Travel to Santiago, Chile

Our first day in Santiago spent battling little spurts of travel exhaustion. We arrived at Sammy Hostel located just south of the main Republica Avenue. After dropping off our bags we walked up the main street and realized it was spotted with many different high schools and universities. The side walks were packed with youthful Chileans. I suddenly felt really self conscious. We were both being stared at by all these beautiful Latino youngsters (much of whom looked like Shakira and Enrique). I stared down at my outfit and realized I looked like I had just rolled out of an “11 hour plane ride,” which indeed I just did. We took the Metro to find the local travel agent in hopes of booking our Machu Pichu excursion and a flight from Cuzco to Lima. The metro here is insane. It is the busiest public transit I have ever been on in my life. Sardines in a can is an understatement. Hands grabbing for bars, plastic hanging loops covered in paws and appendages braced just to keep their position on the chicken coop of a train car. I loved it! As the metro zoomed underground the wind rushed into the cars and it reminded me that I was alive, in Chile, pinch me. Sarah and I have both come to realize that the men of Chile are drop dead gorgeous. After talking to our travel agent we walked back to our hostel, weaving through several art vendors and stands selling piping hot empanadas with mustard. It seems to be the true street food here as every other local is chewing on one as they scurry down the street. I simply love the cute little grandma’s that sell little bags of fresh fruit, especially the red seedless grapes which we eat in Canada so often.

The streets on Republica at night were lined with interesting individuals selling their little trinkets. Our favorite was the man selling a collection of ornamental banzai trees and shrubs. The university students were now done class and they stared at us as we walked by (perhaps our paper white skin was startling to them). We passed by a beautiful fountain and cathedral where we saw an interesting bohemian man who was wearing a suit made of garbage bags, twine and towels. We were actually able to see his butt cheeks which was a huge treat. He was holding three swords and chanting, picture that, ha. As we walked back to our hostel at 6pm the sun was going down and the temperature was beginning to cool. We both jokingly talked about the apparent ravenous hairstyles that here in Santiago, are commonplace. Obviously influenced by mainstream Spanish culture: men and women grow huge mullets, often capped off with long dread lock rat tails. I hope to get picture proof in the next few days.

We sat outside on the terrace of our hostel for a bit and chatted with three Canadians. Two of them are from Ottawa and have been traveling through South America for five months. They told us they are traveling on the cheap and won’t go home until they run out of all of their money. This is the story we have been hearing from almost everyone. It seems that the backpackers in South America differ on this point from those in Europe. The best example of this is the gentlemen who we got to know rather well today as he was being yelled at by the owner of the hostel throughout the afternoon and evening. We were told later that night that he had arrived in January (which was five months ago) and had booked a week here. A week turned into a month, a month turned into another month of not paying. He was finally told that he had to work six days a week at the hostel to pay off his debt. We were fortunate enough to arrive the day he was finally kicked out. I really can’t believe he spent five months in this one city. I don’t think I could do that, I like to travel around so much. I even asked “what did he do every day” and none of the people who worked here had a clue. I think he played Warcraft on the computers and did a bit of on line dating. The guy was unorganized, sloppy, and as the owner said “the hostel mascot.”

Santiago is a very polluted city. It is located in a valley surrounded by sky dipped desert mountains. I feel like I am at the bottom of a bowl. As we flew in yesterday I saw the queasy haze as we descended for landing. I have been dry hacking since arrival. We walked to the Bella Vista district of town which is known for its artsy bohemian nightlife. On the way we passed a beautiful park full of benches and I was so happy to see that the streets were full of couples and friends chatting. You would never see this in Toronto at 8pm at night! It reminded me a lot of Spain as people chitty chat on the street late into the night. Walking across the bridge we glanced over at the most sorry assed river on earth. We must be experiencing a dry spell here because the river looked incredibly tiny compared to the actual width of the canal. The main street is lined with clubs, bars and open air restaurants. Plenty of locals were smoking on the patio filled streets drinking liter beers. The city is famous for their white statue of the Madonna. We could see the lights illuminating the statue way up on the top of the mountain ahead as if it were some sort of beacon. We found the most adorable little alcove of shops and restaurants called Patio Bella Vista. Upon entering we knew we had reached the more expensive fine dining establishments. It reminded me a lot of Yorkville in Toronto. The streets were cobblestone and illuminated by little blue flickering lights. Huge stand alone heaters were warming the jovial diners sitting outside on the patios. We chose to eat dinner at Backstage Experience. The name is ridiculously corny, I know. It was obviously the best place to eat based on the size and number of locals eating. We were seated outside by a waiter who was the spitting image of Vin Diesel. We sat on luxurious, modern, plush cushioned, bright pink and indigo chairs. We ordered an outrageous 1/2 meter pizza with pancetta, pepperoni and four cheeses. They set the menu up to bedazzle you with rock and band paraphernalia. The topping combinations for the pizza were labeled as such: Do, Re, Me, Fa, So, and so on. We ended up ordering the La and Fa pizza toppings and were confused when we realized there was a Fa-b-flat topping option which we did not care for. We both ordered a local Chilean Austral Lager for 1600 pesos (this beer is brewed in a city of Porta Arenas way down in the Antarctic tip). Our pizza was to die for, the cheese was top notch and the pizza crust remained true to authentic Italian thin crust. Our total bill came to 13 000 pesos with tip. It is hard to grasp paying a dinner for two with 13 000 of any currency. We had a bit of an issue paying actually, our new waiter who spoke very little English claimed we hadn’t paid “the service” when he collected our money. Sarah and I were mystified. We looked over our money and were certain we had given him a sizable tip! We called the Vin Diesel character over to help us as he spoke better English. He said we had paid “too much tip” and gave Sarah back some of her money. We laughed realizing the waiter had tried to take advantage of us and in the process had lost money on the transaction!

