Santiago is a large metropolis of 7 million people located in Chile’s Central Valley. The city was founded in 1541 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, but some archaeologists believe that the first humans already reached the area in 10000BC. Santiago is the capital of Chile, hosting the country’s executive houses and judicial branches of government, the Congress however meets mostly in nearby Valparaíso.
Personally, I have always wanted to visit Santiago, mostly for irrational reasons since I was a child. I don’t know why was that but it certainly played a little role for me to pick Santiago as my first destination in South Americas. But right upon my arrival to the city, the irrationality of that dream was harshly switched into the dominant irrationality of its urban planning.
Santiago‘s skyline, would have had the greatest potential due to the stunning and overwhelming Andes background that not many other cities can even dream off. Instead, the city appears like a result of an unfortunate mishmash of two different versions of Tetris played by its urban planners that gone wrong. Just look at the picture bellow. Among some historical beauty with character, BOOM the modern budget buildings randomly fell from the skies):
Even if one really wanted to mess the city’s atmosphere up, and was very talented at it – this result would be very hard to achieve. What a shame, given the potential. The expression “rest your eyes” within the skyline element of the city feels as being rather twisted here because of this ever-present “Cinderella element” of separating the two different kinds of seeds AKA the old/stylish vs the ugly modern buildings.
From the positive angle, it then makes you to feel great when you spot a nice place – a great building or a corner – it’s like when you suddenly catch a smell of popcorn on the street 😉 And there’s a lot of that “popcorn” in Santiago if you look closer. The downtown strolls offer some opportunities to find the charm hidden among this urban planning mess.
A large group of my friends are architects. They are all nice people with a good taste. It’s bizarre that there are a lot of new horrible buildings being built because I’ve never met an architect who likes those…
Besides the Urban Tetris factor
In my humble opinion, the horrible urban planning of Santigo doesn’t reflect the friendliness of its people. Overall, there were quite a few beautiful spots, such as Santa Lucía or San Cristóbal hills (cerros). On the other hand, the prices are reaching Western European league, which I have learned the first evening the hard way after paying an equivalent of about €12 for two pints of IPA.
Pio Nono, right under the latter cerro is Santiago‘s party street with 3 universities near by. The beer is flowing in the bars/restaurants on cheap @ 1500,-CLP (€2) per 1l bottle. However one has to be reggaeton-tolerant person to be able to cope with numerous sound systems blasting different tunes at each-other. Furthermore, visitors should be apparently careful to wonder westwards from the street later into the night. Otherwise, the whole Bellavista hood is very nice for dinning, nite life, etc..
The 19th-century neoclassical centre is a bit banky/officey and claustrophobic but other than that it’s rather pretty. People are friendly, in its original definition and it is very easy to get around the city using the public transport. Overall, the character is there big time if one had time to look for it. Some important historical sites are worth googling, if you are interested in the local history. I won’t pick just a few only to leave other things out. Chile has much to offer in this area and it’s not only from the Pinochet era.
Sort of epilogue
For me personally, I was happy to bugger off to Valparaíso after few days in Santiago – it suited me better. After 52 hours of travelling, I’m not sure if Santiago is the best entry point to South America’s first timer like me because due to it’s urban planning, it felt like that Santiago’s 7 million people were always around me.
In comparison, the little coast town of Valparaíso (pop. 200 000) is quieter, less overwhelming, more arty and much more colourful, while the “Tetris gone wrong” only touched Valparaíso a bit.
Santiago is a huge city. The popular areas to stay appear to be Bellavista or San Isidro hoods. Don’t forget to check both, booking.com as well as airbnb.com as they do compete a lot, having one or another offering cheaper options in different areas.
From Santiago‘s airport, there are several bus companies running shuttle services to the city center. Upon your arrival, you’ll be surrounded by the overcharging taxi drivers who ask 16000,-CLP (€21). Avoid them and ask at the Information desk about the public buses. The public bus journey to the centre takes the same and it will only cost you 3200,-CLP (€4.20). The buses run from 06:00 am to 11:30 pm about every 10 minutes.
To move around Santiago is very easy. You’ll need to buy a Bip! Card at any metro station for 1500,-CLP (€2) and top it up. The system is rather easy to understand and it is explained here.
Important note: Please do keep the little paper slip you will be given upon your arrival to Chile during the passport control. You’ll need it again when leaving the country.
Enjoy your stay 😉