Statue of the Virgin Mary
After an extremely long overnight flight (including a re-fuel in Lima) we arrived into Santiago completely shattered. We found our transfer to Bellavista which, at around 5.30am, didn’t appear too appealing (in fact the look on Em's face was a picture!). It was our first time in South America and we were both a bit apprehensive about what we would find given the amount that’s written about it’s safety and culture. The manager was very pleasant and sorted our room out for us straight away so we could get some sleep.
By 2pm we’d had enough sleep and decided it was time to wander into town and see what it was like.
So we walked the twenty minutes or so into the Plaza de Armas. Plaza de Armas’ are everywhere in South America, a by-product of colonial times and the Spanish conquest. The very centre of every town (that we saw) starts with the Plaza de Armas and spreads outward from there. The first thing that strikes you about Santiago is the beautiful view of the Andes mountains from almost anywhere in town. Winter was just starting, so there was only a thin snow layer on them but they looked very majestic nonetheless. The Plaza de Armas was very pleasant, and huge with a massive Cathedral in one corner and palm trees everywhere. Despite feeling very safe, central Santiago was still very much a culture shock with feral dogs all over (some asleep so soundly in the middle of the pavement that Em kept making me stop to make sure they weren't dead, lots of beggars and some strange looks from the locals.
City view of Santiago
It was Saturday night and of course that meant sampling the local nightlife. We went out at 9pm for a pizza on Pio Nono, Bellavista’s main street. Bellavista is said to be the bohemian district of Santiago and it comes alive at night with restaurants, bars, theatres etc and after dinner it wasn’t hard to find a bar for a few Escudos (litre bottles for 950 pesos, 95p!). Whilst Em braved the ladies I was watching the TV showing some Def Leppard/Bon Jovi/Whitesnake videos (as far as I can remember) and some guys on the table next to us asked me, in a very strong accent ‘YOU LIKE?’ I did, and seized the opportunity to chat to them in Spanish and we were soon sat down with them speaking pidgin Span-glish. I speak a very modest amount of Castillian Spanish learned from school which will just about get me by in a bar or restaurant.
What I didn’t realise was that the Chilean dialect must be one of the most difficult in the Spanish-speaking world. They only pronounce the first two-thirds of a word if you’re very lucky, don’t pronounce ‘S’ if they can help it and speak incredibly quickly. On top of that, all the Spanish I’d learned and spoken hitherto had been with lisped ‘C’ and ‘Z’.
Our new acquaintances were very friendly though and were more than understanding of my predicament and didn’t really speak English, except when communications frequently came to a halt, at which point, one of them would always raise a glass and shout ‘BIENVENIDO A CHI-LE’ and continue with his only English phrase ‘WELCOME TO CHI-LAY’. More of them joined the table and we were soon the centre of attention whilst Em was busily speaking sign-language with one of the girls and asking me for translations every minute or so.
We declined the invitation to carry on the night at a club after our fill of booze and jet-lag and left them to it at around 2am.
Museo de Bellas Artes
The next afternoon, after another lazy lie-in and lunch we headed to Santiago’s main park, Cerro San Cristobal. It's a huge hill sticking out of the flat basin in which Santiago lies with a large statue of the Virgin Mary on the top, a zoo on one side and pools and playgrounds all over it. We paid around 4500 pesos (4.50 GBP) each to take the funicular to the statue for great views over Santiago and of the Andes and then to get into the zoo. The zoo had an impressive array of animals, all of which seemed very photogenic and well-behaved, but lots of kids who in stark contrast to the animals were niether photogenic nor well-behaved.
The zoo was good fun, but we couldn’t help feeling that there wasn’t a lot of space for the animals.
A very strange 'Caballo'
The next day we had a proper look around the town centre and Em was feeling way more at ease with Santiago. We found a mall to do a bit of shopping and after lunch and making a big faux pas with my tea (don't ask for 'te con leche' in Chile - you'll get hot frothy milk and a tea-bag to put in it...) headed again to the Plaza de Armas.
It actually got a little strange when we saw a big ring of people six or so deep so we went over for a look thinking it was magic or juggling, against Em's advice it has to be said.
Plaza de Armas
Realising it was a comedy act of some sort, quite blue I think, we turned to leave but guess what, bombshell blonde Gringos and their six-foot gringo boyfriends can't slink away that easily and he spotted us pretty quickly. "Hello my friend" he shouts, "where you from?" I replied "Inglaterra" to which he turned to the rest of the crowd and said "I know Eeenglish girls" and motioned to prove by gyrating his hips. Anyway, it seemed good natured and he came over to shake my hand by way of a apology and I moved a step closer bracing myself to shake his hand as you would for a tug-of-war contest, not wanting to get pulled in to his circle in front of 200 or so Chileans. So we shook hands and I slinked away a little, leaving a little parting in the crowd as he continued asking me questiond in English about how much I liked Chile (I got a laugh from the crowd for an enthusiastic response) and how long we were here for, each time turning back to his partisan crowd, speaking in incomprehensible local dialect and generating raucous laughter.