We walked back to the Metro station and I glanced over at several newspaper stands full of collectible Pinochet books and poster. Who doesn’t love to commercialize on dictatorship!? We paid our measly 130 pesos for our student Metro ticket (about 25 cents) and were shocked once we got on the platform. It was now after 10pm and the station was as busy as I would have expected during rush hour! Why were all of these people on the transit at this time of night? Do people here never sleep? Are they all workaholics? I never found that answer out, all I know is that I thoroughly enjoyed the laughable 10 minute ride home as I grasped for the metal bar in front of me and bumped against a cattle car of people. We got back to the hostel and chatted with a lesbian couple from San Francisco who have been working at the hostel for over a week. They showed us pictures of their trip to the glaciers in Patagonia which were stunning. We will be unable to visit this area as during the winter months these routes shut down. We chatted about the gay culture in Santiago and it was interesting to hear that there isn’t really an overt gay culture. Apparently there is a street with many gay clubs on it but they don’t advertise (during the day if you walk by it just looks like apartment buildings). Apparently these bars don’t even open until 2am! Sarah and I were in our beds at midnight, instantly asleep as our heads hit the pillows.

We woke up at 10am and headed to the Bandera district of town which is home to the old colonial architectural mansions and the financial district full of hustle and bustle. The streets are lined with hot deep fried pastry stands and a collection of bronze street fountains. Our first stop was the Museo Chileno de Artes Precolombiano. This museum is made up of a series of rooms dedicated to aboriginal tribes from Mexico down to the farthest tip of Chile. The museum was free and after entering the building we walked up a grand staircase where a glorious metallic map of “the Americas” stood perched off of the ceiling and walls.

The museum was fascinating as we were able to see the subtle differences between early aboriginals. We saw an Urn from 1200 AD, the caption read “People would remove flesh from dead and place bones in these urns, effigies of a life.” They had a huge display describing the first sport in human history called Polota (700 BC). The game consists of a flat tennis like court where one man stands. The sides of the court slant diagonally upwards into two sets of observation decks and benches. The goal of the game is for the two players on the observation decks to decapitate or seriously injure the man on the court. Pictures of this prehistoric game had rather gruesome shots of people being stoned and decapitated mid air. I never really was good at Gym Class anyways. There was an interesting dialog about the history of Mayan Pyramids and the Temples of Moon and Sun. I found the statues the most fascinating. One of the statues depicted a woman dancing and she had three hands and three feet on each of her four appendages, weird! I found the iconography interesting as it depicted the social order, gender and status of the individuals in the society. I still stick to my firm belief that most of these statues look like alien babies. The iconography for woman seems to be obese woman with supple breasts and scrawny men with outrageously endowed erections. It seems that fertility rules. I played Bjork’s Earth Intruder single on repeat throughout my entire visit as it fit perfectly with this aboriginal setting. As I thumped my way across the hall I met the most impressive sight yet, a collection of authentic chemamull Colombian eight foot wooden statues. These statues look like looming giants in some sort of comatose state. With Bjork beats running through my body I enjoyed this eerie moment when I thought these inanimate objects may just start dancing with me. Sarah and I sat down on a bench and stared for some time at one of the earliest forms of human communication. Aboriginals used to create elaborate works of art created by knotting bits of different coloured string. Each string was knotted at a different length and positioned in a different angle around a spiraling snail like formation. This apparently was a story of some prehistoric family (or perhaps a Amazonian bake sale gone wrong?!) The final room on the top floor was a textile gallery which explained the different weaving techniques used and several ancient garments that read like picture books. In the basement there was an incredible temporary exhibit on South American head-dresses. Everything from battle helmets, feather hearty chief hats and shaman kitten caps.

