Santiago and The End of an Affair
Santiago, capital of Chile and home to 5.5 million people, sits in Chile’s central valley 1-2 hours drive from either the Pacific or the Andes and Chile’s ski resorts. Large, modern and easy to get around, we ended up here twice: once passing through and a second time – for a week – as our last port of call in South America.
It’s a huge city to explore with a decent metro and bus system. In the centre, there are a few cool neighbourhoods full of hip shops and restaurants. We managed to find our first Indian food since I don’t know when. Woohoo! Large avenues, impressive buildings, tree-lined parks and – close to our apartment – love motels and the odd block lined with prostitutes.
Our first sojourn to Santiago was more of a passing through affair over a single weekend. With some time to kill, we decided upon yet another free walking tour. Unfortunately, we got up a bit too late. Never mind, we had the map of the route, so we set off on our own providing our own commentary.
Starting at the Plaza de Armas (yet another central square under renovation over winter) we wound our way through the central business district, past various institutes, ministries and Palaces and one unfeasibly large flag. Moving on through the shopping district we ascended Santa Lucia, a small park on a hill in the city centre, before moving on to Bellas Artes, a very stylish neighbourhood full of vintage clothes shops and expensive cafes. Then we made our way across a long tree-lined park running towards Plaza de Italia and finally into Barrio Bella Vista, a neighbourhood full of colourful trendy bars and restaurants sitting beneath Cerro San Cristobal.
Without a guide, we failed to recognise the history of many of these places. For example, as we learned later, it was in the palace – under bombardment by the military coup in 1973 – that President Salvador Allende addressed the country: he urged them not to forget Chile as it should be and to rebuild it one day. Then he shot himself in the head as the military closed in.
Overwhelmed at Santiago Bus Terminal
After our first couple of nights in Santiago, our plan was to go to Puerto Montt to work on an organic farm for a week or two. So we booked a night bus and waited in our hostel until the appointed hour, before taking a taxi to the terminal (having checked a few times that we knew which terminal to go to).
As we were dropped off, it became clear the terminal was vast: spanning multiple city blocks, full of seemingly millions of busy people (since it was a holiday), myriads of passageways and all without clear signage. It’s just assumed you know where to go.
So we asked and were told we needed to walk three city blocks down to the right to another terminal. Off we started then paused: nope, don’t believe it, we don’t have time to walk down there and everyone else told us it was here. Ask again. You need to go one block up to the left into the next terminal. Okay, found that, so where is the bus, there are about a hundred stands?! Let’s find the office for Bus Norte….more asking. Eventually we stumbled upon it (there are hundreds of bus lines each with small kiosks), and were told stands 42-49. So, now with only a few minutes to spare, we got to the stands where buses were pulling in and out every few minutes with the same destination. Which one was ours? Argh!
Finally we found it. Mentally exhausted after twenty minutes of nervous panic we were able to relax into huge, reclining seats. Most stressful bus station experience to date!
Back in Santiago after our workaway experience in the Puerto Montt, we established ourselves in a lovely AirBnB apartment in central Santiago.
During our travels, Alison has been disturbed by the plight of stray dogs all over Central and South America. They’re everywhere and the problem does not seem to be addressed in any serious way. In Central America, they’re often in extremely poor condition and viciously treated. In parts of South America the public take a more collective care approach and food is put out for them. But there’s no attempt to control numbers – neuter them – and it’s sad to see.
True to her nature, she wanted to do something to help before we left the continent and found an organisation (4A) in Santiago that rescues, re-trains and attempts to adopt out stray dogs. Based at the veterinary school on the edge of Santiago, 4A does it’s best with zero funding and a small corps of volunteer veterinary students. The dogs tend to have behavioural problems and are slowly rehabilitated though the care of the volunteers and a behavioural specialist.
And so it was that we took the Metro to the end of the line, followed by a bus, after which we found ourselves in a small compound deafened by the sound of twenty to thirty excited strays and assaulted by the smell of their enclosures, in need of a good clean. Decked out in less–than-flattering boiler suits and wellies, we took our charges out into the fields around the campus for a good walk and exercise whilst their enclosures were cleaned.
Excited to be out and about, they were a little tricky to keep under control, just like new puppies. And at all times we were accompanied by the pack that lives outside the centre: dogs already rehabilitated, but without new owners. It was great fun to be able to offer a little attention and exercise to this excitable bunch.
Chile has a very recent turbulent history that’s hard to believe when you see how modern and apparently well-functioning it is today. But until the nineties, it was run by a military Junta that took power in a coup and ruled with an iron-fist for many years: treating opponents and suspected opponents with an array of barbaric punishments, including extra-judicial execution and torture. Of course the British and US pandered to Augusto Pinochet and his cronies, and Thatcher defended him even as international efforts were made to bring him to justice.
As is often the case in formerly troubled countries, heroic efforts have to be made to achieve truth and reconciliation; the history has to be recognised to prevent its recurrence. So Santiago has the Museo de las Memoria, dedicated to preserving the nation’s memory of those times.
A couple of metro stops out of the city centre by the large Park at Quinta Normal, the museum spans three floors and tells the story through largely textual exhibits and accompanying audio-guides (ours in English). As well as the political events, it details the experiences of ordinary people tortured at the hands of the regime with a series of harrowing video interviews.
A glass-panelled alcove full of candles projects into the tall empty space at the centre of the museum a wall of pictures (the disappeared). We saw tourists walking around absorbed in the history; but we also saw Chileans lost in thought by the candles, with some weeping. It’s still very close in a temporal sense and many of those involved are still at large today, as Chile can’t arrest everyone. So it is possible that: that older policeman you see on the street may once have been an instrument of the oppression.
Not your run-of-the-mill, fun-day-out museum experience, but very moving.
Cerro San Cristobal Funicular
Cerro San Cristobal sits at the edge of Barrio Bella Vista, a 300m hill topped by a Sanctuary and park. The funicular, opened in 1925 and paid for by the residents, provides a splendid view. From the top you can appreciate how big Santiago really is. We were fortunate to have a beautiful sunny day to meander round, soaking up the rays and the views.
Our final week passed quite quickly, living in a small cosy flat and exploring the city. We felt at home. It’s been close to ten months in Central and South America. I feel like I know how it works now, I can feel safe, I can speak bad Spanish to taxi drivers. The same happened to me when I lived in France. As I came to leave, I suddenly realised I felt at home there. Maybe knowing you’re leaving kick-starts the nostalgia … before you’ve actually gone.