Airport Rating *****
Reception of locals ****
After a week of playing catch up following my flight cancellation in Peru, the day had come when I was finally back on schedule. I got an early morning transfer from San Pedro de Atacama to Calama airport about an hour and a half away. Driving along the empty highway between the two towns in the darkness with no street lights was oddly relaxing and I drifted off on a number of occasions. I reached Calama shortly after sunrise and entered the small airport. I walked right up to check in and presented my passport. "Flying to Santiago?" the check-in lady asked. "Yep". "Okay, your flight has been cancelled".
Is this girl on crack, I thought to myself. I asked if they could put me on a train but I was told that there was no train station in the city. So I asked what my options were. She told me the airline was on strike and the next flight would be leaving in 6 days. Yep, she must have hit the crack hard, I then asked whether any other airlines were flying out from the airport and she told me there was one more and I could see if they had any spare seats. I asked for a letter showing that the flight was cancelled. I then spoke about what I would be entitled to which she agreed with and also told me I would be compensated for the flight once I got to Santiago, which I thought was pretty ironic.
Patience is a virtue
A couple of others had seen the commotion and come over, turns out they were in the same situation, one girl from London and also a couple from Brazil. Not wanting to take a risk they decided to book online and found that there were seats available on a different airline flying out 3 hours later but they cost GBP 400. I told them that there was no way I was paying that much money and when the check in desk opened I would speak to them directly and see if they had any deals on. I suggested the others do the same, but not wanting to lose seats, the others reluctantly decided to book online. I held off. An hour later the check in desk opened and I walked in and explained my situation, I asked whether they had any spare seats. They had a look and told me they did have a seat and then showed me the price in Chilean Peso's. I converted it into pounds and told them they had got the price wrong, they said no its one of the last seats and the cost is right. I ended up paying GBP 79. The others caught wind of this and weren't best pleased, I had told them to hold off booking online but then I reminded them that they probably would be able to claim it back so they shouldn't worry too much.
Other than being slightly delayed, the flight wasn't too bad, just under two hours in total. I grabbed a taxi from outside the airport and headed into the city centre which was about a 30 minute drive. Compared to the other capital cities I visited in South America, the traffic here was much more orderly, although taxi drivers still drove like absolute nutters. Although built in the 16th century, very few colonial buildings survive in Santiago, and as you head towards downtown and the Providencia area, buildings are all very modern and very different to some of the other large cities in this continent.
Old friends, new locations
During my summer in Thailand a couple of years previously I had made good friends with a girl during my journey to the north of Thailand. Originally from England, she had moved to Thailand to teach English, originally for 6 months and then extended to a year. After this she moved to Chile and was toward the end of her year teaching in Santiago. As soon as she found out that I was coming to South America, she told me I had to visit Chile and that she would be my tour guide. I have said on many occasions that sometimes the people you meet when travelling alone are even better than the sights that you see. I have kept in touch with people I have met in hostels in Barcelona, during tours to the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia, people I have shared journeys with in Thailand and people I have met in Vietnam. Sometimes I go out and visit these guys, as I was doing in Santiago and sometimes these guys come to England and visit me, as was the case with a group of Americans I met in Phnom Penh, or a couple I had met in Bangkok.
I met my friend in the centre of Santiago and we first went out to grab some typical Chilean food, a dish made from crushed corn which tasted much better than it looked. The weather was cooler than Lima but comfortable. We then took a walk to the Costanera. The shopping centre was the same as smaller shopping centres in England and I felt like I was back home. We walked around the shops for a little while and then headed up to the Sky Constanera Tower, or the Gran Torre Santiago. The tower, only recently completed, is the tallest in Latin America and architecturally is very similar to the Shard in London, complete with an open top. However, unlike the Shard, the cost to see the viewing platform wasn't an extortionate amount. We were directed to a lift and a guide looked at us and asked if we were English and then proceeded to give his monologue in both Spanish and English.
Like the Shard, the top is split into two floors, the top floor leads out to open air. The view was very special from the top. Not only could you see all of the city from every direction but you could also see the famous hills of Santiago as well as the Andes in the distance. Having been on the viewing platforms of the tallest buildings in 4 different continents, this was by far the most different. The presence of the mountains gives it a very different feel and puts into perspective the size of nature compared to man made architecture.,
We stayed on the viewing platforms for about 30 minutes and watched the sunset behind the hills of Santiago which was a very cool thing to see. I'm generally very good with directions, but the next two hours were the most frustrating of my trip. I was staying near the centre of the city and I had agreed to get changed, lie down for a short while then meet my friend again so we could explore more of the city. As I didn't have wi-fi, she showed me directions on her phone and told me she would meet me in two hours. I circled the same area for about 45 minutes but I couldn't find where I was staying and everyone that I asked directions for had no idea either. I decided to walk back to Costanera and steal some free wi-fi and as I checked my maps, the pin on my map was leading me to the same place again. Maybe I'd missed something, I thought as I headed back and then spent another 20 minutes circling the same area again. By the way, if you ever want to scare anyone, just circle their building a few times holding a phone up. Returning again to Costanera I sent my friend a message and she started panicking wondering why I hadn't reached back at that point. Finally I caught a taxi which literally took about 3 turns and one minute to get me back. I felt pretty stupid at that point, I'm not going to lie.
