An Introduction to Santiago
Interlaced with historical colonial buildings and state of the art skyscrapers, Santiago will feel as “western” as any city in South America. Through a history of revolution, political strife and military coup d’etats this sprawling city has somehow found a way to become the head of one of the wealthiest countries in the Southern Hemisphere. Getting around this city is easy and, in comparison with a number of other Latin American cities, quite safe. Within walking distance of the famous downtown plaza where Pinochet’s tanks once rolled during the most recent coup d’etat, is the San Cristobal funicular, the downtown shopping district, the plaza de armas and a number of very impressive, and intriguing, museums. Though modern in appearance, Santiago still boasts a history that will push you to explore and understand this great city at the feet of the Andes beyond its surface.
Fun facts about Santiago
- Santiago has a population of around 5.3 million, which is about 1/3rd of the total population of Chile
- Santiago’s official name is Santiago de Nueva Extremadura
- Despite its location at the foot of the Andes, Santiago only has an altitude of 520 meters (1700 feet) above sea level.
- The area around Santiago is one of the world’s largest producers of red wines.
A Brief History of Santiago
Santiago was founded in a very fertile valley hemmed in between the Andes and the Pacific Coast in 1541 by Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. Although this part of South America was not home to a huge population of indigenous people, strong resistance to the foundation was put forward by members of a number of different indigenous groups including the Mapuche people. In fact, directly after the foundation of the city, the Spanish settlers fought a brutal three year war with the local people of the Santiago valley, as well as invading forces from the north. It was not until 1544 that enough Spanish troops occupied the city to bring it to a level of calm, peace and security.
Although there were occasional earthquakes and floods in the city throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, Santiago rested in relative calm and grew steadily until it became independent in 1817. Santiago won its independence via the victory of Jose de San Martin’s liberation army in the Battle of Chacaburo, which was fought just outside of Santiago.
The 1900s in Santiago, and Chile in general, was like a social, economic and political roller coaster ride. The country wrestled with economic crashes due to poorly thought out economic planning, social revolutions and, of course, the famous political coup and subsequent dictatorship of Pinochet. However, in recent years Santiago has managed to find a rate of steady growth and progress somehow leaving those bitter feelings and sentiments in the past.
Although, on the surface, Santiago has the feel and flavour of a “western” city, a quick visit, and perhaps chat, with the locals will tell you that there’s something different at work here. The language of Spanish here has been manipulated to the point that, to many, it may sound like a new language all together. Forget the use of the letter S in Chilean Spanish, and be prepared for a wide variety of new words and variations to the language. To sound like a local try saying “como tai?” instead of “como estas?” (how are you?) or “Cachay” for “do you understand?”
Things to do in Santiago
Cerro San Cristobal: The image at the top of this article was taken from the top of Cerro San Cristobal, which is found in the Bellavista district of Santiago. To get to the top there are four options. A funicular (inclined train) pulls carts up every couple of minutes, there is a cable car that runs from another part of the park, some even make the long hike to the top or, if you’re in a real rush, you can always take a taxi all the way to the top.
- Museums: The museums in Santiago are greatly undervalued by the tourism community. In the center of the city alone you will find The Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, Santiago Museum, The Museum of Modern Arte, The National History Museum, and the Museo de Bella Artes, all of worth visiting.
- Changing of the Guard: This is maybe the most impressive changing of the guard display in all of South America, in large part because there are no gates blocking your views to the proceedings. On the site of the famous coup d’etat by Pinochet, soldiers march every day at noon. The display is especially popular on the weekends.
- Santa Lucia: This is another hill overlooking the city of Santiago. Although the views aren’t as spectacular as Cerro San Cristobal, they are still well worth the hike to the top.
- Wineries: Santiago is settled into the heart of wine country, and it would be a shame to visit the area without stopping in at a couple wineries. One of the most popular is the Concha y Toro winery which makes the famous Casillero del Diablo wines, among a variety of others. You can get to this winery via public transportation from Santiago.
- Valpo and Viña: It is possible to visit Valparaiso and Viña del mar on a day trip from Santiago, although I recommend you spend a little more time out on the coast. You can do this trip as a part of a guided tour with Turis Tours or you can do it on your own. Doing it on your own means catching a bus to Valpo (2hrs) spending the morning in town before catching the train to Viña (20 minutes) and spending the afternoon/evening in town before catching the bus from Viña back to Santiago.
Where to Eat in Santiago
Chilean food gets a bit of a tough rap as being bland and boring. However, if you know where to go there are a couple places in Santiago which are amongst the best on the continent. Head to a place in Barrio Brasil called La Vaca Gorda for some of the best steaks you have ever had in your life (A 500g bife de chorizo costs about 18US$). Another place worth visiting is Como Agua Para Chocolate in Bellavista, which has a beautiful atmosphere and great service. If you go, try the tiburon (shark). If you’re just looking for a cup of coffee check out the Cafe Haiti. Also, Chile is famous for their hot dogs, so don’t leave town without stopping at a hot dog shop.
In terms of places to go for a drink, head directly to the Bellavista district of Santiago. It is vibrant nearly every night of the week thanks to the thriving nearby University campus. There are also some decent places in Barri Brasil.
Where to Stay in Santiago
In the 8 times I’ve been to Santiago I’ve stayed at 2 different places. There are no shortage of budget hostels in town, but the best seems to be La Casa Rosa, which boasts a heated pool, good service and a comfortable environment (Dorms 13US$). For higher income travellers there is a nice 3 star hotel called Hotel España right downtown which has single rooms for about 40US$ a night, and is very comfortable.
Getting out of Town
From Santiago you have bus connections to just about anywhere in Chile as well as some Argentinean destinations. Quick bus trips of 2 hours will get you to the coastal cities of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar. Heading north regular buses run to La Serena (7-8hrs), Antofagasta (18hrs), San Pedro de Atacama (24hrs), Iquique (26hrs), and Arica (30hrs). To the South you can catch buses to Concepcion (12hrs), and Puerto Varas (28hrs). If you’re heading to Argentina there are regular buses to Mendoza (10hrs) and Buenos Aires (30hrs)
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