So it was apparent that we were the butt of his jokes and about to leave he said he wanted to improve my spanish and asked me to repeat after him. Ok, I played along, a little wary. Him: "me". Me: "me", "gusta", "gusta", "la", "la" then a pause, I'd repeated "I like the..." His final word was "Tula" which generated even more raucous laughter. I told him in spanish I wouldn't repeat it because I didn't understand and asked the group of girls next to in spanish "Que es tula?" Without skipping a beat, one of them, clearly a school-kid replied "Dick".
So, we moved on pretty quickly as he made his bid for donations and I took it well reasoning that he was doing what any comic would do in the world and play to the audience by taking the piss out of another race.
Palacio de la Moneda
Em was a bit more annoyed than I was, particularly as she was uncomfortable in the crowd and thought some guy had put his hands on her head to create a distraction to pickpocket her. As far as I'm concerned, it could have been much worse. I mean, we could have been in front of a partisan Glaswegian crowd.
Back across the river in Bellavista we found a great little square (The Bellvista Patio) for dinner and then moved on for a drink in the least 'Irish' Irish bar we'd ever been to.
On Tuesday were up early of make a day of it and took the Metro to Palacio de la Moneda and then walked onto Plaza de la Ciudadania (Citizen Square). The Metro system seemed far better than some we'd used in North America and we were beginning to realise that Santiago is a very modern and well-developed city.
We walked through town again looking at some of the colonial architecture and went to Cerro Santa Lucia, the birthplace of Santiago. Pedro de Valdivia was a Spanish Conquistador who first founded Santiago in 1541 on Cerro Santa Lucia. It's a short climb to the top and well worth it with some great views of the city. The meeting hotel for our tour was nearby too, so we scoped that out and headed back to Bellavista for some Empanaditas, delicious little packets of spicy beef, not unlike a cornish pasty.
Thursday was a lazy morning followed by a taxi out to Santa Lucia to check-in to our hotel. We were joining a GAP tour from Santiago through northern Chile, Bolivia and southern Peru over the next 6 weeks and it was the meeting day.
Shortly after we'd checked in we met another couple on our trip, Frank and Kathryn who were from Kent, not too far from Emma. We spent an hour or so chatting about where we'd been and where we were going before going thermal shopping for Em. It was coming into Santiago's winter and despite being reasonably warm during the day it got bitterly cold during the night and was only going to get colder as we got higher up.
We met the rest of the group later that evening and went for dinner back in Bellavista with them. The group leader (definitely not a guide, he was keen to point out) was Chad, a Canadian who'd spent the last 5 years studying, travelling and working in Central and South America. He would be sorting out transport and accomodation for us and leting us know what else was available, where to go, not to go and decent places to eat.
The Andes through the smog
Half of our group, Amy, Dani, Nicole, Sarah, Dawn (all English), Jilly (Scottish), Matt (Canadian), Robyn (Australian) had been together from Rio de Janeiro. The other half of the group were starting the tour in Santiago: Frank, Kathryn, Tim, Michelle (all English) and Maria (Irish). There was nice mix of ages too, not a goup of gap-year kids like we'd been worried about.
After four days in Santiago we were ready to get out of the city and see something different. The local ski resorts were just getting into the swing of their winter season but once we'd priced it up it would have cost us about 60 GBP each fo a day. So we gave that a miss and took a tour to the coast insted, visiting Vina del Mar, central Chile's beach retreat, and Valparaiso, the country's principal port.
Plaza de Armas
We were picked up early and taken to the coast in a swanky coach whilst our very informative guide talked us through the valleys we were passing through and the history of the two towns we were about to see. We stopped off at an indigenous museum which has an original Moai outside. We then drove through town and had lunch overloking the beach before heading to Valparaiso. Valparaiso, a UNESCO world heritage site, is still the main port in Chile and still very busy, despite losing a lot of trade and traffic since the opening of the Panama canal. Much of it is built on steep hills meaning funiculars/cliff railways are everywhere, although there wasn't enough time to go on one. Valparaiso has a lot of colonial architecture and loads of history, including being the home of the longest-running Spanish language newspaper in the world and still housing Chilean National Congress.
Back in Santiago, as Em rested in the hotel I went out for some food with some of the others in Barrio Brasil and after a few drinks in the back bar of the Casa Roja, we moved on to Bellavista's Clandestino club.