Chilean City Life

On Monday I started the week off by exploring Santiago, Chile’s largest city and the epicenter of the country’s culture, music, and arts scene. Usually the city skyline is framed by the white cliffs of the Andes mountains in the background, but unfortunately a low layer of fog obscured our views. Luckily enough, we were able to see the sunset the previous evening as we stepped out of the metro.

Stefje and I did what we do best in a big city, filling up on a free breakfast at the hostel and then hitting the town on foot. And what a city it was! Santiago has a palpable, pulsating energy to its streets, filled as they are with pedestrians, endless shopping opportunities, and skyscraper office buildings. 

Our legs first led us to Cerro Lucia, one of the two hills which blight the otherwise flat landscape. Originally claimed by Pedro de Valdivia in 1541 as the first establishments of the new city, the fort battlements and steep staircases are now open to the public. Gardens and fountains lined the way as we worked our way to the viewpoint at the top, continuously more breathless due to both the ascent and the skyline view. From the crow’s nest the vantage point was ridiculous and completely unique for us: tall buildings in every direction. Sure, if you live in a city you see them every day, but we had gone six months without seeing anything like this: 

Although undoubtedly the view would have been more impressive on a sunny day, the low cloud cover provided its own eery kind of beauty and still awed us by demonstrating just a fraction of the city’s scale. 

From Cerro Lucia, we descended and weaved our way towards the heartbeat of the city: La Plaza de Armas. The impressive colonial architecture and cathedral seemed out of place amidst the sleek modern architecture.  It was a beautiful sight and packed with people and the surrounding streets are all peatonals (walking streets), ensuring the entire area is absent of cars and enabling street musicians to flourish among the hordes. 

Progressing down one of the main arteries, lined on both sides with upscale shopping options, we eventually crossed the Rio Mapocho, a muddy concrete lined river flowing wickedly fast through the center of town. On the bridges spanning the body of water were immense throngs of human traffic and a rather fishy eating option: ceviche served out of a shopping cart. On the banks of the river were two huge buildings worth exploring: the central market and Estacion Mapocho. 

Santiago’s central market is all about the seafood. Once we crossed over the Andes, I knew the proximity of the Pacific Ocean would  made fresh fish more prominent, but this market took things to another level. Among the touristy restaurants in the center serving up platters of clams, oysters, shrimp, and enormous crab legs were stalls hawking fish five feet long. 

On the outer edges I found a hole in the wall restaurant and indulged: shrimp soup accompanied by fresh fish and salad, all garnished with copious amounts of picante jalapeño sauce. 

Just a block away, Estacion Mapocho is no longer in service as a train station, but the impressive French-style architecture in the great hall has been converted into a cultural center. In fact, most of Santiago seems more European than Latin American, with modern amenities everywhere. Inside we learned about the station’s 100 plus year history as the city’s most important transportation hub. 

The afternoon wore on and we continued our impromptu walking tour, never letting the eyes fall prey to boredom in a city with so many impressive sights. Particularly eye-catching were the ministry of justice and the Palacio de Moneda, which are situated right in the center of town. 

But my favorite spot was the tiny little Paris-Londres neighborhood. Actually more of an intersection of two cobbled streets than a neighborhood, the area was just a block away from a six lane highway yet mentally a world away. As we strolled slowly past the European style townhouses from the early 20th century and the outdoor cafes with patio seating, it was like stepping back in time. For the first time all day I could hear birds singing and could feel my walking pace slow to a crawl. 

We could have spent three weeks or even three months in Santiago without beginning to see everything the city has to offer, but sadly after three days we were off to Valparaiso. In fact for the next month or so I’ll be traveling at a relatively torrid pace for one simple reason: everyday the prices and crowds in Patagonia are rising. The bus to Valparaiso was just two hours, and before I knew it Stefje and I looked up to see the windy streets and steep hills for which this city is known so well. We caught an antique trolley bus into the center of town and chose a hostel quickly, mostly so we wouldn’t have to haul our bags up too many colorful flights of stairs. 

Built directly into steep cliffs on the edge of the Pacific, the port of Valparaiso has always held an important place in Chilean history and economics. The city first started flourishing in the 19th century, when it served as the first major South American port that European ships passed after rounding Cape Horn on their way to San Francisco, Honolulu, or Singapore. During this era Valparaiso’s downtown port area was a hodge-podge of bars and brothels, as sailors stepped off the boat eager to frequent both types of establishments. 