After heading over to my friends we left to explore the city nightlife. I met some of her Chilean friends and went to a couple of their favourite bars and restaurants. Unlike England, bars in South America also offer food late into the night so there is no focus on drinking and the atmosphere was very relaxed and laid back.. Towards 2am I was really struggling to stay awake but I was told this is when people actually start going out in Chile. Having spent 3 years working behind a bar in a large club, 2am would be getting over the peak and preparing to close down so this was different, although similar to what I had seen in Barcelona and Madrid.
One of my friends' Chilean friends owns a car so we spent the entire next day exploring different parts of the city. We started by heading off to Cerro San Cristobal. the second highest hill in Santiago that is 800m high, although it seems even higher. There are a number of ways you can reach the summit; by internal lifts, walking/cycling or by car. We decided to drive to the top, although I am told the walk is a little under an hour. After winding our way slowly up the hill we parked just a few metres below the summit. Looking around the view was even more spectacular than the one I had seen the previous day from the Gran Torre Santiago. We headed even higher, right to the top where there is a statue of the Virgin Mary, in similar vain to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, although significantly smaller. Just below the statue there is a stage and seating area where mass is still held in what is still a pretty conservative Catholic country.
I would highly recommend a trip to the San Cristobal Hill. The view was the best I saw of Santiago but the general atmosphere of the area is quite nice, with people using the hill as a way of doing cardio with runners and cyclists making up a significant percentage of the people at or near the summit. At the base of the hill is a zoo and although we didn't go in we did see the many zoo themed stalls selling stuffed animals on the outskirts.
Within walking distance of Cerro San Cristobal is Bellavista, an area that was described as the Shoreditch of Chile. The area was a popular nightspot in the 1980's but had fallen into disuse over the next couple of decades. However, cheaper property prices meant the area got an influx of young artists and this proved to be the turning point as the area is once again a lively part of the city. Bellavista is also where the home of the famous poet, Pablo Neruda, is located and we had a quick visit to take a look. Painted in a bold blue, the house stands out in its surroundings and adds to feel of the area.
Walking through Bellavista, I could see the attraction of the area, with open patios leading to numerous bars and restaurants, each a little different from the one next to it. I could definitely see the comparisons to Shoreditch and there was a youthful energy to this area that wasn't so apparent in other parts of the city.
Next we visited Lastarria, an area in downtown Santiago similar in style and character to Bellavista. As with the the latter, this area had a Bohemian feel to it, with a number of buildings that were designed in the 1960's still having prominence. Lastarria also had a fair number of street performers doing everything from magic tricks to playing musical instruments.
Unlike Peru and the civilians in Bolivia (the army/police not so much), residents in Santiago didn't seem as outwardly friendly. I say that knowing full well that the girl driving me around was a Chilean I had just met and she had literally taken a weekend out to show me around because I was a friend of her friend, so its perhaps a little harsh to say this. She did inform me that Chileans 'look down' at Peruvians due to their darker complexion so that may have definitely played a part in my judgement.
It was a short walk from Lastarria past the Santa Lucia Hill to the centre of the city and the Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts. The outside of the museum was lined with hundreds of people all watching a mime artist perform. As good as the artist was (and he was good), you would never see so many people lined up for so long a time in London to watch a street performer but everyone seemed to be having a good time.. The building itself was very grand, built in a Baroque Revival style and the inside was very nice too however we didn't make it past the first exhibition as the museum was charging for entry on that particular day. I was told that entry on certain days is free, I just so happened to go on the wrong day.
We then jumped in the car and had a tour around the centre of the city where all the Government buildings are housed. We drove past the former National Congress building and also La Moneda. Opened in 1805, La Moneda is the Presidential Palace and definitely has a grandeur about it. The Palace suffered from extensive bombing during a military coup in the 1970's and was rebuilt in the 1980's. The building is designed in a neoclassical design and the scale of it is very impressive. The building isn't very tall but is very wide and seems to have a very low centre of gravity. La Moneda is supposed to represent strength and stability and the shape of the building definitely serves that purpose. Outside of the Palace is an absolutely humungous Chilean flag. Its hard to describe just how large the flag is and it was something that caught my attention for a number of minutes.
As we headed back, we drove past the large Santiago Metropolitan Park where residents were relaxing next to fountains and on park benches but by far one of my favourite sights was driving through the centre of Santiago, looking ahead at the Gran Torre Santiago with snowcapped mountains in the background. Up until this point Santiago had not felt very special, but this was something that I found particularly amazing and its a sight that will stay in my memory for a long time.
As impressive as that sight was I wasn't too sure what to make of the rest of the city. It has a lot going for it and in many respects it is the future of the continent and a definite future global city. However, the city doesn't have a distinctive character of its own. On asking my friend where I could see some good Chilean cultural parts of the city, she told me that Santiago's culture isn't really in the sights or the architecture but in the cuisine and the Chilean dialect of Spanish. There are not too many buildings in the city that are more than 100 years old. The city doesn't have the character of Rio, the uniqueness of La Paz or even the Latin feel of Lima.
One thing that I can say is that Chile is very safe, and as a Sikh I had absolutely no issues getting around, although taxi drivers did try to overcharge me. It doesn't quite have the overt friendliness of Peru, but nor does it have any overt negativity either. I get a few emails from female Sikh travellers asking me about a city's safety, and a good place to check out whether Chile is safe for females is this article here.
Thank you to Charlotte and Gigi for showing me around
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.