It’s the major gateway for Kiwis heading to South America. Is it worth a stop?
Well, it’s certainly not Rio or Buenos Aires, which is where many Kiwis are destined as they transit through Santiago, but the Chilean capital deserves a couple of nights. It’s the topography and the layout of the city, that is most striking. The city is bracketed by the Andes Mountains, which are currently sporting a very heavy snow-coat. And the city is pepper-potted with a series of smaller ridges and hills, so geographically, it’s a fascinating place.
It’s a lot bigger than people realise, right?
It’s a monster of a city with 6 million residents, most living in apartment blocks, or crammed into third world tin shacks, further out from the city centre. But it’s definitely a city on the move, with massive construction projects all over the city and glossy mega shopping malls opening up. In fact, the recently completed Costanera Center is South America’s tallest skyscraper.
Like Christchurch, Santiago suffered a massive earthquake in 2010. Is the damage still noticeable?
Very little, even though hundreds of buildings were wrecked by the quake. 10 billion dollars was the damage bill. But most of the deaths occurred south of the capital. Santiago seems to suffer a major quake every fifty years or so, and the building standards reflect that. One of the most amazing sites to go, is San Francesco church which is four hundred years old. It’s withstood some very beefy earthquakes, and you can even see how its massive stone blocks have moved about, in the quakes.
Tell us about the Historic Quarter.
This is definitely the most rewarding barrio, or neighbourhood, and quite the statement about Spanish colonialism. Spectacular renaissance-style architecture. In fact you could be forgiven for thinking you were in downtown Madrid. The first wave of wedding cake buildings followed the conquistadors in 1540. And then, when Chile, achieved independence 200 hundred years ago, a fresh wave of landmarks were constructed. So that’s great to check out.
Is there much Pinochet history on show?
Very little indeed. In fact, Chile still seems to be wrestling with the ghost of the military dictator, and his place in history. I went to the National History Museum, which has awesome exhibits on Chile’s pre-Colombian history, the arrival of the Spanish and so forth, right up to the present day. But Pinochet’s brutal regime is only referred to with a few photos of the military takeover, in a pokey corner of the museum. One place that you should go to in the Historic Quarter, central to the Pinochet narrative, La Moneda. This was the presidential palace that General Pinochet bombed to overthrow the government, and where the elected President committed suicide.
Where should you go for the best views?
If you have a fetish for funiculars, a great flight of fancy is the cable car ride up San Cristobal hill, which has a towering statue of Mary, on top. The other superb option is to climb Santa Lucia Hill, which is where the conquistador, Valdivia, set up his camp in 1540. Transformed from Spanish fort into a lavish hilltop park with renaissance-style fountains, this is a fantastic lookout, in the heart of the city.
What about daytrips?
Well, about an hour’s drive from the city, head out to the Pacific Coast, to Valparaiso. This is a very old fishing port, where the world’s traders would converge, after negogitaing the Straits of Magellan.Nowadays, its popular for its beaches, grand old Victorian houses, lush gardens and fresh seafood. And if you want to check out Chile’s booming wine industry, very close to Santiago is the Maipo Valley, famous for its merlot and cab sav.
What about the food? Is Chile cheap?
Santiago is a snip for travellers. You can get about on the super cheap, super clean metro. Food and drink is considerably cheaper than New Zealand. The centuries old produce market is well worth a graze. And for a lip-smacking street snack, the pino empanada, certainly hits the spot.
For further travel insights, tips and advice, check out the website of New Zealand’s premier travel magazine, For the Love of Travel. http://www.fortheloveoftravel.net.nz
( Mike’s travel notes from Newstalk ZB’s Jack Tame Show.)