Uber is a good thing in Santiago. Uber is a very good thing in Santiago – simply because Chilean people are the friendliest people you’re likely to encounter in a whole hemisphere. We used Uber a lot in Santiago, especially at night. We learnt a lot from its cheerful, humble drivers. One of them, as he drove us to the Barrio Bellavista, summed up Santiago perfectly.
“So what is, for you, the best thing about Santiago?” I asked.
He replied instantly, “the snow.”
As soon as we left the airport and began our drive to our Airbnb flat in downtown Santiago, we noticed that every which way you looked, snow-capped mountains loomed over us. There are some big skyscrapers in Santiago, some of them clustered in constellations. But no matter how big the reach of man grows here, the mountains dwarf everything.
Our first day in Santiago was a rare clear day. Most other days a combination of winter clouds and human smog choked the city’s skyline. Santiago is prone to smog due to the very mountains that envelop it. This gives the Andes a ghostly feel to them.
Once inside the city centre, however, the mountains soon creep out of view. Our street, La Moneda, named after the presidential palace, bore a singular mountain at its very end. On most days we couldn’t see it. We now had to turn our attention to the human city itself.
We arrived on a Saturday. The city felt funereal. Nothing and nowhere was open. We read somewhere that a lot of workers in Santiago work two weekends on and two weekends off so a lot of places have to close. It was a strange first impression. And not just because of the near Wild-Western desolation.
Santiago is an endemic city. It feels like nowhere else. Maybe it feels South American, I don’t know. It’s architecture in places is European. The Moneda palace and the Plaza de Armas could fit into Madrid, perhaps. But its streets were their own breed of shabby. The shops and restaurants were stripped and basic.
None of it felt luxurious, there wasn’t the pomp of a European capital. It felt transient, caught between the old world and the new. The few restaurants we saw open were simple and unrefined. Their menus dominated by the universal lomo a lo pobre (more on that later) and hot dogs. I couldn’t quite make out my feelings towards the city that would be my host for the next three weeks.
Parts of it felt forbidding. A lot of the buildings around us felt grey and rundown. Which was surprising for being the capital of one of the richest economies in South America. Maybe it was something to do with the earthquakes, I thought to myself. I was reminded of them when we got into the lift of our building. A simple sign casually read:
Don’t use lifts in case of fire or earthquake.
Santiago has a bad history with earthquakes. The last catastrophic quake struck in 2010; it registered an 8.8 on the scale and lasted over three minutes. It devastated parts of Santiago and the region and also led to tsunamis along Chile’s central coasts. A couple of nights we were there we did indeed feel small tremors that made for an uneasy night’s sleep.
But despite a Chilean earthquake’s power to change entire landscapes, I somehow doubted that the architecture’s shabbiness was due to the hopelessness instilled by earthquakes. Somehow the nonchalance here felt more human. Perhaps, even South American.
On our first night we went to eat at a ubiquitous diner called Faisan d’Or in the heart of the Plaza de Armas. A small, basic restaurant somewhere between a diner and a dive. The food was no frills, bare and actually quite good. I had a cazuela de vaca, a typical Chilean dish: a broth filled with beef, pumpkin, corn, rice and garnished with cilantro.
My wife had meat and rice. The meat was stewed beef and the rice was fried and quite rich in flavour. We enjoyed our first meal. We were still high on traveler’s euphoria. In time, however, our excitement for Santiago’s food would dim like a passing tremor. More on that in future blogs.
As we walked back from the Plaza de Armas to Moneda, past pedestrian avenues and the Plaza de la Moneda, Santiago showed us a softer side. Beautiful, tame stray dogs, like big wolves all in jackets, slept everywhere. In some streets people were dancing salsa in an impromptu gathering. The Plaza de la Moneda glowed in a tender light, the presence of the Carabinieri guarding the presidential palace, and the grass where dogs, stray and not, ran like cheetahs, made Santiago lovable again.
But what would the morning bring? Excitement was dimmed by a certain unspoken apprehension. Fear of the unknown blunted the euphoria of arrival.
Our relationship with Santiago was like that between a couple who broke up and made up regularly and violently. Either way, this city wouldn’t be ignored. Our love-hate affair with Santiago had begun. I was happy to realise that I was out of my comfort zone.