We walked to Plaza de Armas and spent a few minutes wandering through the glorious halls of Santiago Cathedral. As we walked past the various statues of the cities and countries saints I could here the crazy’s outside ranting and roaring. I have to say I was taken aback at the dedication of the people to their Catholic religion. I have been to many cathedrals and never have I seen so many people lining up for confession and sitting and praying. It is apparent that Catholicism truly is alive here. I was ever so excited to recognize (copies) of Titian’s masterworks: Assumption of the Virgin and Transfiguration of Christ. Exiting the Cathedral we entered the hectic plaza where a huge crowd of people were surrounding an overtly energetic group of street performers. We walked past a few fountains, huge palm trees and a bronze equestrian. It is here where a man noticed that I was an Anglo and asked me where I was from. Sarah was just behind me and it became apparent that he was interested in her (who isn’t though!) He told her flat out that she had beautiful eyes (after asking if the two of us were dating). He seemed very infatuated with her, I was jealous, so I asked him if my eyes were beautiful as well, he confirmed that indeed they were.

We walked to Museo de Bellas Artes which is located in one of the old city palaces. Upon entering the art gallery we were welcomed by a huge art nouveau glass and rot iron ceiling. The oval shaped room was surrounded wall to wall with marble modern and neoclassical statues. We walked through the galleries collection of foreign and Chilean paintings and I was struck at the beauty of the countries great draftsman. Typical Chilean paintings consist of pastoral scenes, images of aboriginals in traditional garb, horses and Independence Day War scenes. In the basement there was an interesting exhibit celebrating the art of flight; several projectors casting images on the wall of flight over Santiago and across the Andes. The adjacent room walls were full of huge blackboards and the floor was decorated with one simple children’s school desk in the center. The concept of the piece was an abstract look at what children learn in the classroom. The chalkboards progress chronologically going through early Chilean history as well as 9/11. The last blackboard made no sense; a slew of images that were labeled as such: A Nazi swastika- Neil Armstrong, A pair of scissors- Isaac Newton, A Communist flag- Pablo Picasso. The top floor of the gallery is dedicated to modern Chilean sculpture and paint. My favorites were Claudio Bravo’s “Tentacion de san Antionio.” Apparently he had a show here and thousands of people lined up to see his works. His oils look exactly like photographs, he is a genius. This specific piece was a scene of a man dying, crouched on the floor with maids holding him up as he prayed his last words of life into the air. A modern man dressed in jeans and wearing headphones held a baby lamb (a Christian iconographic symbol) and a beautiful sweeping male angel flew above. Roberto Matta also has incredible works that use vibrant primary colours and look something like high tech bug world.

We walked through Parque Forestal which features a lovely shaded park with rolling hills, wild dogs and a ridiculous number of couples making out. People live with their families until they get married here, so for people to see their significant other they really have to go into public places such as parks or metro stations to express their “feelings for each other.” I was a bit appalled initially as they don’t just smooch in public like I am used to. Rather it is full on, broad day light, hardcore, heavy petting, making out! Another interesting social factoid: everyone stares here. You walk down the street, sit on a bench, stand on the metro; people are staring at you. And they don’t hide the fact that they are staring at you either. Such a different sort of social climate over here it seems. We met Sarah’s friend Matt who is on exchange here from UBC at 4pm and headed to our favorite little Bella Vista neighborhood. We ate our first traditional Chilean meal at El Caramano. We started off with a complementary basket of steaming rolls and tiny little garlic infused pita type deep fried chips with salsa verdes. I ordered a bottle of Chardonnay Ventisquro, sparkling water, a platter of Chilean antipasto (Spanish sausage, rolled pork, leg of pork, goat cheese grilled with olive oil and oregano) and the traditional specialty Pastel de Choco (a classic casserole of creamed corn, chicken, ground beef and spices baked in a earthenware bowl). The restaurant menu had a special section of dishes dedicated to the numerous plates which have won Silver and Gold awards at the National Gastronomic competition. We ate for two glorious hours. Matt ordered us all the local beverage called Pisco Sour which is made of about 99 percent pure alcohol and could kill a cat.

