Saturday, July 23, 2016

Santiago de Chile

Just like Japan, I had a lot of time allocated to Chile because I have a friend there (free lodging!)  So, I must start the blog out with a special thanks to Claudio, his mum, his brother, and the sassiest gatita around, Isidora.  Of my 3.5 weeks in the country, I had roughly two full weeks allocated to Santiago, so I had a great opportunity to thoroughly explore Chile’s capital.

After Buenos Aires, I thought that surely nowhere else could compete to win the award for favourite city on the gap year, but Santiago surprisingly put on a show and made me think twice.  Santiago is a big city, but not too big.  By Latin American standards, it’s clean, it’s orderly, and it’s safe.  The mass transit is excellent, though the metro system does get really crowded at peak hours… and sometimes at non-peak hours too.  Chile is one of the wealthiest countries in the region (so wealthy in fact that Chileans are the only Latin Americans with visa-free access to the United States) and this wealth is reflected in Santiago:  swanky malls, well-maintained parks (as opposed to non-well-maintained parks like in many places in Latin America), good restaurants, legitimate gelato, and drinkable tap water.

As with any city, there are a few downsides.  The threat of earthquakes is a big minus.  I can’t handle that shit.  The current left-wing government has had their approval ratings plummet, and I was witness to several student protests during my stay (thanks for the residual tear gas!)  Gay rights are coming along but Chile is still behind Argentina and Uruguay.  Nestled between the giant Andes immediately to the east and another coastal mountain range immediately to the west, the city offers stunning views of snow-capped mountains… which also trap huge amounts of smog in Santiago’s valley.  The air was often terrible.  When it comes to Santiago vs Buenos Aires, I think Santiago is a more liveable city, but the air quality is so bad that it bumps it to the #2 spot behind Bs As.  Also, for as weird as Argentine Spanish is, Chilean Spanish is actually that much weirder.  They talk super fast and they seem to have their own vocabulary separate from Spanish.  Sigh.

But, the handful of negatives aside, Santiago is a fantastic city to explore.

A few highlights of my time in Santiago:

Introductory sights:
I signed up for one of those free walking tours on my first Monday (when most of the museums are closed) and learned about the city and its history while being guided around.  This helped me plot my itinerary for the rest of my stay.  The tour mainly stayed in the historical centre, so I thought I’d check off the obligatory churches while there.  I visited the Catedral Metropolitana and the Iglesia de San Francisco which is the oldest colonial building still standing in Santiago.  Attached to the church is the Museo de Arte Colonial which I went to not because I wanted to see more damn paintings of Jesus, but because I really had to pee and admission was only $1.

History lessons:
Most of the museums in Santiago are superb.  The Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino is, in my professional opinion, the best pre-Colombian art museum in all of Latin America.  Unlike the many others I visited, the Chilean installment is smaller, with only a handful of artifacts from each period and region, and excellent captions that are concise yet informative.  The other museums each have about a million of the same artifact on display over and over and over again and so much text that I just had to pick and choose what to read.  Highlights include mummies from different Andean cultures, Paracas funerary clothes from Peru, and wooden statues from the indigenous Mapuche people from southern Chile.

Instead of just looking at crappy old paintings, the Museo Historico Nacional comes with an excellent audio guide which tells the history of the country through the artwork on display.  Events include the discovery of the Strait of Magellan and the War of the Pacific which Chile fought against Peru and Bolivia.

I learned some of the country’s less exciting history at Londres 38, a nondescript house where the military dictatorship tortured and killed dissidents.  The much larger Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights) features the complete story of the crimes committed during the military dictatorship in the 1970’s and 1980’s, though conveniently leaves out the crimes committed by the communists which brought on the military junta that took over the country.

Pretty museums:
The art museums in Santiago are exceptional.  The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Fine Arts Museum) has both temporary exhibitions and a permanent collection which they rotate to fit a given theme.  When I visited, the permanent collection consisted of both old and new art demonstrating themes surrounding masculinity, femininity, domestic violence, alternative genders, homosexuality, and more.  Fantastic.  The attached Museo de Arte Contemporaneo has an interesting collection of newer art, including giant maps of Latin America with the most common slang word for “penis” and “vagina” written in each country.  I LOVE IT.  I also visited the Museo de Artes Visuales but it was half-closed for an event that day, the Centro Gabriela Mistral but it has no info in English, and the Centro Cultural La Moneda which focuses more on temporary exhibitions and I didn’t need to see Egyptian mummies while in Latin America.

For something a bit different, I visited the Museo de la Moda (Fashion Museum).  The private collection based in the collector’s (giant) home rotates its exhibitions.  When I visited, the whole place was devoted to Marilyn Monroe – news articles, artifacts, and most importantly, her clothing.  Each piece was displayed with a background picture of her wearing the item.

Pretty views:
My friend used to work for the company that built the Costanera Center, the tallest tower in Latin America.  Of course he had to take me up to the observation deck to show off his past work.  We also took the funicular up Cerro San Cristobal – a large mountain right in the middle of the city.  The mountain has excellent views of the surrounding city (and its pollution) and also has a big ass statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception.  Because this is Latin America and everything needs to be ruined with Catholicism.  Nearby, I enjoyed the much smaller Cerro Santa Lucia much more than its larger counterpart.  It’s walkable and the top is eye-level with many of the surrounding buildings, giving a different sort of perspective than the big sweeping views that Costanera and Cerro San Cristobal offer.

The rest:
Markets were on the agenda because I love markets.  Mercado Central is pretty much only a seafood market so I wasn’t all too impressed.  Persa Bio Bio is a ridiculously massive collection of markets that sells everything you can imagine… as long as it’s shitty.  Vega Central is the big food market.  My friend wasn’t too enthusiastic because it’s in a dodgy part of town, but I just wanted to buy all of the fresh fruit.  I visited a few parks, most notably the Parque de las Esculturas (Park of the Sculptures) and Parque Bicentenario – a huge park with nice walking trails and green spaces.  We took a guided tour of the Palacio de la Moneda – formerly the mint and now the presidential office – where Communist president Salvador Allende committed suicide rather than be captured by the military in 1973.  Finally, there was La Chascona – the Santiago home of Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda.  I’ll bitch about him in the next installment.  This installment is already too long.  For those of you wondering why I didn’t mention food, don’t you worry.  I got you covered next time.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Santiago, follow this link:

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