A Tale of Two Santiagos


A bridge. A few metro rides. A few blocks. That’s all. That’s all you need in Santiago to travel across the class divide. Despite Chile’s prosperous economy it suffers from one of the worst inequalities in the world.

A whole new world: leafy ‘Sanhattan’ and the Costanera skyscraper.


Here is a quote from an article in Borgen magazine written in May 2017: “Its Gini coefficient value stands at a record 0.50, one of the highest inequality coefficients in the world. Gini coefficients are used to measure the wealth distribution across many countries. It is a numerical value ranging from a minimum of zero (perfectly equal) to a maximum of one (perfectly unequal).”

I wrote, in my previous blog, about the dark, impoverished heart of Santiago. The next day, still somewhat shaken, we decided to travel in another direction. We took a comfortable metro ride and stopped at Tobalaba. We emerged into the area locals call ‘Sanhattan’.

The eclectic ebb and flow of life in La Providencia.

If you were to walk from this ‘Sanhattan’ to the wasteland of La Vega you would need less than an hour. But in that hour you would have crossed entire classes, changed civilisations, and seen the nuanced state of humanity for what it truly is.

In the Providencia and Condes districts the wealth of Santiago is on full display. This was a carnival of affluence, with giant glass skyscrapers parading like floats, and people dressed in the costumes of tailor-made luxury.

Mountains and skyscrapers, only a few blocks away from the drudgery surrounding La Vega market.

As you emerge from the underground you are welcomed by the neck-breaking view of the Costanera Centre – at the moment of writing the tallest building in the whole of South America. A glass and steel behemoth that glistens like the sea bathed in direct sunlight and roars into the sky like a defiant Moby Dick.

We were told that a lot of Santaguinos hated the building. The owner of the Costanera Centre was apparently a self-made man. A South American Dream story of rags-to-riches. And opinion seems to be that this tower, Santiago’s giant middle-finger, was his way of announcing to the world, I’ve made it, bitches.

The charming, sunny side streets of La Providencia.

And yet, most of its offices and apartments remain un-rented. At the base of the tower there is a neubula of a shopping centre. Above that: emptiness. Very very few spaces are rented. This is, at least the consensus seems to be, an obscene, irresponsible display of wealth in a city which, to again quote the Borgen article: “…with problems in the labor market, deficiency in infrastructure, redistribution of income, diversification and economic inequality.”

Having said all that, we enjoyed our day in Providencia, and indeed window-shopping in the Costanera Centre. After the previous day’s walk into Santiago’s heart of darkness, we were relieved to be in an air-conditioned, glitzy shopping centre – hell, we were even relieved to see Zara!

After the Costanera we walked around the shady streets of Providencia. The main avenue was a happy mixture of skyscrapers, colonial architecture, trees and the ever-dominant figure of the Cerro San Cristobal. A monumental hill, covered head to toe in arboreal robes that was the tallest in all Santiago. We would be climbing it – or attempting to! – later on in our stay in Santiago.

When it came up to lunch-time we found a hard time of it even in Providencia. It was surprising to find, in such an affluent, busy area, such a limited pool of restaurants. Granted there were none of the basic diners selling lomo a lo pobre that were spread like a fatty plague in downtown Santiago, but even so, choice here was also limited.

However, our luck turned when we found Bar Liguria. A mid-range bar and restaurant franchise that attracted a healthy middle-class clientele in Santiago. When we entered in the three-level restaurant, decorated in a 1920’s, black-and-white style, we were the only customers.

The mustachioed waiter recommended me a good local beer and brought us the refreshing menus. I opted to have my usual, by now beloved, cazuela, this time with chicken, and Chloe ordered salmon – hoping against hope there would actually be vegetables served with it this time as opposed to chips and eggs.

As we ate the restaurant got progressively busier, until, by the time I ordered my obligatory Fernet Branca, it was packed. It was good to see Chileans hungry for hunger, enjoying the finer things in life. In that moment, surrounded by a healthy, humble South American affluence, triple Fernet Branca in hand, I felt good about Santiago. The love-hate pendulum had once again swung to the love part.

And yet, just a few blocks away – no, not now.

After lunch we explored another of Providencia’s shopping galleries. Santiago was more in love with shopping galleries than it was with restaurants, it seemed. This one was called Galeria Drugstore. It had a good mixture of bookshops, cafes and artisanal shops. Some of them sold beautiful Chilean trinkets from the length and breadth of the country.

Others were hippie clothes shops. You could smell it even before you went into the shops. They smelt hippie – must be the incense. Even so, even so – and I say this cautiously – I was actually relieved to see hippie shops!

It says a lot about me, and I didn’t think I’d say it until I travelled to Santiago; I found myself more at home surrounded by dream catchers, dreadlocks and organic produce than I did in the down-to-the-ground La Vega. I have sympathy, I do, of course, but home is where the hippies are.

By the end of the day I was happy to be back in our downtown home. Past the Alameda and the ever-comforting Plaza Moneda. Downtown, despite its culinary abortion, was a happy middle-ground for us. Yet another facet to Santiago’s urban class system. I tried to think which part of the city I belonged to. La Vega, Providencia, the Centro – but I kept coming up short. For these few weeks, I belonged to the road.

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