Even with only a short time to spend in Chile's capital Santiago, you can get a great impression of the lively city. Here's a walking tour of my favourite parts to help you cram in as much as possible
An unfortunate side effect of Santiago’s ideal position as a stepping-stone from South America to Australasia is that the city itself is often overlooked as a tourist stop. However, even with just one day free for exploration, with a walking tour it is possible to get an impression of this artistic, vibrant and busy city that looks up towards the white peaks of the Andes - one that may inspire a desire to delay that impending flight and maybe even introduce a little poetry into your life.
Starting at Puente Cal y Canto metro station, a narrow swathe of green parkland runs parallel to the diminutive river all the way to Plaza Italia, the heart of town. Numerous statues nestle among the trees of the Parque Forestal, including a bust of Abraham Lincoln, a mourning angel cradling the body of a fallen comrade, and a vast allegorical iron ship with a condor, symbol of all Andean countries, spreading its wings over it.
Along this route, the imposing Neo-Classical style edifice (see photo#2) is the Palacio de Bellas Artes (http://www.dibam.cl/bellas_artes/), home of a wonderful collection of Neo-Classical and Surrealist statues under its iron and glass roof, as well as numerous modern works and paintings of Chile’s various wars. Hugo Marin’s 'Pachamama' and Jaime Antunez’ 'Grito' are two fantastically bizarre pieces that will reward the effort of hunting them down.
Heading towards the imposing natural height of Cerro Santa Lucia are two adjacent street side cafés, Patio Andaluz and Café Todavia (Jm De Las Barra 428 and 430, respectively), that are perfect for an early lunch and coffee while watching the smartly attired locals strolling by.
Turning back towards the river and crossing over into the bohemian barrio of Bellavista, pausing on the bridge to admire one of the city’s finest views of the distant snow-capped mountains, you might want to stop in at La Chascona, the city residence of Chile’s favourite son, the poet Pablo Neruda (Fernando Marquez de La Plata 0192; http://www.fundacionneruda.org/ing/home_chascona_ingles.html). Unprepossessing from the outside, apart from a facing wall on Avenida Marquez de la Plata covered in colourful graffiti, the house itself is one of the most unique you’ll ever come across.
Curiously for a man who disliked the sea, Neruda designed his house to resemble a ship and divided it into several wings around a garden and patio area, access between the disparate sections provided by a number of pathways and rough staircases choked with shrubs and flowers. The guest wing is characterised by low ceilings (which, in a play on words, the visitor is warned of by hanging pictures of eyes), porthole windows and a secret doorway built into a closet to connect one half to the other. The main section is meant to resemble a lighthouse, its main feature a giant lamp facing out of the ceiling-height windows. Both parts are packed with the remnants of the poet’s collection of obscure objects: paintings of watermelons, dinner sets ensconced inside gutted televisions, coloured glasses, music boxes, dolls, Easter Island statuettes etc. What remains is a bizarre and eclectic collection, but just a shadow of what there had been before Pinochet’s soldiers trashed the house, just days after Neruda’s death. The last section, beside the outdoor bar (La Chascona features more bars than bedrooms), which is also crammed with odd objects like the metre-long pair of shoes, is the library. Having suffered the worst of the soldiers’ depredations, it has now been restocked with anthologies of Neruda’s work, his numerous medals – a Nobel Prize among them - and the few surviving books. In keeping with the nautical theme, it even has a sloped nightingale floor that mimics the feel and sounds of the deck of a ship.
Returning to the other side of the river, and a lesser degree of eccentricity, and crossing Plaza Italia takes you to Parque General Bustamante, another wide belt of parkland in the city centre popular with schoolchildren and teenagers who crowd around the café and pool, racing remote controlled speedboats. Taking a right down Rancagua leads you past a charming mews of houses all painted in different bright colours on Jose Arieta, the perfect antidote to a cloudy day.
Continuing down this main road brings you to the back of Cerro Santa Lucia and the huge staircase that leads to the summit, decorated entirely with one beautifully painted fresco. At the top of the stairs is the old military bastion, once a lookout post, but now just a viewpoint over the Jardin Japones, a spot popular with trysting couples, cannons, fountains and ramparts below and the ever-dominant mountains on the horizon.
From here, heading along Paeso Huerfanos Peatonal and then turning off on Paseo Estado brings you to the Plaza de Armas, where you can finish off the day watching chess players deep in contemplation, or even venture a few games yourself for a small fee, before heading back to the hotel.
Where to stay
La Casa Roja (Agustinas 2113) and Happy House Hostel (Catedral 2207), both within easy walking distance of the other, are friendly and reasonably priced. The former is the more basic, the cheapest beds costing CH$7000 per night, but has a good facilities and a very convivial bar in the garden. The latter is more expensive, at CH$11,500-45,000 per night, but is rather more luxurious, occupying an early 20th-century mansion and boasting a roof terrace with fantastic views of the city.
Where to eat
Both options are, however, close to a number of excellent restaurants. A meal at Las Vacas Gordas (Cienfuegos 280; (0)2 673 3962) won’t disappoint if you enjoy tender steak, red wine and attentive service; two people can enjoy starters, mains, desserts, bottle of wine and digestifs for less than CH$35,000. After a long day walking, and maybe even reading a little poetry, you’ll definitely feel that you’ve deserved it. You may even come to feel that Santiago deserves a second look.