13 Mar 2012


Rather like Buenos Aires we have been looking forward to visiting Santiago for some time, both as tourists and as potential residents for the next few years.
It did not disappoint. As with all south american cities (perhaps all cities everywhere but south america seems to do 'it' more extravagantly and passionately) it is a place of stark contrasts, culturally, historically, socially, economically, you name it and Santiago has its own rich version.

With a bustling economy still in full cry the city and its inhabitants (Santiaguinos) are forcefully emerging from the shadow of the 17 year Pinochet led military dictatorship (1973 to 90) and they are clearly keen on making up for any time that might have been lost.

A city of approx 8 million it is set 120kms inland at an altitude of 520 metres on Chile's fertile central plain with the Andes as a beautiful backdrop - which you can sometimes see through the pollution - which means that if you are so inclined (and up early) you can surf in the pacific, ski and go wine tasting all in one day.

The centre of town is more European in look and feel than any SA city we have seen other than Buenos Aires. There are still the belle époque palaces and pavement cafes but whereas BA is a shabby splendid shambles, Santiago is a little bit more organised, dour and austere, perhaps a legacy of the military years. In contrast to the grey buildings of yesteryear t
here is a modern business district of sparkling sky scrapers, known locally as Sanhattan, all part of the modern promise of greater and better to come, or so they say.

We stayed in Barrio Brazil, a little west of the old centre, where Santiago's counter-culture migrated in the 1990s when, following the years of oppression, freedom of expression once again became possible. The area is a kind of Camden meets Hoxton in big ol turn of the century palaces. The hostel we stayed in was itself once a grand old house, it must have been fabulous, all big and bold and impossible to heat.

Our rapid visit of 4 days allowed us time to climb the funicular to see the full extent of the pollution, drink in a couple of cool bars, eat in an artsy outdoor cafe/boutiquey shop centre with open air live music playing and everyone having a good time, visit the museo de bellas artes with funky modern installations, visit the Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda museums (both men's effects were greatly diminished during the regime, not surprisingly) 
and tour the sights of the centre of town and everywhere that we could on foot (and the metro which has 101 stations (16 more under construction) and carries in excess of 2.4 million passengers per day, so the biggest in south america and only 1 million or so less than London).

Although we missed the free city tour (a major faux pas amongst the backpacking establishment) a couple we met recounted their tour experience where the guide was giving his account of how the great Allende had been wrongly evicted by Pinochet's violent coup, only for a passer-by to stop and engage in heated discussion putting the opposing view that Pinochet had saved the country from the inevitable disaster of Allende's predominantly social programme.

It it good to see that such a violent recent history is so hotly and openly debated after all those years of enforced silence, no doubt the truth lies somewhere between the Hoxden of Barrio Brazil and shiny Sanhattan...

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