We skipped down the street, walls covered in beautiful mosaics. We crossed over to what is known as the “gay village of Santiago.” Sarah jokingly said once we arrived that I was the gayest thing on this street. The buildings were all painted with the most beautiful and creative graffiti I had ever seen. However, all of the entrances were barren without any windows or bar/disco names. Apparently gay culture in these fundamentalist Catholic South American nations is all very secretive and “underground.” You really wouldn’t know it was a gay village at all unless someone told you! We meandered through the cities biggest open air market as the cool breeze from the Andes swept itself over the city. Sarah and I were yelled at when we were leaning against a man’s stall and putting on his rings. He said we were being very disrespectful. We thought that was so bizarre as we didn’t understand who in their right mind would buy a ring without trying it on first. The guy was a joke, he was selling bracelets, necklaces and rings while he worked on his motorcycle. His hands were thick and chubby and covered in grease and soot! We left the market as Regina Spektor’s “Fidelity” song was playing. Matt showed his appreciation for the song and the cute little ladies turned up the music and winked at us. We expected the Metro to be quick and easy as it was 8pm at this point in the evening. How wrong were we! It actually looked like a sea of people. We spent about an hour slowly shuffling at a snails pace towards the entrance to the metro car staircase. I felt like I was trying to exit the ACC after a sold out Justin Timberlake concert, it was insane, I couldn’t stop laughing at how surreal this experience was.

We dropped by the local store and bought a box of chocolate hazelnut wafer for less than a dollar. I actually bought these cookies on my Visa. I am a badass. We went to Matt’s house in the “Yaletown of Santiago” (where all the rich people live). We shared a bottle of Santa Carolina oak aged Chardonnay and chatted in his room which was adorned with old Chilean army memorabilia (pictures of the owner’s late husband). As we walked back to the metro we complained several times about how exhausted we were and the pain residing in our feet and legs. I brushed my hands against the street side metal gates and was startled (scratch that, mortified) when a killer dog went berserk. I jumped out of my skin and cried instantly, terrifying canines protecting these beautiful homes it seems (and I don’t even think I look/smell that scary!)

The following day we set our alarm to get to the Metro at 8:30am. On the platform we saw the first subway come by and hysterically laughed when we saw how packed it was. People were actually slammed against the doors, smushed like sardines. We tried to get on the next couple of trains with no luck. Finally on the 5th train we pushed our way on barely able to breath. We took the wrong line evidently and ended up taking 2 hours to get to our destination (we actually wanted to transfer at one point to the blue line only to discover the blue line is a “proper train” and requires another ticket). As we finally got on the black line we headed to the farthest station south on the Metro map. Our train’s occupancy suddenly declined as we headed outside of the city. We were now able to sit down on chairs and stare out over the sprawling residences and towering Andes mountains. We haled a cab for 3000 pesos and arrived at the worlds 8th largest wine producer, Concha Y Toro. We took an English tour with two men from Normandy and Rio. Our tour guide walked us through the sprawling estate of the Toro family (they inherited their wealth from the silver mines north of Santiago). The property has several huge ponds filled with guinea hens and white swans. The paths are lined with foreign plants (a palm tree was pointed out to us as it is the only indigenous plant that was not imported). The Toro’s were obsessed with French culture and fashion and built what looks like a French Palace on their property. We were told that boatloads of French antiques, mirrors, drapes and carpet fill the palace as Mr. Toro insisted everything from tea cups to slippers came from France. Even the vase’s and lanterns on the pathways are antiques from France, incredible wealth here!