Yet the town’s clientele and booming economy evaporated in a flash in 1914 upon the opening of the Panama Canal. In the years the followed the “porteños”, as Valparaiso’s proud port workers call themselves, suffered mightily and many of the city’s businesses went under. Just next to the restored colonial buildings of the main square is even the remains of a hotel dating back to 1916 that was never finished, the prime real estate rotting away with the original construction materials still inside. 

In 1973 Valparaiso took center stage in the fight against Chile’s communist leader Salvador Allende. In a stunning and orchestrated turn of events, the Navy steered the boats into the harbor and opened fire on the same citizens they were supposed to protect, signaling the start of a short yet intense military coup d’etat. 

To this day, the port is still home to a steady flow of cargo ships unloading goods bound for destinations all over South America, the main force of the Chilean navy, and a proud yet consistently drunk population of porteños. As we strolled the streets on Tuesday night and explored the nightlife options, the poverty of the city was ghastly apparent, as many homeless people approached our outdoor table asking for money.

Despite the intrusions, it was entertaining to watch the day’s tourist sights turn into nighttime bohemian hangout spots. “Valpo,” as its affectionately known by the younger crowd, attracts a strong counter-culture vibe: if you’re caught clean-shaven, without dreadlocks, or wearing clothes that look even remotely clean, you’re clearly not a local. 

Wednesday Stefje and I grouped up with some other travelers at the hostel to go on Valparaiso’s free walking tour. In the main plaza we were given the option of going on a tour of the standard sights or test-driving the company’s new pilot route of more off the beaten path sights. Everyone in the 20 person group chose the pilot offering, where the gregarious and knowledgeable tour guide Ben took us around the city to try and give us a taste of local life. He showed us some of the famous old bars, hotels, and long-standing butcher shops of the industrial port district, then we hopped on a roller coaster bus ride up into the hills. 

From the excellent view at Plaza Bismarck, Ben told us about all the European influences still present in the town today, including German architecture and French cuisine. As the morning wore on the haze that had ensconced the town at first burned off, giving way to clearer views of the inlet bay that guards the city from the mighty Pacific. 

Progressing down the steep hills, we came across the city’s ex-prison, now a cultural center with one of the best green spaces in a city that’s severely cramped on space. The prison was originally built on the outskirts of town, but urban development has now surrounded it, offering views of the colorful houses in the hills behind it. 

On the way back towards the port we passed through some of Valparaiso’s many hills, which were awarded UNESCO world heritage status because every time you turn a corner, it’s time to take the camera out for another shot. Without a doubt, Valpo is South America’s premier street art city. Every staircase, wall, and door in the city center is home to another piece of art, the majority of which are downright stunning in their complexity, vivid colors, and attention to detail. 

Many motifs of the artwork involved preserving nature, paying homage to indigenous culture, or opening your heart to love. One unmissable multi-stage piece was a direct shot at today’s consumerism and working culture: it depicted humans as cows being prepared for slaughter. 

As we came back into town, we got a couple of recommendations on restaurants, viewpoints, and other art to check out before leaving the city, then wished Ben farewell after a profuse thanks for all he had taught us. 

A group of five of us set off to explore the streets in search of a vegetarian restaurant that had come highly recommended to us. It took some wandering and searching, but eventually we found the place, which was really more like someone’s living room than a dining establishment. Nevertheless, inside we were treated to a completely vegan meal prepared with fresh ingredients from that day’s farmers market. Over four courses there were plenty of green vegetables, a wide variety of flavors, and excellent plating presentations from the two aspiring chefs. At the end of the meal instead of giving us a bill they just placed a tin can in the center of the table and politely asked us to “pay what you want."
After lunch Stefje and I made our way all the way across town to scope the scene at the twice weekly farmer’s market. It’s safe to say the long walk was well rewarded. Lining one of the city’s main plazas were fruit and vegetable stalls, with cheap and fresh produce from Chile’s fertile land just a few hours South. 

Right next to the market was a steep alleyway which hosted an international graffiti festival in 2012, so we climbed some arduous steps to enjoy the beautiful depictions. 

