January 21 – February 21, 2017 (Summer)
Currency: Peso ($)
Visa: 90 days
Cost of living: High
After two weeks on a crowded, expensive cruise ship, a crowded, expensive city was nevertheless a welcome sight. The entire capital region was engulfed in a thick blanket of wildfire smoke when we arrived at the port in Valparaíso. Over a few weeks, as the smoke and threat of annihilation by fire dissipated, we grew to really appreciate Santiago. It checked so many boxes we hate – sprawling & overwhelming megacity, hot weather, noise, limited green space – and transcended them entirely. The city was bustling and noisy, but still friendly and welcoming. It was hot, but not unbearably so due to the low humidity (and thankfully, no mosquitoes). And for a concrete jungle with a drainage ditch for a river, Santiago boasted a surprisingly delightful park (Parque Metropolitano) and greenbelt along the Mapocho. Add in the fresh, seasonal produce and only good seafood we’d had in ages, and Chile’s capital made a better impression than any multimillion-person city before or since.
Where we stayed
This month our Airbnb↗ was about as central as we could get, just a few blocks from the Mercado Central. We felt quite regal as the apartment was on the 24th floor and on clear days we had a view all the way to the mountains. In a city of skyscrapers, this was not special – several neighboring buildings reached just as high. But with two decks, one facing east and the other looking toward the sunset, we managed to find a good vista no matter the time of day. Our neighborhood mostly consisted of white-collar businesses and governmental work, so traffic (and street noise) peaked during rush hour, but we basically had the streets to ourselves on weekends. The canyon-like avenues propagated honks and screeches, and the city buses may have been engineered for maximum engine roar, but it was never actually too much to handle.
Our flat was laid out in a single line. A living room merged into a half kitchen, and the bathroom branched off the hall leading to the bedroom. The biggest disappointment was the non-functioning oven. We messaged our host who promised to look into it, but that apparently meant after we left. Though the place lacked air conditioning, the heat was pretty easy to manage by drawing shades in the day and opening doors on both sides to catch the through-breeze after dark. Nothing that would break a sweat outside maybe an hour or two of peak residual heat in the early evening.
As with our stay in Lima↗, Santiago had no nasty bugs to speak of, so even without screens we didn’t have to worry about mosquitoes. Instead, nature finds different ways to challenge Chile. The country is basically made of fault lines and volcanoes (we only felt one earthquake, a meek and remote 5.4), and the arid northern half of the country was thoroughly in flames for a big chunk of our stay. When we arrived, the smoke was so dense we could barely see, and soot settled around our apartment like a thick coat of dust. Once it cleared up though, those troublesome air-trapping mountains turned into fine silhouettes for some fairly stunning sunsets.
Being so centrally-located, we walked just about everywhere. Mornings and evenings were preferable since the daily high temperature always surpassed 90 degrees. For more distant outings or if we were time-strapped we used Uber↗. The taxi cartel is extra vindictive in Santiago, so drivers preferred we sat up front to avoid unwanted attention.
What we did
From our apartment we had a great view of Parque Metropolitano, the city’s closest mountain and most incredible park. This massive woodland housed a zoo, miles of trails, a funicular and a cable car. We visited several times, though the most memorable was our full “fear of heights” package, when we rode► the funicular, climbed San Cristóbal, and took the kilometer-and-a-half cable car clear across► town to Costanera Center, the tallest skyscraper on the continent. Jostling around in a cab suspended from wire was tense at times, but the views afforded were worth the stress. It’s hard to tell just how expansive Santiago is from ground-level. But looking out over the city from Bellavista Terrace, it really seemed endless.