We walked down a small hill to the first Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards of Chile (1978) which were golden yellow as it is just the end of Autumn over here. We were told all about how this terroir (soil and micro-climate) is perfect for the growth of these grapes. The mountains create a perfect climate for Cab Sauv as their skins grow thick due to the 30 degree change in temperature from mid day to evening. Perfect for excellent tannin in the glass! We strolled to a little benched sitting area on a terrace as I was told the two largest buyers of Concha Y Toro wine is the UK and the USA. We sampled a glass of Castillero del Diablo Carmenere, Chile’s most famous grape varietal (and national vino), which is similar to Merlot (and was actually mistaken for Merlot for several years). Some interesting random vino facts: Chile is the only country in the world that has not had its vineyards attacked by phyloxera. It is illegal to grow any form of hybrid (so grafting is a no no). The no hybrid policy has become an excellent way to positively position Chile’s wines on the international market. We walked into the large American barrel aging rooms and finally down a set of small stairs into what seemed like an ancient basement called “The Devils Cellar.” This is where 1800 barrels of the wineries most expensive wines are aged in French Oak. The story behind this Devils cellar is as follows: the owner stored his best wine in this cellar for friends, family and special occasions because it had the best temperature and humidity for storing wine. He started to notice that his wine was disappearing, and realized the locals were breaking into the cellar and stealing his most expensive wine! He was a cunning man and decided to fix the problem by spreading a superstitious myth that the Devil tended the wines of the cellar. Back then, people were incredibly superstitious and apparently after that story spread not one more bottle went missing! We walked into a spacious cobble stone room with a huge ten foot table where we sampled Don Melchor, Maipo Valley 1995 Reserve. This bottle sells for over 150 USD and has been ranked four year in a row in international competition as the 4th best wine in the world! We finished our tour in a beautiful wine bar decorated with vases full of red tulips. More tastings were available here along with cute little canapes. The winery store was full of interesting Chilean cookbooks including one hardcover called the Art of the Wine Label which sold for over 100 dollars! They sold huge 600cL bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon which we made sure to glare at. We walked out of the store and weaved our way through the gardens back to the winery entrance. We had a taxi pick us up (this time for 2000 pesos, we apparently had been ripped off earlier). Perhaps this is why the taxi driver painted a face of utter shock when we gave him a 200 pesos tip.

We hopped on the metro and took the train to Bella Vista where we ate lunch at El Antojo de Gauguin. This Arab/Mediterranean restaurant has a cute outdoor seating area as well as an interior decorated wall to wall in beautiful local oil paintings. As we sifted through our menu I glanced over to see a food photographer taking pictures of several of the restaurants dishes. We ordered a bowl of Arabian rice, Falafel, and a juicy chicken shwarma pita. I wet my pallet with an ice cold Cristal Cerveza. We made our way to the end of the street, passing all of the other local restaurants which barked at us to come and eat at their establishment.

We hopped on the funicular which went straight up the mountain past the entrance to the national zoo. At the top we hiked up incredibly steep stair cases to the Virgin Sanctuary. A huge white statue of The Virgin is illuminated 24 hours a day on this mountain top. People come here to pray and lay flowers at her feet. The staircase up to the statue is a beautiful open air church. Rows of benches and potted flowering plants which look over the city bellow. I saw a cute couple when we got on the funicular and it was really adorable to see the boyfriend sitting on the steps as his girlfriend went up to the virgins feet to pray. We walked fifty meters across the mountain top to the gondola station where we sat in a small little car the size of a walnut. We weren’t initially scared at all until our car swooped down from the platform at lightening speed. We were both terrified and I thought I might puke. In seconds we were flying hundreds of feet above the trees bellow. I actually felt intense panic as our little gondola was old and rickety. The gondola ride lasted about thirty minutes as we went all the way to the bottom and back up again. You are all probably thinking “you must have seen such amazing views of the city.” Here is where the terrible truth is told. I could barely even take pictures from the top of the mountain as the entire city appeared as if it were in a bright white and yellow fog. I have never been so shocked in my life, the pollution here is truly disturbing. Even at the top of the mountain we could barely make the outline of the other mountains surrounding us. The city bellow simply looked like it had been fogged over. I continued to blame my snoring at night, irritable nature and constant dehydration on the air quality of this city. We got back on the funicular and I felt a bit hesitant to slide back down the mountain into the haze. Five million people live in Santiago, seven million people live in Chile. Do the math, the pollution here is mind boggling.

We got back to the hostel and spent the evening here talking to an amazing teacher from Western who has been traveling all over South America for months visiting small villages and distributing school supplies. I also chatted with our new room mate who is from Bern Switzerland. I lived there two weeks last year and I picked up on his accent instantly. We walked to the market down the street (after getting a bit nervous when a group of locals seemed to be following us). We bought a whole roast chicken, brick of Gruyer cheese, whole wheat rolls and a jug of Orange Fanta. We sat outside on the patio for a few minutes talking to a PHD student studying Astronomy in the north of Chile. She was actually one of the astronomers who discovered the largest supernova explosion in the history of human science! She actually made stars seem fascinating, and said the supernova she recorded (and which appeared on CNN for several days) is the most significant record of any energy source in human history. We were getting cool so we walked back into the hostel lounge and chatted with a few Brits by the Pool Table before heading back up to our beds and dozing off. If I snored, I blame it on the pollution…


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