Our timing was a little off, arriving in Santiago at the start of the Easter long weekend. Nonetheless, we were determined to make the most of the limited time we had and at least see a couple of the highlights on this occasion; keeping a few things back for when we returned later in the month. My longed for retail therapy was definitely on hold, with a lot of shops closed for the holidays. Sigh.
The sun bounced off the shiny skyscrapers as we sped into town from the airport. Santiago, cosmopolitan capital that it is, boasts its own mini Manhattan, with a huge ‘downtown’ business district and well laid out avenues, mixed with apartment blocks and faded colonial mansions – all in the space of two dozen blocks or so. With views of the Andes (on a clear-ish day), sprawling parks and plazas, it is a city you can just about conquer by the Metro’s five lines and foot; we had yet to brave boarding a bus with our token Spanish and well thumbed phrase book. Next time. Maybe.
I hit the tourist trail to check out a few of the “must-sees”, whilst Matt continued researching our Galapagos trip. Knowing full well things would be closed, I made for Plaza De Armes, at the heart of the city and previously, in good ol’ colonial days, the location of the gallows and public hangings. The square was buzzing with people making the most of both the sunshine and weekend; a few street vendors, selling mainly Peruvian (!) knick knacks, candy floss and balloons and an arcade housing some 12 cafes/stalls that seriously catered for any cravings you might have for “dirty white” hot dogs, slathered in mayo, more mayo, gauc, plus you name it, you can have it, number of toppings… Not for the faint hearted or cholesterol checking chicas.
Sadly the Correo Central, main post office was closed; not because I wanted to post anything – we have been beyond pants at sending post cards – but it is a stunning building, both inside and out. I decided against the Museo Historico Nacional and ducked into Iglesia Catedral Metropolitana instead, recently and lovingly renovated it is easy to see why it was deemed a national monument, with its incredible stained glass windows and chandelier that lit the first meetings of Congress after Independence.
Not far away the Mercado Central beckoned, an assault on the senses in every way, it was the best place for seafood in Santiago; in the centre and beneath the ornate wrought iron girders, colourful and packed restaurants vied for business, musicians played and stalls sold everything from fresh fruit and veg, cacao leaves, guitars and trinkets. Behind this lay the fish market and the original cafes that fed off the market, with scarred tables and chairs, plastic clothes and all the charm that went with them. A bubbling and blistering hot caldillo de congrio arrived and hit the spot – a hearty stew rather than soup – finished off with tomato, chilli and coriander with a pile of fresh limes, ready to squeeze over. Perfecto!
On the way to barrio Bellavista, I strolled along Parque Forestal, that runs along the river (I use the term loosely, as it was more of a stream in
places) Rio Mapocha and popped into the Museo Nacional de Belles Art, museum of modern art, keen to see the drawings of Paula Lynch, Chilean artist whose portraits in pencil you would swear where photos. The building a stunning Art Deco backdrop for an incredible installation by Finnish, Kaarina Kaikkonen featuring over one thousand garments – men an women’s – strung out, row upon row across the gallery’s entire central hall – resembling a gigantic washing line.
Even if I hadn’t have been up for a fix of modern art, it did mean that I could only hear the whistles, chants and other sounds of the student demo passing by. No dramas but there were rather a lot of riot police present.
Barrio Bellavista has a heartbeat of its own and was on our list of places to hang out in, on our return. A multicultural neighbourhood, part old city and part new and edgy with students, musicians, cafes, restaurants, bars (the most per square mile in Chile apparently), theatres and galleries. Patio Bellavista, the perfect pit stop for a cheeky cerveza and a chance to ”people watch’ amongst the restaurants and cafes and craft stalls; a band tuning up ready to take centre stage in the square later that evening, part of the weekend line up.