A capital city has to have good museums, and Santiago’s Pre-Columbian Art Museum and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights were two of the best. The art museum covered Chile’s Mapuche and the Rapa Nui of Easter Island, with bonus exhibits from throughout the Americas. Pottery, stone carvings, precious metals, and quipus featured heavily. Memoria y los Derechos Humanos was much more somber, focusing on the human rights violations of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime. It was eye-opening. The exhibits chronicling the kidnapping and murder of Pinochet’s political enemies were thoroughly researched and corroborated in brutal detail. Almost as distressing for us was learning the extent of the role the United States played in backing the coup that overthrew the democratically-elected Salvador Allende and legitimizing Pinochet’s rule. Thankfully, the museum had a happy ending. Pinochet’s reign ended in the most poetic► way possible, with a democratic referendum on whether he should get to stay dictator. He lost.
The Mapocho River cuts an unimpressive trough through the city, but the nearby land was wisely developed into beautiful tracts of park space. The result is a stunning greenbelt from one end of downtown to the other. It was our favorite way to get around, even if it lengthened our trip significantly. Shady foliage and luxurious wide pathways are always preferable to penetrating sun and smoggy sidewalks. Plenty of other people had the same idea. We regularly saw bikers and hikers, mothers pushing strollers and couples enjoying picnics in the grass. It was an uncommon luxury for a Latin American megalopolis, one that Santiago should be very proud of.
Palacio de la Moneda, the former colonial mint, now houses the offices of the President of the Republic and those of several ministers. Unlike the White House, it is not a residence; the President maintains her own home and commutes more-or-less like an ordinary citizen. It was heavily damaged during the 1973 coup, but these days is fully restored and even open to visitors (with some advance notice). We booked the free tour online and showed up with our passports ready to go through the security check. As the only English-speakers during our time slot, we ended up on a private tour. Our guide explained the history of the building and Chile’s government, about Pinochet’s dictatorial rule, and about some of the scarier earthquakes she’s lived through. On our way out, the snappily-dressed guards were happy to pose for us as well.
Valentine’s Day fell during our stay, and what better way to celebrate than with wine? A wine tour! We found a couple of open spaces at the last minute with Bodega Wine Tours↗. Their “Maipo Micro Producers” tour took us to three small wineries, including one so tiny that they produce just 1-2 barrels of wine each year from grapes planted in the winemaker’s front yard. Unlike much of grocery-store wines we tried, these wineries focused on quality over volume. We sampled at least a dozen options; the generous pours quickly caught up to everyone since we hadn’t had lunch yet. Between stops, our guide spoke about Chile’s unique wine history, including being the largest wine-producing area free of phylloxera. This means that Chilean vines don’t have to be grafted on to resistant rootstock. On the other hand, the country’s wine industry is heavily consolidated. Quality takes a back seat when the big companies pay for grapes by the ton. We hope the artisanal producers find a bigger foothold in the future.
Food & Drink
This month, we saw ourselves spoiled for quality ingredients. Our nearest proper grocery stores (Santa Isabel, Unimarc, and Ekono) were fine, but we preferred to take advantage of our location in Santiago’s market mecca. The Mercado Central, while the most touristy, sold the best variety of fresh fish. Just across the river, Mercado de Abastos had a little of everything, and a little past that, La Vega had a lot of everything. Since we arrived at the height of summer, the stalls overflowed with just-picked produce. Almost everything – tomatoes, onions, peppers, potatoes, popcorn – cost mere pennies a pound. Even blueberries were just $1 per pound! With dozens of vendors to choose from and trucks unloading the produce each morning, we could easily comparison shop for price and freshness. Back at Mercado Central, the Puerto Palmeras stand met almost all our seafood needs, and we became regular customers on the backs (fins?) of their salmon, tollo, reineta, and congrio dorado. They were happy to fillet it on request (a tip is appreciated), and further offered cooking tips and “if you like that, you’ll also like”-type suggestions. Ganadera Río Bueno served as a one-stop butcher shop for fresh terrestrial meat, though when the rare opportunity to feast on fish presented itself, we found it hard to pass up the Pacific’s bounty.
