We drew closer to the Chilean border in The Andes. The border control was probably the most beautiful we have and ever will see. The ‘Welcome to Chile’ sign was framed by incredible mountains.
We were ordered to fill out a tonne of forms and declarations and to bring all our belongings into the border control room for expecting. Jack started to freak out. We both just realised that we had a tin of tuna and a tin of sweet corn in his backpack that we didn’t want to leave behind (hey, it would have been a waste right?!) Jack has declared on his form that he had no food products. There was a huge sign right in front of us marked with ‘DECLARE’ depicting a huge picture of… you guessed it CORN. The border control was pretty intimidating we were made to all stand in a line facing the bag scanning machine. We waited for about an hour while they scanned everyone’s bag… Jack was shitting himself and even wrote out a long paragraph on his translator saying how sorry he was for forgetting the corn in his backpack. I was cracking up and had the feeling that even if they did find it we could just bin it off!
What a surprise… our bags flew through the bag scanner without a flinch and we were free to go with our illegal corn and tuna! Our passports were stamped without any questions asked and we were through and back on the bus. The scenic journey continued through The Andes and we were super excited when we started seeing signs for Santiago. As we drew closer into this city the landscape turned to desert like and the vast expanse of the city became apparent. It was very built up, tonnes of high rises, car dealerships, shopping centres and fast food chains.
As we pulled into the bus station (gosh we are so bored of bus stations now!) we grabbed our bags (Argentinians always leave tips for the bag handlers by the way… something to remember) and found a cash point. I love dealing with new currencies in every country, something so exciting about it… always feels like Monopoly money! The exchange rate is so difficult to work out though and get your head around in each place. The exchange rate in Chile was 850 pesos to the £1 just to make it even more confusing…
We grabbed a taxi and headed for our apartment. We’d booked Urbana Suites studio apartment which cost about £30/$828 ARS a night. It was honestly perfect. It was located right near the dual carriageway which was pretty noisy but the location was excellent for exploring the city on foot.
Unfortunately as we arrived in Santiago I came down with a serious cough and cold which is totally unlike me. I really struggled the whole five days there, I did go to the pharmacy and I bought cough syrup for nearly £14. Santiago was a first experience of a expensive, modern, cosmopolitan, westernised South American city. If I could compare it to any other city so far I’d say maybe Sao Paolo in terms of being so modernised but still it sits in its own lane.
We headed the the supermarket the first day and found a whole variety of western foods and influences from China, Mexico, the Middle East and India. Everything was priced at London prices, so we weren’t too overwhelmed but I can imagine a lot of backpackers probably are. The weirdest part was finding TESCO branded items, who would have thought it? I don’t know how they got there but they must do some sort of trades of some sort… the best part of arriving in Chile was finding AVOCADOS again. Without sounding too hipster or desperate, we’re a modern couple who enjoy avocado with our breakfast (queue the laughs)
Our second day in Santiago saw us exploring some of the most famous sites. As we approached the main square: Plaza De Armas which houses the famous Cathedral of Santiago we noticed lots of posters of the Pope. We found out later that he had visited Santiago the week before… we were so gutted, how amazing would that have been? To see the pope (in his pope mobile) and the insane crowds lining the streets?
We entered the Cathedral of Santiago. There was a service taking place and many people were sitting and listening. It was so peaceful. The church itself was very beautiful, adorned with so much art work and gold. It was huge, I could only really compare it to the likes of Westminster Abbey! The Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Santiago de Chile, currently Ricardo Ezzati Andrello, and the centre of the archdiocese of Santiago de Chile. The Cathedral has been greatly impacted by several destructive earthquakes over the years. Chile has endured devastating earthquakes for centuries. Back in 1647 an earthquake brought Santiago to the ground, including the cathedral. Only the structure’s central nave was saved at the time. After reconstruction efforts, another earthquake hit Chile just ten years later. The cathedral was destroyed once again, leading to a second restoration from 1662 to 1687. There was also pretty nave you could enter on your left which had, funnily enough a large cardboard cut out of the pope. People were lining up to take photos with it, holding his hand and hugging him. I found it very amusing and asked Jack to take one of me.
