Chile: Digging for charms in Santiago

By Chris Pritchard

The Chilean capital, Santiago. Photo / Thinkstock
The Chilean capital, Santiago. Photo / Thinkstock

It doesn't take long for tourists to let you know what they think of Santiago.

The Chilean capital, they readily concede, is pleasant enough. But, they complain, it's bland and lacks an instant wow-factor. It doesn't have the throbbingly sensuous rhythms of Rio de Janeiro, the faded grandeur and tangoing twosomes of Buenos Aires, the World Heritage-listed Spanish-colonial architecture of Quito - or the cultural richness of Lima and La Paz.

I'm mulling all this as I stroll between indisputably impressive steel-and-glass ribbons comprising "Sanhattan''. Sanhattan? It's a semi-sarcastic, semi-affectionate Chilean nickname for South America's most important financial district - a Santiago-meets-Manhattan sort of place.

The trouble with Santiago, I decide, is that it's too easy. People don't look beneath the surface. Their minds are elsewhere - probably on excitements awaiting later in South American trips. Because of air routes and a handy location near South America's western edge, Santiago is often Australian visitors' introduction to the continent - the first city experienced on a continent of 12 independent nations.

As such, it's a common transit stop for a night or two. Few Australians describe Santiago as their primary destination.

And that's a pity. Its charms merit more time than most itineraries allow. Santiago is, after all, one of South America's safest cities. Its excellent subway system makes exploring a breeze.

To stand atop Cerro Santa Lucia, downtown's park-setting historical lookout, is to view the dramatically spread skyline of a scenic metropolis wedged between a beach-studded Pacific coastline and the Andes' nearby ski resorts - with some of Chile's most renowned wine country in between.

Within this vista's dominant modernity are overshadowed gems awaiting discovery. For instance, the compact Paris-Londres precinct oozes bygone Parisian ambience even though it was built less than a century ago. At the edge of cobbled streets are numerous interesting little bars, restaurants, hotels and boutiques.

One Paris-Londres building is notorious - a place where political prisoners were tortured and incarcerated during the 17 years, beginning in 1973, when the Pinochet regime ruled and tolerated no dissent. Plaques commemorate those held there.

Pinochet gained power after a successful coup d'etat against the elected left-wing government of Salvador Allende. Allende committed suicide inside the Palacio de la Moneda (much photographed by visitors), a sprawling edifice housing the presidential offices. (Chile is now a multi-party democracy.)

The Paris-Londres neighbourhood was previously an orchard belonging to the adjoining Iglesia de San Francisco - reputedly Chile's first building and certainly the country's oldest church, on which builders started work in 1586.

The church, attracting many tourists, has survived earthquakes and fires with sections added to replace those destroyed. It is on Santiago's main drag, Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O'Higgins - lauded as Chile's founding father. Since the name is such a mouthful, the boulevard is generally referred to simply as La Alameda, a reference to its poplar trees.

But Santiago has many other historical zones. Conventional wisdom suggests walking a few blocks, peering down side-streets - and ambling down them if they tweak curiosity.

This city of 5.6 million people is seemingly purpose-built for on-foot exploration. It's not easy to become lost and street crime is far less of a worry than in some South American cities.

Among Santiago's entertainment districts, my favourite is Bellavista. It's not the most boisterous but aficionados consider its cluster of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, galleries and shops the most memorable.

Bellavista used to be known as Santiago's Bohemian quarter. But the art crowd dispersed, with some commentators maintaining this is because the area became too touristy.

There's no denying tourists' presence - but this is no reason to shun Bellavista, which retains Bohemian charm even if painters and sculptors mostly have galleries elsewhere.

As I wander one evening past gaudily painted buildings, the sounds of a jazz trio waft from a music bar. Dance music pulses from a club down the street. Many restaurants, varying from fast-food casual to formal dining, showcase seafood and beef.

One of my favourites is Astrid y Gaston, an eatery specialising in increasingly fashionable Peruvian fare and a branch of one of Peru's top restaurants. Indeed, Bellavista's restaurant scene is cosmopolitan with Chilean cuisine merely one of many available.

Quaint little bars are emblazoned with blackboard invitations to drop in for a local Cristal beer or a glass of Chilean wine. Hip boutiques open late, highlighting reasonably priced fashion.

I notice visitors shopping for popular souvenirs: jewellery featuring intensely blue lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone for which Chile is renowned. Officials recommend shopping for jewellery only at reputable stores and to beware of too-good-to-be-true discounts which often indicate almost worthless stones.

A small museum dedicated to one of Chile's most celebrated sons, Pablo Neruda, draws many foreign visitors to Bellavista. It is housed in a mansion called La Chascona, which was one of several homes in which the famed poet, diplomat and politician lived.

Day trips from Santiago often include visits to Vina del Mar, a high-rise seafront strip reminiscent of Surfers Paradise and adjoining the port of Valparaiso. There, outside a museum, stands one of Easter Island's weird ancient statues.

These enormous statues, called "moai'' (stone heads), are shrouded in mystery. Why Easter Island's inhabitants sculpted them remains mysterious. However, the statues placed this far-flung Chilean island firmly on the tourist map. The statue at Vina del Mar was brought to the town before removal of statues was banned.

Vina del Mar is promoted as a way to eyeball one of the statues without going all the way to Easter Island.

And, without doubt, it's certainly one of the oddest discoveries in Santiago's backyard.

- AAP

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