Introducing Santiago, Chile

Feb 16, 2012

by JOE YOGERST, Travel Writer

Like so many Latin American capitals, as home to more than six million people – one out of every three Chileans – Santiago is big, brash and in your face. But its vibe is more than just raw power. There’s an ever-present energy that pulsates through the capital.

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This is a city emerging from a dark age, dominated by an oppressive military junta that held Chile hostage for nearly 20 years, which finally released its grip in 1990. Now, bursting with a new confidence and creativity, Santiago may not yet be on a par with Rio or Buenos Aires, but it is quickly catching up, and coming into its own as one of the great cities of South America.“The changes have been dramatic,” local writer and long-time resident Kristina Schreck says. “Santiago once felt stuck in time and worn-out, which of course was the hangover period following the dictatorship. But today it’s alive and vibrant.”

Snug in its fertile inland valley, Santiago was founded some 50 years after Columbus set foot in the Americas and grew following the Spanish colonial model. Distance from the sea and its crown of snow-capped peaks made the city easy to protect from all but the most intrepid invaders – such as Chilean national heroes, independence leader Bernardo O’Higgins, and “Knight of the Andes” Jos de San Martn, who marched an army over the crest of the Andes in 1817 to liberate the city from the Spanish. Although it grew by leaps and bounds after independence, Santiago struggled to shake its provincial past and conservative isolation – author Isabel Allende described growing up in Santiago as being “at the end of the world”. And that’s exactly how it stayed until the early 1990s when the renaissance began. After years of denial, while it was still way down south, in a latitudinal sense, Santiago found that it was no longer at the end of the world, and Santiaguinos began to embrace everything and almost anything new, from modern architecture and fashion to
foreign foods and alternative lifestyles.

Historically, to dine out in Santiago was to expect little, but a new generation of chefs and restaurant owners has elevated the standard of local eateries by applying modern cooking techniques to traditional Chilean ingredients and dishes. Likewise, accommodation options have morphed from a standard based on generic international hotels to a variety of intriguing boutique properties.

Santiago’s nightlife has blossomed and smart uptown dance clubs now share top billing with sedate jazz bars and swanky salsa clubs. Yet, says local radio host and musician Sean Black, there are still plenty of joints around town where the serious party animal can “listen to original vinyl records, drink litres of beer from the bottle, butt smokes out on the floor, howl obscenities at the bartender and get arrested – all before 11 pm – for less than $US10 (4812 Chilean pesos).”

Despite its immense size, Santiago is actually an easy city in which to get your bearings. The muddy waters of the Rio Mapocho run east-west across the valley and most of the city’s key districts huddle along its banks. Like every great metropolis, the city is a collection of distinct – and often contrary – neighbourhoods tossed together in a great civic salad. The thrill, especially for first-time visitors, is to sample its urban flavours in quick succession.

Set between the Mapocho River, Santa Lucia Hill and the Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins (Santiago’s main thoroughfare), the elegant Centro district overlays the remains of the Spanish colonial era. Its vibe is more Barcelona than Cusco, marching to the beat of a European drum rather than Andean pipes. Here, you’ll find Belle poque palaces, sidewalk cafes and smartly clad movers and shakers on their way to power lunches.

On the north side of the river is the bohemian Bellavista, the city’s intellectual heart. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, it was home to Nobel Prize-winning poet, diplomat and politician Pablo Neruda, plus scores of other prominent writers, artists and thinkers who gathered in local cantinas and cafes to discuss the meaning of life. Now, it is an attraction for the masses, a mosaic of art galleries, boutiques and trendy clubs. These days, cutting-edge creativity is found in Barrio Brasil, the location to which Santiago’s counterculture migrated in the 1990s when, following the years of oppression, freedom of expression once again became possible.

Santiago Oriente is the collective term for the city’s upmarket neighbourhoods – Providencia, Las Condes, El Golf and Vitacura – arrayed along the Mapocho east of downtown. Packed with high-rise towers, shopping malls and cars that cost more than most Chileans make in a year, this is the heart and soul of modern Santiago. An area as hip as any in the Americas, the strip so emulates the Big Apple that it’s sarcastically called “Sanhattan” by locals who decry its excesses.

Arrayed around the city is an outdoor wonderland where it’s possible to surf in the Pacific, sip world-class wines and ski in the Andes all in one day – the only Latin American capital where that’s even remotely feasible. And there’s sure to be more to come; Chile’s eager-to-get-ahead metropolis isn’t even close to peaking as a place to live and visit. “Santiago is a city in transition,” Schreck says. “Having been asleep for a long time, it has awoken in a frenzy.”


The Aubrey
299-317 Constitucin, Bellavista.
This chic, 15-room boutique, nestled in a moody 1920s manse, was once home to a leading Chilean politician. A mash-up of Spanish colonial architecture and sleek contemporary decor, the Aubrey seduces in subtle ways – earthy tones set against hardwood floors, oversized soak tubs with blue-sky views, and alfresco seating areas that make you feel like you’re in the Andes rather than inner-city Santiago. A full-service spa, heated outdoor pool, piano bar and charming new restaurant round out its attractions.

Noi Vitacura
3736 Avenida Nueva Costanera, Vitacura.
Set in the upscale Vitacura neighbourhood on the north side of Santiago, the brand-new Noi embraces the 21st-century city with bold, modern architecture, hip decor and service that’s attentive without being fussy. Even the smallest of its 87 rooms seems spacious, featuring electric curtains, wide-screen TVs, plush Italian-fabric robes and floor-to-ceiling views. The rooftop Tramonto terrace bar offers views of the metropolis and mountains, while the Portofino Book Lounge invites guests to sit, read and sip from its long cocktail menu.

