Santiago & Valparaiso

I arrived in Santiago at 2:30 in the afternoon.

At the bus station I asked for the best way to get to Barrio Brasil, the neighborhood where I was staying. I was pleasantly surprised when I was told to take the Metro.

The center of a booming national economy, Chile’s sprawling capitol is the most developed South American city I’ve seen yet. It’s amazing how a subway system can transform a city, connecting distant boroughs in a matter of minutes minutes. Clearly a recent addition, Santaigo’s Metro pales only to Copenhagen (in my experience) when it comes to cleanliness and efficiency, and serving a much larger city network.

I hopped off at Republica station and walked up Avenida Brasil to find my hostel, Casa Roja. I chose this hostel not because it is in my travel guide (though it is) but because a friend from home knows Tania, a girl who works there. I wouldn’t meet Tania for another day but when I got there she had already reserved me a bed.

Without a single change of clean clothes my number one priority was to get laundry done, stat. 

The hostel didn’t offer express service but recommended a local lavendaria that might be able to help. I dropped off my hefty bag of clothes at the tiny storefront where a sweet matronly woman had squeezed in several residential-style washing machines. It turned out to be cheaper than the 24-hour service offered by the hostel and she said she’d have it done within 4 hours.

I swung back by the hostel, I thought to drop a line with John, the Texan I met in San Pedro who studies in Santiago. He happened to be online, and since neither of us had plans, we said we’d get together for dinner and drinks later that night.

In the meantime I wanted to get a sense of my nearby surroundings. In a spiral sort of route I walked around Barrio Brasil, which, with a cool scene of bars and restaurants, is a very up and coming area. Most of the people who live here are university students. You can tell that this is a modern, globalized city by the abundance and diversity of subcultures. With hipsters, goth, metal heads, preppy kids, bros, tools, nerds and more, Santiago looks just like home.

Across the street from an abandoned cathedral I made by best find in the city. 

Behind a tiny little cart, a woman was frying tiny pockets of dough filled with cheese. Like churros in Lima and falafel in Cusco, empanadas came to be my Santiago trademark. While they are just as much a thing in Argentina, their widespread availability in Santiago can not be equalled in my travels so far.

They come in many forms and fillings, but I think my favorites are these tiny digits that are fried right in front of you and cost a measly 200 pesos ($0.40). After buying one, lathering it in salsa and scarfing it down. I got another one, and talked to the lady for a while. She liked how much I appreciated her work. I explored the streets a bit more and returned to the hostel. 

With the time I had before meeting John I had a mission: plan the rest of my trip. 

I hate having to plan more than several days ahead but after a little research it became abundantly clear that if I want to see Patagonia or Tierra del Fuego, I have to buy some plane tickets.

I drafted out a plan that would include three one-way flights, seeing the Argentinean side of Patagonia, as well as Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. It all looked good, and I gave myself the night to digest the $550 price tag, having been told that fares are lowest on Tuesdays (this was Monday) anyway.

I met John at Republica, and we caught up while fetching my laundry and dropping it off at the hostel. 

We found a decent place to eat and along with a really good beer from the south, we ordered a popular Chilean dish that is essentially a giant plate of french fries, sautéed onions and a variety of meats, with fried egg on top. It was good but I continue struggling to enjoy meat. As it seems to only add a chewy, bland element protein element to most dishes, I must be missing what makes it so special for people.

We finished and moved on to find a place with more beer. I picked out a funky wooden place that looked real cozy. It turns out they had locally crafted beer on tap and we got a pitcher of something dark. If this day was any signal, Chile is a great place for good beer.

We were having a nice time, talking about life and getting a strong buzz going, but with the Metro closing at 11 p.m., John had to go if he didn’t want to take a taxi home. I was content with my day and returned to Casa Roja to Skype home again and pass out.

With only two full days in the area, I designated the next day for taking a day trip to Valparaiso, Santiago’s cool little brother.

The bohemian port city is known, among other things, for fostering great Chilean artists including poet Pablo Neruda. Only an hour and a half away, with buses leaving every 10 or 20 minutes, it’s not hard to move between Santi and Valpo on a whim. My bus fare even included an open return ticket for whenever I was ready to come back.

I got to town in the late morning. The weather was perfect: overcast and cool. Cloud-covered skies are very conducive to picture-taking. With a free map from the bus station and as many hours as I need to see the place right, I had a lot of walking ahead of me.

After grabbing a street vendor coffee and heading toward the city center, I veered inland. Just as the hills started climbing I found the Museo a Cielo Abierto (Open Air Museum), which isn’t a museum at all, but rather a series of outdoor murals done by art students in the early ’70s. Dotted around this neighborhood, I wasn’t able to find them all (or even most of them) but I saw some neat works and I love the concept.

Valparaiso as a whole is an incredibly colorful city. 

The buildings that cover the surrounding hillsides are all painted wild hues, with a higher concentration of street art than I’ve ever seen. It’s as if the whole population sees the city’s surfaces as a blank canvas worth covering. Santiago has size and polished details on its side, but Valpo wins with personality.

