“You know, South America. It’s like America, but South!” — Ellie, Disney Pixar’s Up (2009)
Interestingly, South America hadn’t been on my radar until this summer, when my family and I took our annual family vacation there. Despite what I’d learned in history class, I didn’t know much about each of its countries’ politics, culture, or history– call me the “ignorant American,” but spending time there this summer was a real, first-hand glimpse into the rich, complex, and diverse cultures of the continent, all the while inspiring me to return some day to discover more.
My family and I spent two weeks focused on two South American countries: Chile and Peru. It was rather rushed for me, as I’d just returned from France and had barely 48 hours to rest at home before we caught our direct flight to Santiago. It was about a 10-hour flight, and we soon arrived and took a shuttle to our hotel in the city center. We’d arrived early in the morning, and we would only be staying there for a night before continuing to our next destination (although we would return for another night afterwards).
Besides it being my first time in South America, it was also my first time in the Southern Hemisphere. That said, it was wintertime when we visited in late June, and I was surprised just how chilly Chile was (bad pun, I know). Temperatures were below 10°C (54°F) in the mornings, and they never climbed higher than 18°C (64°F) during the day. Definitely a novel experience for me, but considering that temperatures can get quite warm in the summer (30°C/90°F or above), I was relieved for cool weather during my visit.
Since it was around 6:30 when we arrived, we spent some time settling into our hotel before getting breakfast downstairs. We started our day around 9:00 by heading to the nearest metro station to purchase tickets to get to other parts of Santiago. Compared with other metro ticket services I’ve seen, we first needed to purchase a card before we could top off the number of rides we wanted to take– I suppose it’s quite similar to London’s Oyster card service.
We also had a bit of a struggle communicating with the agent at the booth, since we didn’t speak Spanish (and I was quick to find out that not many people in Santiago speak English). However, after some *really broken* Spanish words and miming, we got our topped cards and proceeded to take the metro to Plaza de la Constitución, where la Moneda (the Chilean president’s office) is located. We happened to arrive in time to see the changing of the guards, which was a notable fanfare– the marching band even played some modern tunes from films like James Bond and Star Wars!
Following the spectacle, we made our way to Plaza de Armas. On the way, though, we came across Bandera, a street with surprising color– it was as if someone had taken a large bucket of multi-colored paint and splashed it onto the entire street. As I soon came to discover, Santiago has a considerable street art scene, which added some color to the otherwise overcast skies in the morning.
Arriving at Plaza de Armas, we visited the Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral– it happened to be Mass when we entered, so we returned at a later date to visit and take photos of the cathedral (which I found surprisingly dazzling). We then took a short stroll around the square, which is the main one of the city, and continued with our visit to the other side of town.
We made our way to Cerro Santa Lucía, a hill that was actually a volcano from 15 million years ago. In fact, Chile has around 500 active volcanoes along the “Ring of Fire” fault line, which makes it as susceptible to volcanic eruptions as other countries in the world, including Indonesia and Japan.
In any case, we took the steps up to Santa Lucía’s initial summit (70 meters/230 feet) for panoramic views of the city. We passed by the grand Neptune’s Fountain before reaching the last ascent at the very top, with a small deck for no more than 20 people. Although it was close to midday by then, it was still notably overcast as we couldn’t make out much in the distance, let alone the famous Andes Mountains. It was still nice to see the sprawling skyline, as it reminded me much of others like in New York or Tokyo.
Just before getting lunch, we headed to Barrio Bellavista, a district known for plenty of restaurants, bars, and colorful murals, such as this one we saw while passing through:
My family and I settled on a random restaurant within the district, where we ordered some Chilean dishes, including empanadas (which in general are found all over Spanish-speaking countries) along with tuna steak and this massive meat platter that was too much to handle. All the same, we enjoyed the meal and we ended up returning for another meal later in our visit.
Although it was only early afternoon when we finished our meal, we were feeling the travel exhaustion creep in, so we decided to head back to our hotel and rest for the day, passing by the tallest building in South America, the Costanera. We would be leaving the next day to visit Easter Island for the next three days, so we needed to rest up.
Following the visit, though, we flew back to Santiago where we had another full day in town to visit some more. We returned to the Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral to visit the inside before checking out the Mercado Central (similar to ones I’ve seen in Madrid and Valencia). We had lunch at the same restaurant we’d gone to our first day in town, this time trying humitas which are essentially tamales. Also had a Pisco Sour (a Chilean-Peruvian alcoholic drink), which was strong but tasty!
Our stomachs were full as we slowly headed over to Cerro San Cristóbal, the other hilltop in Santiago. Along the way, we passed by la Chascona, aka “Pablo Neruda House-Museum,” dedicated to the eponymous Chilean poet. We reached the base of the hill where we paid to ride the cable car to the top (300 meters/984 feet). Unlike our previous time in Santa Lucía, the weather was perfectly clear that day, and we got to see the Andes Mountains in all of its glory– in contrast with the urban landscape of the Chilean capital, the natural beauty of the snow-capped mountains made for a gorgeous, worthwhile view.
After wandering the hilltop (where we also came across a large statue of the Virgin Mary), we ended our visit by returning to our hotel to rest for the day. We were quite tired, and we had another flight to catch the following day for the next leg of our journey in South America.
Our time in Santiago was short, but we got to see the highlights of Chile’s capital despite the limited time we had. I liken Santiago to large, metropolitan cities such as New York or Los Angeles, as it’s heavily-urbanized and quite Westernized in style. As it’s considered one of the more “European-influenced” countries of South America, Chile didn’t seem so far off from places like Spain (as it was a former colony), and I found it fascinating the way it was on a completely-different continent, thousands of miles away.
Speaking of thousands of miles away, I’ll be recapping our visit to Easter Island next. Post to come soon!