I’ll preface this by saying that like Bangkok before it, Santiago is an itinerary victim. I’m covering a lot of ground on this trip and thus, some places are going to draw the short straw. I came to South America on this trip for the natural setting, so Buenos Aires and Santiago were both afterthoughts, to a degree. I was really pleasantly surprised by the Argentinian capital, but coming on the heels of the scenery in Patagonia, Santiago was not set up for success.
When I left Bhutan in October, my next stop was Bangkok and my tendency to compare the two places was unfair, but inevitable. (For the record, even a few months removed from it, I’m still thoroughly grossed out by Bangkok.) The same thing happened to Santiago and was only compounded by the fact that I was (sub)consciously comparing it to Buenos Aires, and there really is no comparison.
I would never put Santiago in the same category with Bangkok. Santiago is a city still very much in the developmental stages and it hasn’t quite figured out what kind of a city it wants to be and how to go about doing that. Bangkok has just given up entirely and let itself turn into a giant backpacker-infested, sex-crazed bacchanal.
Santiago is trying. There’s a lot of history here, some amazing architecture, incredible vineyards, beautiful coasts nearby, and a strong local culture. It was interesting to visit Santiago so close to Buenos Aires because it seems to me like a glimpse at Buenos Aires 25 years ago. They’re so similar in so many ways, and when I look around Santiago, I see a lot of problems, but a lot of potential.
Chile is not a particularly wealthy country, but it’s not especially poor either. You can really see that in Santiago. There are some nice areas—Barrio Lastarria is lovely and has a wine bar that’s one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to—but these pockets are pretty isolated. Some of the city’s beautiful Beaux Arts architecture has been well maintained, but a lot of it has totally fallen into disrepair. The pollution problem is significant. Santiago has the disadvantage of being at the bottom of a valley, which compounds the issue, and if you fly out of the city on a sunny day, you can plainly see the smog hanging over the city and it’s a little nauseating. It’s nothing compared to China and much of Asia, but still.
The central downtown area in Santiago is like a scaled down Buenos Aires. There’s the same kind of quasi-French motif happening with many of the buildings and a huge public square in the center of town a la any major city in Spain. The architecture in Santiago is actually quite interesting, but no one has done anything with it. So many of the buildings are almost completely ignored, so what could be interesting, vibrant, historic areas are instead completely vacant.
The area surrounding the central part of Santiago is in many ways more noteworthy. Chilean wine country is scattered in the various valleys encircling the city and while there’s not the infrastructure of Napa or Bordeaux, there are some pretty well heeled vineyards in this area. Fittingly, the land here looks a lot like California, dry with gentle hills. The Spanish had a type.
Venture further afoot and you’ll come to Valparaiso. This area is historically an immigrant community, so the houses are simple and crammed next to each other. All the buildings teeter on the edge of a steep hill—San Francisco steep—and for a hair-raising experience, take one of the funiculars, in operation for more than 100 years, down to the port. The Pablo Neruda house museum is here and it’s worth it for a tour of the quirky house if nothing else, filled with Neruda’s eclectic collection of knickknacks he picked up sailing all over the world.
You get a wide variety of stuff here, everything from 5-star boutique hotels in beautifully restored houses, to shabby-chic corner cafes, to hostels, to some pretty rundown houses; sometimes all on the same block. In a nutshell, that’s the story of Santiago as a whole.
Chile has the misfortune of being a very seismically active country and when you look around the hillsides in Valparaiso, you have to wonder how all these houses haven’t ended up in a pile at the bottom of the valley ten times over. But most of these buildings are anywhere from 100 to 200 years old and they’ve somehow managed to hang on this long. UNESCO has gotten its hands on this area, so parts of it have been wonderfully restored and look great. Other bits, not so much.
Adjacent to Valparaiso is Viña del Mar. So here’s the deal with this; if you lived in Santiago, this would be awesome. Even though the ocean is probably absolutely frigid, there are some nice beaches in this area and it has a decent boardwalk with the usual accouterment; ice cream vendors, beachfront restaurants with appallingly bad service, etc. The high-rises that front the beach combine elements of Miami Beach and Vegas, so there’s that.
This area seems to be popular with the Carnival Cruise crowd on weekends, so the quick answer is don’t go here. If you find yourself in Santiago for a month in the summer, then yeah, this is a nice getaway from the city. Otherwise, come for Valparaiso and get out before you’re stampeded by the masses.
I definitely didn’t get to really see Santiago and this may sound horrible, but I don’t really have any desire to go back. Not that I didn’t like it—I think it’s a perfectly nice city and probably a decent place to live—but it just never really grabbed me. I never felt any kind of a pull. To their credit, they seem to get this. When I was at the airport waiting for my flight to Sydney, a group of people were conducting informal, but very lengthy exit interviews about people’s time in Chile, so clearly someone is making an effort and wants to improve the tourism business there.
In general, I was really shocked to find a lot of American tourists in Santiago, of all places. Perhaps they were all doing what I was doing and just passing through on their way to or from elsewhere in the country, but I confess to being lost on this one. It’s not that Santiago is bad in any way; it’s just not particularly good. It’s completely fine, but that’s not exactly the kind of endorsement that’s going to send everyone scrambling for their passports.
This is sounding harsher than I mean it to, but life is too short. I can imagine Santiago becoming a really cool city 20 years from now, but as it stands, don’t add it to the bucket list.
I’ve now been in Australia for the last two days, attending the Australian Open, and I’ll be sightseeing in Melbourne over the weekend before heading to Tasmania.