Just up from the Open Air Museum is La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda’s Valparaiso residence. Likened to a bird cage, the tall, funky mansion has five levels, each with a better view than the floor below. I love seeing homes of great creators, getting to know an artist through the spaces, textures and objects they surrounded themselves with.

As can be seen in his poetry, Neruda was a romantic who enjoyed good views and peaceful moments in moderation with parties and against-the-grain expression. The admission price included a detailed audio tour that explained the significance of rooms and objects. It was nice getting to know Pablo in his own home.

Taking a different route down the hill, shooting pictures along the way, I found myself in the relative center of town. 

Hungry, I tracked down an eatery recommended by my guide called Empanadas Famosas. While it didn’t look like much, inside or out, this place served up some amazing and gargantuan empanadas. While I love the cheap little numbers from the street, these were far more decadent.

I walked around the downtown area, picking up a couple unique souvenirs. I hit the water’s edge and followed it to the port. As much as the city’s creative side defines it, this is the lifeblood. The mountainous stacks of shipping containers show that Valparaiso is in a blessed location, functioning as the main point of entry for all commerce headed in and out of landlocked Santiago.

I hit the end of where I was interested in walking to, and looped back to see more streets in the city. 

The street art continued to impress me – not quite as well done as what I found in Bogota, but on an even wider scale and with an interestingly distinct style. Starting to feel the wear on my legs I continued back to the bus terminal, stopping back at the Open Air Museum to discover some more hidden art. In my search I got lost up a back alley stairway which follows a now-abandoned ascensor, one of the many a hillside elevators that lifts citizens up and down the steep city streets.

After grabbing a churro and fresh strawberry smoothie off the street, I arrived at the terminal, first checking out the giant metal sculpture and Pinochet-era congress building across the street that I somehow missed when I arrived.

In about 6 hours I had seen just about as much of Valpairiso as I needed to do it justice. Though any place takes much more time to truly know, my time budget is tight and getting tighter, so I do the best I can.

Back in Santiago I had made plans to finally meet up with Tania.

Before that happened I was going to book my flights south, having decided that the price was well worth getting to see the destinations and that it was actually quite cheap as far as plane tickets go. Unfortunately, the prices of one ticket had skyrocketed since the previous day, and another flight was no longer listed. 

Shocked and upset after setting my heart on my plan, I checked other airlines and scoured third party ticket sites. No dice. Frustrated and upset, I gave up for the night, still without plans, hoping the next day might yield better results.

As promised, Tania was a lot of fun.

I found the Chilena by the pool bar, drinking beer with Eric, a Tahoe-raised lifelong Californian with a southern accent. These two friends were quite the pair, and I can’t think of a single instant where these two chain-smokers didn’t have a cigarette in their mouths.

We spent most of the night drinking beer, which they refused to let me pay for given their staff discounts, moving tables several times as other friends came and went. I bonded with Eric about skiing, and with a Venezuelan named Jef. It seems every Venezuelan I’ve met has some connection to the states. With the habitual instability of their country I guess they try their best to get out.

Rather far into the night I got that familiar craving for empanadas, and with knowledge of a place just around the corner, I just couldn’t help but sneak out to get my fix. I was overdue for dinner anyway, but all this fried food is going to catch up with my health.

I got back and continued partying with the mostly Chilean crowd. In a tradeoff for their indecipherable way of speaking Spanish, most city-dwelling Chileans speak English, so I was not left out of conversation.

It is around this point that my memory fades off, but the best part of getting drunk in your own hostel is that you are nearly guaranteed to end up in your bed.

Thanks to the previous night’s company, I woke up smelling like an ashtray.

I had hoped to make it to one of the free walking tours that had been highly recommend, but waking up right when it would be leaving from the city center, I resigned to catching the afternoon tour instead. I was in no rush to go anywhere with the way my head felt, and that was okay. I had until my 9:40 p.m. bus to see Santiago, and I am only capable of so many hours of walking.

Crossing my fingers, I checked the flights again to find they had indeed come down to reasonable rates. 

However, when rushing to book them before anything changed, I found out that those prices only applied to residents of Argentina. I had been misled from the beginning. Back to the drawing board, I was pretty pissed off in general.

I hate having to plan the last two weeks of my trip, so used to never planning more than a couple days in advance. I had just about resigned to hanging around the more central regions of Chile and Argentina, but after having come so far, I wanted to make it all the way to the top (or bottom, rather).

Revisiting the maps, I made a new plan. Though my mind had been jaded by the allure of paying Dollar Blue prices in Argentina, nothing said I couldn’t remain in Chile for longer. The answer was right in front of me.

Of all the destinations in the deep south, Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park is by far the biggest draw for bucket listers and adventurers. Scared by talk of high prices and a desire to avoid the crowds, I had written Torres del Paine off, but it made so much sense. And because there is a bus to Ushuaia, not an option from Argentina, I could eliminate an extra flight.

