer in Santiago? Well…there are things, you just have to dig a little deeper to find them then you would in other cities.

The Museo Belles Artes (next to Bellas Artes metro stop) is the main art museum in the city. The building is split in two, with one entrance housing fine arts, the other modern. Or at least that’s supposed to be the distinction, the line is a bit blurred, and there are usually photography exhibitions in both. You have to go out and come in again, there is no joining corridor. It does mean you have to pay twice, but both are under £1.

A walk up Cerro San Cristobel is a great way to get some energy back in your legs after the plane ride. However be warned, it is a proper walk, if you go in the summer make sure you take some water.

Pablo Neruda’s house is just round the corner from the park entrance and is worth a visit, the tour can be a little hit and miss largely depending on the tour guide, but it’s still worth it. It’s also cheaper in Spanish if you want to test yourself.

For food, there are numerous places along Providencia Avenue, and in patio Bellavista. But if you want good, cheap traditional Chilean food, visit Santa Angela café on the corner of Loreto and Bellavista. Always fresh, and providing different food every day, it is definitely worth a visit.

For an empanada, the staple local snack, the bakery on Andres de Bello, and another between Bellas Artes metro and The Clinic bar are my picks. I would also recommend The Clinic bar for both food and drink. It’s a little pricy, but always popular. But for the authentic Chilean drinking experience head to La Nona bar on Pio Nono.

A bike tour with Bicicleta Verde and a day trip to Valparaiso will help you see more of Santiago and Chile respectfully.

Well I guess that’s that. I’ve just seen my British Airways plane pull up to the gate.

So that’s it from Santiago Days. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the blog as much as I’ve enjoyed Chile, I hope I did it justice.


To check out Mark’s future adventures, wherever they may be, as well as follow his journalism go to @briggsma

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