We ate out just a few times. Our first afternoon in town, we treated ourselves to chupe and ceviche at Mercado Central. Empanadas made a great grab-and-go snack. Santiago has a thing for hot dogs (especially the “completo”), but in all honesty, they were not worth the hype. And for all the sensational seafood that flows through here, our lone foray into sushi in South America left us pretty unfulfilled. In a bit of an odd twist, almost everyone we spoke to readily admitted Peru was the culinary champion of South America. Our neighborhood in particular was a hotspot of Peruvian restaurants.
We couldn’t find a single snack that beat the bounty of fresh fruit available. Chip flavors were rather bland. Almost every shop sells ice cream to combat the heat, especially Danky, the local version of Drumsticks or Cornetto. Junk food came with a healthy side of guilt, though. Government regulations mandate the packaging carry black and white stop sign icons if an item is high in calories, salt, sugar, or fats.
Chile is most known for its wine, but beer is a popular choice as well. The biggest brands, Cristal and Escudo, were the biggest disappointments. Smaller producers offered better brews at a steep price. Few stores carried Kross or Kuntsmann, but Austral (which we later visited↗ in Punta Arenas) hit the sweet spot for quality, availability, and value. That said, nothing on this continent was within an order of magnitude of notable.
We were much more excited for the wine, which is cheap and ubiquitous. One of our all-time favorite wines in Washington is a Carménère from Northwest Cellars↗, so we couldn’t wait to sample Chile’s signature grape at the source. Unfortunately, we found the difference between the industry in Argentina↗ and here was night and day. Almost every brand was just another label owned by big conglomerates like Concha y Toro (Casillero del Diablo, Cono Sur, Frontera) or San Pedro (Gato, 1865, Epica). The best word we could use to describe them was “fine.” They weren’t bad, just plain and inoffensive to the extreme. And they weren’t even any cheaper here than on a grocery store shelf back home. Fortunately, our microproducers tour gave us hope that the selection and quality could improve in the future.
The local liquor of choice, pisco, also makes use of the large grape harvests and often costs less than a bottle of wine. Mistral, the pricier brand, was less to our taste than La Serena, the bottom-shelf version. On the nonalcoholic side, we found tons of outdoor stands offering mote con huesillo, Chile’s answer to Peruvian chicha morado. Made with dried peaches cooked in sugar and cinnamon and served over cooked wheat, the drink (snack?) is chilled before being ladled out. On a hot and dusty afternoon, the fruity sweetness was cool and refreshing.
Stuff of interest
The Claro SIMs↗ we bought during the cruise lasted though most of our stay. The data package had to be re-upped shortly before we moved. Recargas (credit) are available at just about any local shop.
The simplest purchases in Chile were ridiculously byzantine. At almost every shop, the were as many as three steps (and people) between us and our purchased items. First, we needed someone to take our order and ring up a total. We carried this to a cashier, whose sole responsibility was taking money. They would stamp our order or print off a receipt, which they also stamped. This was presented to the, let’s say “giver,” whose job was to verify our receipt, give us our items, and stamp the receipt again to confirm the goods had officially changed hands. It was apparently a holdover from old schemes to ensure low unemployment, but these days is comically excessive. This process varied slightly between establishments, though only grocery stores seemed to be exempt from the scheme.
Around the city, we found several Café Literarios, a combination of library, cafe, meeting space, and cultural center. They offer free internet – which came in handy when our apartment wi-fi choked on our photo uploads – and quiet space to read and work.
Chile is administratively split into numbered strips from north to south, so the Atacama is region III, while Punta Arenas is in region XII. Santiago Metropolitan Region is the only one without a numeral.
Our Surface’s screen malfunctioned in spectacular► fashion this month. It happened right at the buzzer for the warranty running out, too. Microsoft did replace the device for free, but we had cover shipping it round trip to the US. This set us back more than $300. With the replacement device since developing problems of its own, we vowed to never again buy computer hardware that lacks an international warranty.
What we learned
Turns out a “dry heat” is a real thing, and makes all the difference in the world.