When all was said and done I was paying slightly less for two flights than I thought I would for three, but the most important part was that I was going to make it to the southern tip of South America, a self-indulgent but oh so satisfying way to wrap up my trip before flying out of Buenos Aires.

I made it out the door around noon, grabbing a coffee and muffin from nearby bakery.

I walked through the length of Barrios Brasil, taking my sweet time documenting every cool piece of street art I saw. When you have no place you have to be, a hangover can force you to take on life with just the right speed and perspective.

I arrived at the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, which translates to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. While not ranking high on the “fun” scale, this notably well done museum details the shockingly recent human rights violations of the Pinochet military government that held power between 1973 and 1990.

For such a prosperous nation, Chile has a pretty gnarly recent history. I can’t say it was a pleasure learning about the 40,000+ people subjected to torture and execution in that period, but it was incredibly moving. I spent way too long, absorbing every detail of the audio tour, but when I came out I felt like I understood Chile better than any place I’ve yet visited.

When I got out I found that I had 10 minutes to make the afternoon walking tour. 

Though I probably could have made it downtown in time, thanks to the metro station being right next to me, I decided I didn’t need a lame tour to show me how to see Santiago. Thanks to the detailed map the tour used for advertising themselves, I could still follow their routes while taking my time and skipping the sites that didn’t interest me.

After checking out the beautiful but somewhat boring park adjacent to the museum, I took the metro to Santiago’s center.

I started at the Plaza de Armas – a popular name for South American city squares, I’ve found. I’m told that in the days of colonialism, the Spanish literally stocked these centrally located squares with guns for citizens to run to whenever indigenous groups decided to attack. History is so interesting.

I headed north to explore the Central Market area. Not sure what to expect, I found a massive series of open air markets squeezed into several blocks. Roughly organized by what they sold, I walked through building after building, row after row of vendors, collectively offering anything you could ever want. Some were dirty and smelly like the markets I saw up north, others were new and well kept.

I had been keeping my eye open for a place to eat lunch, but was none too charmed by stand after stand offering the same menu of fried chicken or beef loin. Just as I was ready to give up I found a series of Peruvian restaurants, and having been told to try the seafood in Santiago, jumped at the chance of eating some more ceviche. It wasn’t the best I’ve had on my trip, but the kitchen made it extra spicy upon my request.

On my way out I ordered a strawberry smoothie from a cute old lady at a juice stand. Hoping for a repeat of the tasty juice I had had in Valpo the day before, I was massively disappointed by the pink, watery sugar juice she gave me. While I can’t prove the upsetting digestive problems I would later experience weren’t caused by the lemon-cooked fish I had just consumed, I did notice she had used tap water to make the disgusting filth. Bitch.

I walked back downtown, making my way to Cerro Santa Lucia. 

The towering hill, now surrounded by high rises, has served many purposes in Santiago’s history. On its summit, accessed by several windy staircases, is a castle-like structure, complete with moat and bastion-style sniper lookouts. While no longer the highest point in town, the view is something special.

Next on the list was GAM, or Centro Gabriella Mistral, a brand new cultural arts center named after another Nobel-winning Chilean poet.

While most of the center is geared toward the locals, it has some cool free art exhibits. Most of what was on display was notable work done by local art students, and it was cool for me, a recent art school graduate myself, to see what is being produced here and now.

I was pleased to see that many students are incorporating traditional craft techniques into their art. With the exception of ceramics, the Western art establishment has all but forgotten about the original uses for art. One exhibit in particular showed students using traditions in textiles, woodwork, pottery, and jewelry to make expressive works of art.

With the day running short, I hightailed it to Barrio Bellavista, a neighborhood I bad been told not to miss.

A walked past the hip bar and restaurant scene where Santiago’s yuppies were already gathering for happy hour, peeping at the residence where Pablo Neruda used to entertain his mistress.

Finally I ended at Cerro San Cristobal, a large hillside overlooking the city. While neither my knee nor my watch would allow me to climb it, I was pleased to find that there was a funicular that would zip me to the top for a couple bucks. It was a fun ride and disorienting to see the sprawling metropolis expand in front of my eyes.

At the top I had 15 minutes before the car went back down. Not wanting to be up there a full half hour, I sprinted to the top where a massive white statue marks the best view in town. With the sun getting low in the sky directly in front of me, pictures came out badly but it made for a dramatic spectacle. I rushed back down, skipping every other slippery stair, and made it back to the funicular just in time.

On my way to the nearest metro station, I bought a t-shirt from a young guy on the street.

Besides being a fan of the shirt, I justified the purchase by nature of my extremely finite backpack wardrobe, which has forced me to laundry with annoying frequency as I’ve ruined or broken items of clothing in my travels.

I was back to the hostel with about an hour to spare. I was happy to find Tania was working, allowing me to say thank you and goodbye. After doing so I retrieved my bag from storage and was out the door with time to grab a couple dinner empanadas for the walk to the station.

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