Santiago and Valparaiso should be on every traveler’s list.
The last country I visited on my South American tour was Chile, but unfortunately, I had to cut my time there pretty short, as a stomach problem that was bothering me since I arrived in Brazil just took me out. But I managed to pass a full week there before having to leave.
I headed to Santiago, the capital of Chile, from Patagonia, the glacial national park at the southern peak of the continent that straddles the Chilean and Argentinian borders. I decided to go by bus, which took the best part of two days, but it was a good opportunity to share stories with some of my fellow travelers, including a professional Spanish skier, who was heading north for the surf, and a Californian called Miles who was also there for the skiing and recently launched a blog dedicated to snow fall.
Santiago took my breath away the moment I saw it. It is a big city nestled between the snow-capped Andes and the Chilean Coast Range. One of the best ways to get a good view of the city and really appreciate its surroundings is to take the cable car up to San Cristóbal Hill. Or to look the other way, head up to the viewing deck in the Costanera Center. It is 1,000 metres up, but in the centre of the city, offering a 360-degree view of the surroundings.
As I did in most of the South American countries I visited, I spent some time studying at a local Spanish school, to improve my Spanish and meet new people. The Escuela Bella Vista was probably the best one I visited, or my Spanish had improved a lot by this point so I got more out of it.
Shortly after I arrived In Santiago I also met up with Josefina, an artist that I met while visiting Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. She puts on large installation art exhibitions in public spaces around the city, and so was the best person to show me the city’s art scene. The Museum of Contemporary Art is probably the best place to start for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in Santiago’s art scene. I also enjoyed the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, which displays an impressive collection of pre-colonial art.
Exploring Santiago’s many markets was also a great way to discover contemporary Chilean art. While Los Domínicos and Santa Lucía are the most famous, I enjoyed the Mercado Central the most. Located right in the city center in a wrought-iron historic landmark, it was an opportunity to experience everything including fresh seafood and local pisco sour cocktails, to alpaca wool ponchos and other handicrafts. There were also some great places here to taste Chilean wine. While these are considered ‘New World’ wines, Chile has had vines since the 1500s.
While the modern city is a vibrant and happy place, it does have a dark history, that is not that old. During the reign of the dictator Pinochet from the 1970s to the 1990s, thousands of people mysteriously disappeared, arrested and detained in an infamous torture house. I considered it essential to pay my respect to this side of the city by visiting the Human Rights Museum that marks this atrocity – lest we forget.
Before I had to leave, Josefina and I took a road trip to Valparaiso, also known as the ‘Jewel of the Pacific’. It is a colorful, bohemian city with a kind of dilapidated charm that is full of narrow winding streets with endless staircases, and there is always some kind of festival or party happening. It has a kind of ‘anything goes’ edge, and I can only imagine what the walls of some of its crumbling mansions have seen. It’s port and fishing wharves also mean amazing fresh seafood daily. I only wish I could have eaten more of it before my stomach finally revolted on me!
The poet Pablo Neruda drew a lot of inspiration from Valparaiso, saying: “how absurd you are… you haven’t combed your hair, you’ve never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised me.” As well as a description of the town, which felt like a good description of me on my South American adventure. I wasn’t prepared for any of the things that I discovered, but they surprised and delighted me.