Santiago’s Surprises

We gave the kids an art lesson in Santiago's sculpture garden, one of several well-kept parks in Chile's capital city.

We gave the kids an art lesson in Santiago's sculpture garden, one of several well-kept parks in Chile's capital city.

On Day 2 of our short visit to Santiago, Chile, Morgan and I talked about how stupid we felt for having lumped Chile with Argentina and assuming they’d be the same. Our knowledge of Chile was based on college courses in the late 1980s that revealed the brutality of General Pinochet and the CIA’s role in the coup that put him in power from 1973 to 1990. With our minds stuck on “Third World” stereotypes of Latin American dictatorships and human rights abuses, we expected Santiago to be like Buenos Aires, but not necessarily as nice. Clearly, we hadn’t paid attention to news from Chile for the past twenty years.

We discovered a city with a canopy of trees and impeccably landscaped medians lining its major boulevards, walking paths and gardens fronting its river, and a culinary scene more creative and sophisticated than anything we’ve tasted since leaving Northern California. A metropolitan park with a peak called San Cristóbal is full of trails, a zoo and picnic areas, and it looks better maintained than Golden Gate Park. Exquisite old neighborhoods skirt the park with streets mostly free of graffiti, and drivers drive larger, newer cars than in Argentina and stop for pedestrians.

One of the prettiest neighborhood streets we ran on: Pedro de Valdivia near the entrance to Parque Metropolitano de Santiago.

One of the prettiest neighborhood streets we ran on: Pedro de Valdivia near the entrance to Parque Metropolitano de Santiago.

We’re here as an afterthought; our November 30 flight to Auckland leaves from Santiago, so we figured we might as well spend a few days here. We’ve spent the past 72 hours trying to soak up as much as we can of all the city has to offer — which means lots of walking and lots of eating. After two months of a diet heavy on beef and potatoes, we’re gorging ourselves on fresh fruit and seafood — cherries, strawberries and avocados (12 for $1) are at the peak of the season, and crab and lobster are on menus everywhere. Lobster empanadas — now there’s something I can’t get enough of!

A view of some of the countless Andes peaks we saw from the bus ride through the border.

A view of some of the countless Andes peaks we saw from the bus ride through the border.

We came here from Mendoza via bus through the Andes, a jaw-dropping route I’ll always remember for two things: the peaks around Aconcagua, and the customs office. Chile’s security apparatus leaves nothing to chance, and at customs they’re on the lookout not only for explosives and contraband, but also for produce that could transport pests that threaten the country’s agriculture. (This morning we met a man from Florida who said he was detained for a couple of hours in Santiago’s airport, during which he had to fill out paperwork and pay a $200 fine because he had an apple in his backpack.)

We were waiting in line at the customs terminal, which straddles the Andes range seemingly in the middle of nowhere, when we noticed some officials looking for the owners of a locked blue backpack that I recognized as Kyle’s. It turns out they were alarmed by a suspicious round object shown in the X-ray. Could it be a bomb — or an orange? I nervously stepped forward, unlocked the pack and winced as they rifled through all of Kyle’s stuff until they pulled out the offending object: his baseball! They ran the baseball through the X-ray one more time before allowing us to proceed.

At long last, following a crazy rush-hour cab drive with our packs roped to the top of the roof, we reached our destination: a well-priced boutique hotel called Meridiano Sur in a great location, just off the very happening scene on Avenida Providencia and near the river and parks.

Colly outside our hotel, next to a bougainvillea in bloom.

Colly outside our hotel, next to a bougainvillea in bloom.

The scene on Avenida Providencia, near our hotel.

The scene on Avenida Providencia, near our hotel.

Our first full day coincided with Thanksgiving, during which we made little effort to maintain holiday traditions except for expressions of gratitude (roast turkey was nowhere to be found or cooked). The warm spring air had us all in short sleeves and shorts. We got a tour of the vibrant Providencia district by walking a few kilometers on clean sidewalks and cobblestone streets, past cafes and well-maintained century-old architecture, to a graduate school of orthodontics where we had set up an appointment for Colly to repair a loose brace.

A stock image from Wikimedia of the skyline in "Sanhattan."

A stock image from Wikimedia of the skyline in "Sanhattan."

That evening, for our Thanksgiving meal, we chose Nolita restaurant for its well-reviewed seafood and Italian fare. The meal was superb — but the setting was not at all what we expected. The restaurant is located in the booming financial district nicknamed “Sanhattan” because of its gleaming new skyscrapers and malls decked out with costly landscaping and chrome. American restaurant franchises and American companies have mushroomed there, which left a bad taste in my mouth. It felt as though we were in some of the most upscale parts of West LA — not that I dislike West LA; it’s just not what I wanted to experience in South America. It’s also unpleasant to contemplate how this economic boom got its start in the darkest periods of the country’s modern history, when Pinochet forced privatization and other free-market reforms (while also overseeing censorship, torture and the disappearance of thousands). It’s interesting to see the city spangled with hundreds of political posters plastered everywhere with faces of different candidates all promising “el cambio” (change) — and to think that any type of political advertising was banned until 1988, when Chile began its transition back to democracy.

Morgan snapped this shot of me during our run to the top of San Cristobal, where the Virgin Mary statue watches over Santiago.

Morgan snapped this shot of me during our run to the top of San Cristobal, where the Virgin Mary statue watches over Santiago.

Throughout this century of change in Chile, the Virgin Mary herself has kept watch over Santiago in the form of a giant statue on the summit of San Cristóbal. It was erected in 1908, about ten years before the gorgeous park was established and all the vegetation was planted around it. Shortly thereafter, a tramway called the Funicular was built to transport visitors up the steep hill.

The Funicular still runs daily and is a must-do for any visitor. We took it to the top, and the kids kept exclaiming, “This is fun!” and each time they said “fun,” we automatically replied, “-icular!” From the tram’s upper station it’s 207 steps (yes, we counted) to the base of the statue, where you can see the city spread out and the Andes as the backdrop. It was so pretty — but again, a bit much like LA. A smoggy haze obscured the view, and the sprawl in the outlying valley had an uncanny resemblance to Glendale and Burbank.

The 1925 tram to the top of the park is called the Funicular. It is fun! (-icular!)

The 1925 tram to the top of the park is called the Funicular. It is fun! (-icular!)

We shouldn’t pass any strong judgments on this city, though, because we barely got to know it. Like the Chilean version of Spanish that my ear can barely decipher — a rapid mumbling full of unfamiliar vocabulary — I’m just starting to figure it out, and now it’s time to go.

Santiago looking down from the peak of San Cristobal.

Santiago looking down from the peak of San Cristobal.

Another shot from our time in the sculpture garden. Morgan and the kids sketched this piece of work while I wrote a poem about it.

Another shot from our time in the sculpture garden.

Our non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner started with a platter of raw shellfish, followed by taking turns saying thanks. We are immensely grateful for this experience, and for our family, friends and health.

Our non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner started with a platter of raw shellfish, followed by taking turns saying thanks. We are immensely grateful for this experience, and for our family, friends and health.

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