I’m far enough South now that the sun sets really late, but once it does a different side of Valparaiso comes alive. That night I hit the streets to soak in some of the city’s vibrant nightlife. The first stop was the Plaza de Descansa, a small courtyard ringed in mosaic artwork. It was a popular place to hangout, with people practicing circus acts like juggling and fire twirling, all the while smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. It was there that I met Christian, a rapper who earns his living on the city’s metro system who was extremely eager to practice his English slang on me, even as I continued to respond to everything in Spanish. 

Our encounter kicked off an adventure of an evening, as he introduced me to a crew of his friends, his favorite nighttime view of the city, and the best live music venues in Valpo. Each of the tiny bars on Calle Cummings were packed to capacity - that means 30 or 40 people maximum - but Christian told me the best and cheapest options is just to post up in the street outside and enjoy the music through the window. The bands were downright funky, with one group playing swing jazz led by an ebullient bass guitarist and the other playing upbeat indie rock, replete with a trumpet and accordion player. 

By 1AM the bars shut down and the crowds began to disperse, but those who weren’t quite ready to turn in just yet were more than welcome to head to Plaza Anabel Pinto, where aspiring entrepreneurs sold beers, cigarettes, and veggie burgers. Reflecting on my time in the city late at night, it became clear: this is a city you could easily fall in love with. 

Thursday I spent the morning starting my research for Southern Chile and Patagonia’s wilderness, then Stefje and I set off for another walk around town that yielded dozens of picturesque moments.

For lunch we stopped in at one of the long-running local establishments: a restaurant run by the volunteer firefighter’s wives. Seeing as we had just strolled through the most touristy section of town, where guided tours abounded and lunch options hovered around 8,000 pesos, we were ecstatic to be served a delicious four course meal for just 3,000 pesos. 

In the afternoon we took the tour’s advice from the previous day and headed back to the ex-prison for some great views, lounging in the grass, and soaking up the sun. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful city: the perfect mood booster. 

Unfortunately in the evening it was time to move in, so after a healthy home-cooked meal at the hostel we went down to the bus station and boarded a bus headed 12 hours South through the night to Pucon. When I woke up after a fitful night’s sleep in the cramped seats, visibility was just 30 feet as again the morning involved a thick spread of fog covering the surroundings. But just like in the past few days the morning sun burned the bad views away, uncovering fields of blooming flowers. 

It was a long bus ride, meaning we didn’t get into Pucon until almost 11AM, feeling extremely delirious after involuntarily watching three hours of watching “The Classic Project”, a supercut of music videos from the 80’s and 90’s featuring the likes of Michael Jackson, Tupac, and Mariah Carey. 

Positioned directly on the edge of a lake with a striking volcano just 20 kilometers away, its simple to understand why Pucon became one of Chile’s most popular tourist destinations. The air here was fresh and with the sun shining down it already felt like the heat of summer, even though the peak season - featuring crowds and hiked up prices - doesn’t kick in until next month. This marked our arrival in Chile’s lake district: our official introduction to Patagonia. 

The town of Pucon is a shining example of how to develop a tourist town: it’s got a wealth of cheap lodging options, hundreds of campsites for overland travelers, and of course too many overpriced restaurants. Everywhere you turn there are backpackers and tour outfitters, competing on price to help navigate the area’s natural adventure sports options. 

What kind of outing are you interested in? Rock climbing? Mountain biking? White water kayaking? How about climbing up a nearby volcano in crampons and skiing down the other side? Whatever you need, Pucon has you covered. They even invented a new sport called hydrospeed, which is basically bodyboarding down river rapids. 

We walked around the small town’s center, checking out a few places before eventually settling in at a hostel right across the street from the bus station where we started. El Refugio was a cozy and well-organized spot laid out like a ski lodge, with wood paneling, a fireplace, and an outdoor patio. It was just what we needed: a relaxing homey place to hang out and take a nap after not getting enough sleep. 

Going along with the theme that Pucon has literally everything a tourist could want, there’s even a beach! We spent the last few hours of sunlight sitting on the black sand, formed over millions of years by the nearby triumvirate of volcanoes. They bay is perfectly framed by hills on either side, protecting the curved inlet from the intense winds on the wide lake. Small waves lapped at the sand as a light breeze blew right into our faces and the sun began to set. It was a great end to the day and an even better introduction to Pucon.