Plaza de Armas also holds many museums and historical buildings (all free) including Surrounding the square are some historic buildings, including the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago, Central Post Office Building, Palacio de la Real Audiencia de Santiago, and the building that serves as the seat of local government for Santiago. Unfortunately the one museum we did enter: Museo Histórico Nacional was only in Spanish with no translation which was slightly disappointing considering the place was filled with tourists. The actual square itself is huge with loads of seating, a band area and most interestingly tables line the edge where men play dominos and cards (assuming for bets) it was fascinating to watch.
Next we headed the famous Zunino Empanadas shop. There was a huge queue outside so we knew it was gonna be good. We ordered two Pino empanadas for $1200/£1.40 which is the most typical Chilean flavour (mixed meat, egg, olives). The olives always have stones in so BEWARE! I tell you what the empanadas were well worth the journey. They were MASSIVE, definitely enough for a meal.
The next stop was the old train station which is now converted into a exhibition centre. It was yet again very impressive, the architecture overwhelming. There’s a few cafés in there and some travelling photography exhibitions.
Probably the most impressive part of the day was the Presidential Palace: La Moneda. La Moneda has a tonne of history attached to it: most obviously to the dictatorship in Chile lead by Pinochet. The palace today has 12 Chilean flags outside which stand proud and tall, it’s a perfect photo opportunity. In front of the palace sits Constitution Square built in 1930. If you head round the back of the Palace you’ll find a GIANT chilean flag outside the cultural centre. It also a perfect photo spot.
One of the highest rated museums in Santiago is ‘Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos’ –The museum of memory and human rights’. dedicated to commemorate the victims of human rights violations during the civic-military regime led by Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990. There are an estimated 3,000 missing people. It was opened by former President Michelle Bachelet in 2010. The start of the museum had no introductions in English which I found pretty disappointing, not that I expect everything to be translated, but a handout would be useful. After the first couple of exhibitions the museum moved on to videos which all had English subtitles. They were FANTASTIC. Truthfully I felt rather emotional watching the stories of torture and Chile’s long struggle into democracy. Images of protesters running through the streets with joy on their faces honestly bought a tear to my eye. The exhibitions were so moving and we spent a good couple of hours in there moving from room to room. I certainly didn’t know much about Chile’s history before arriving and I walked out feeling far more educated than I had before… the museum did its job! I 100% recommend a trip here!
We followed our trip to The Museum of Memories by visiting the Natural History Museum: Museo Nacional de Historia Natural locatedin Quinta Normal Park park. The park was so well maintained and filled with food stalls and children’s activities. Yet again this museum was definitely one of the best museums we have visited in South America. It’s obvious that Santiago invests a lot into its museum culture, all the museums are free to enter too.
The main restaurant and bar area in Santiago is known as Bellavista district. I couldn’t believe it- it was SO swanky. We could have been walking around in Notting Hill. Boutique shops and fancy Martini bars lined the streets. Students had vintage clothes for sale and artists had pop up stalls. It was honestly beautiful with fairy lights and street lamps but definitely not backpacker friendly. The restaurants and bars were very expensive, and the happy hours left a lot to be desired. We found a spot and enjoyed a few pisco sours and a small dinner. It came to over £50. In all of Santiago we struggled to find any cheap bars or cafe style eateries which is what had been used to the last few months, especially in Brazil. Santiago is just so westernised, perfect for a holiday and I’m pretty sure it would be nice and comfortable to live there as an expat too. Santiago has all the comforts of any western city.
The following day we‘d arranged a very special meeting. We’d planned all along to meet Sister Anne, Jack’s second cousin. Anne moved to Santiago from Ireland at the age of 30 and 2018 is the year she celebrates 50 years of living in Chile. Anne returns to Ireland most years but it was very special to be able to meet her in the place she has called home for so long.