Ritz Carlton Santiago
15 Calle El Alcalde, Las Condes.
Considered the city’s top business hotel, the Ritz luxuriates in the hustle-bustle Las Condes commercial district. Updated old-world elegance may be the vibe of the guestrooms and public areas downstairs, but it is the futuristic rooftop spa and pool that sets tongues wagging at the RC. Set beneath a glass dome, the palm-filled sky deck offers unobstructed Andes views and plenty of ways to pamper yourself in high style. Another plush escape is the hotel’s 100-degree restaurant, which blends avant-garde seafood dishes and one of Santiago’s best wine selections.

Puma Lodge
Parque Nacional Los Cipreses,
Sector De Rancagua.
There’s no law that says you have to stay in town. Located about 90 minutes from downtown Santiago, Puma Lodge is a new wilderness retreat that rotates winter sports (such as heli-skiing) and summer outdoor adventure. With only 24 rooms, the lodge never seems crowded. And there’s certainly plenty to keep you busy: health spa and outdoor jacuzzi, gourmet eatery with a well-stocked wine cellar; and a long list of activities that includes fishing, rockclimbing, hiking and stargazing. EAT


Astrid y Gaston
201 Antonio Bellet, Providencia.
+56 2 650 9125.
Chileans find themselves able to shelve their national pride temporarily when dining at this exquisite Peruvian eatery in the Providencia district. Their ceviche is to die for, but so too are the corvina (sea bass), lomo saltado (stir-fried steak and potato) and cabrito lechal (baby goat ribs). Be sure to engage one of the locals in the ongoing debate about who makes the best pisco sour cocktails – Chile or Peru?

Aqu Est Coco
236 La Concepcin, Providencia.
+56 2 410 6200.
This over-the-top restaurant in an old stone mansion in Providencia was resurrected in 2010 after a fire destroyed the original. If you can tear your eyes away from the flamboyant decor, the menu offers an amazing sensory experience. Jorge “Coco” Pacheco still runs the kitchen he started nearly four decades ago, with its emphasis on seafood such as Patagonian salmon, seared swordfish, king crab casserole and fillet of congrio.


Cerro San Cristbal
Parque Metropolitano de Santiago, Mesa Central.
+56 2 730 1300.
Santiago’s version of Rio de Janeiro’s Corcovado mountain is a 300m peak crowned by a whitewashed statue of the Virgin Mary. Ride the Bellavista Funicular railway to the summit and gaze out on the teeming metropolis and the Andes. Then hop the Telefrico cable car across the mountaintop to trails that wind back down into the city. The peak marks the southernmost point of the Parque Metropolitano, a huge urban green space that is also home to Santiago Zoo.

La Chascona
192 Fernando Marquz
de la Plata.
+56 2 777 8741.
Eccentricity washes through this rambling house at the foot of Cerro San Cristbal, where Pablo Neruda once resided with his red-haired mistress (and eventual third wife) Matilda Urrutia for nearly 20 years. When he wasn’t penning verse that would see
him win a Nobel Prize, Neruda was busy collecting just about everything imaginable. Glassware and ceramics, books and coins, Russian dolls and African woodcarvings – and even oddball Piero Fornasetti furniture – are scattered throughout a house that looks as lived in today as it must have when Pablo and Matilda called it home.

Museum of Memory & Human Rights
501 Matucana, Metro Quinta Normal.
+56 2 597 9600.
Chile’s dark modern history is the theme of the new Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, unveiled in 2010 in a stylish glass-and-concrete structure in Quinta Normal district. Bravely facing up to the recent past like no other museum in Latin America, the permanent collection details the rise and fall of Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military regime, from the American CIA-engineered coup of 1973 to his ousting in 1990.


3rd floor/5413 Avenida Kennedy,
Parque Arauco.
+56 2 211 7875.
A fusion of modern design, and traditional Chilean materials and workmanship, Pura has a wide variety of handicrafts on offer – from handbags and shawls to funky footwear, kitchen items and jewellery.

El Mundo del Vino
3000 Isidora Goyenechea, Las Condes.
+56 2 584 1173.
Chilean wines – sip them in situ while in Santiago or take them home from the city’s top wine shop. In addition to a wide variety of Chilean wines in travel-ready packaging, the store also offers oenophile accessories, books, tastings and classes.

Patio Bellavista
30-70 Constitucin,
+56 2 249 8700.
This upscale bazaar specialises in Chilean arts, crafts and jewellery. The cosy, village-like atmosphere derives from the restoration of early 20th-century industrial workshops into a warren of shops, bars and restaurants in the artsy Bellavista district. Collectively, the shops present an incredible array of creativity: from the maritime crafts of El Marino and the marionettes of La Romerita to the silver and lapis lzuli baubles of Manos and rural haute couture of Camora.


Maipo Valley
Chile’s equivalent of Napa or the Barossa is the Maipo Valley on the southern outskirts of Santiago, home to Concha y Toro and more than 40 other wineries that open their cellar doors to visitors. With varying microclimates and different soils along the length of the valley,
the Maipo produces a variety of different wines. It is best known for cabernet sauvignon, but the vineyards also create world-class merlot and chardonnay.

Valle Nevado
Perched in the Andes 46km north-east of the city centre, Valle Nevado is Chile’s winter sports capital and probably the best place to ski or snowboard in all of South America. The ski-able domain features eight lifts and more than 100 trails, from beginner through to advanced levels; plus a terrain park, off-piste skiing, snowboarding, and heli-skiing. The season runs from June through October.

Cajon del Maipo
Not to be confused with the downstream wine country, the Cajon del Maipo (Maipo Gorge) is a rugged nature area in the Andes foothills southeast of Santiago. Hiking, mountain biking and whitewater rafting are the aerobic attractions. Weary muscles can then be soaked at Morales or Colina hot springs.

Source Qantas The Australian Way March 2012

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