We met up with Anne outside the Cathedral of Santiago. This was my first time meeting Anne and the first time in a few years Jack had seen her. Anne was a lovely kind, smiling, unassuming lady who I immediately felt very at ease with. We took a walk to an ice cream cafe and enjoyed sundaes and ice coffees for quite a few hours. Anne spoke about her move to Santiago, her work at the school, various trips to many South American countries, to Africa and arriving in Santiago without knowing a word of Spanish. It was my first time ever really chatting to a Nun who had dedicated her life whole life to the church but also leaving behind family & friends in Ireland for an undetermined amount of time on the other side of the world. We decided the following day we would meet Anne again.
I woke up the following day more ill than I’d felt in years. My voice had near enough gone, my head was heavy and I was full of cold. There was no way I was going to miss meeting up with Anne again, I had so many questions I needed to ask…
We took the metro from Plaza de Armas to St Isabel where Anne has lived for many years and where her school is. To take the metro in Santiago you have to purchase what is called a ‘Bip’ card and top it up with credit. Each journey costs $600/£0.80. As we got off at the metro stop we met Anne, we were 20 minutes early and Anne was already there ready and waiting! St Isabel was such a beautiful neighbourhood. As we walked through the brightly coloured streets I couldn’t help but laugh when Anne said she couldn’t believe who would buy the weird and quirky stuff in the shops and ‘How an earth did they make their money?’ The shops were incredible – full of ‘upcycled’ furniture and antiques, just the sort of stuff I would buy! The neighbourhood was definitely what you would describe as hipster, full of kitsch coffee shops. I reckon it’s changed so much over the last 20 years.
We were invited into Anne’s home where we met her very cute cat and also her friend Betty who was equally as adorable. Anne also had an avocado tree in her garden – GOALS! The house was adjoined to the school were Anne was a headmistress there for many years. I couldn’t help but admire the fact the house and school were all painted in pink. Anne is now retired but still takes part in many school activities. There was a volleyball tournament going on in the school grounds and Anne took us round to meet some pupils and ex pupils. Most of the parents of pupils were taught by Anne and everyone was overjoyed to see her. Every corner we turned another person came up to hug Anne. I got the feeling she was a very well loved a respected member of the school even now she was retired. The school was off for summer holidays – in many South American counties the schools are off for Summer holidays from mid December until March!
We headed towards a Peruvian restaurant where we had the first taste of this style of food. Jack, Anne and I chatted for hours about Chile, it was incredible to hear about the earthquakes that Anne had lived through and most importantly her experiences through the very violent dictatorship. She recalled a time where she was ordered to get rid of any paperwork which linked her to working with the poor of Santiago. Anne also spoke about the times where she woke up in earthquake and had to run outside in her dressing gown! I told Anne my stories from Nepal in 2015 experiencing the large aftershocks and waking up with my whole bed and walls moving. We laughed how every country has different earthquake policy – I was told in Nepal to put a pillow over my head and how that went really wrong when we had a massive aftershock and I did the exact opposite of running round the flat like a headless chicken!
We said our goodbyes to Anne and promised to keep in touch and headed for Cerro Santa Lucia. This is a well known spot to watch the sunset in Santiago and an excellent viewpoint over the city. Cerro Santa Lucia is a hill with various little lookouts right in the middle of the city, tiled seating areas and well maintained little gardens. Af the top is a castle/turret style lookout point. We stopped at the top and couldn’t help but notice the difference between Santiago and many other South American cities. At the top was a shop which sold juices and snacks and no alcohol. Anywhere else in South America and that shop would have definitely sold beers. We couldn’t help but be a little disappointed at how civilised the city was. We wanted street parties and a man with a cool box selling beers for 50pence. We waited for a couple of hours to watch the sunset but we were too early! It turns out the sun doesn’t set until gone 8pm in Santiago in January time and we were starving…
The most famous of viewpoints in Santiago is San Cristóbal Hill. There is a cable car to take up or it’s a pretty lengthy walk. Unfortunately we didn’t make it there but I’ve heard it a must see for sunset!
Our final day in Santiago was pretty much off a write off day. The few days in Santiago burning the candle at both ends so to speak while ill had got the better of me. We spent the day in our apartment and watched the sunset from our window which happened to be a great view point over the great twinkly, hazy city.
Next we head to Valparaíso, what would the street art capital of Chile have in store?