It’s now over a week since I arrived in Santiago (with Easter Island in between of course), and today I finally made it on the walking tour of the city. Unfortunately, the weather decided it wasn’t going to cooperate, so we had to stick it out in the drizzle and overcast skies (reminiscent of a miserable autumn day back home).
We started at the Plaza Da Armas, where we met the guide. It turns out I was correct the other day when I was underwhelmed by the plaza, since there wasn’t actually very much to learn about it. The main talking point was a sculpture of a Mapuche tribal chief, which represented a big step forward in relations between the Spanish colonists and the natives. We quickly moved on, and took a walk down the main shopping street. Here the guide told us about a concept unique to Chile called ‘coffee with legs’. Apparently, the coffee in Chile was so bad that a new way to sell it had to be devised. The result was coffee bars where you are served by beautiful women, often scantily clad. The concept proved very successful, and these cafes are now the regular haunts of businessmen throughout the city.
After passing the Santiago Stock Exchange, we arrived at the presidential palace and plaza outside. This was perhaps the most interesting part of the tour, and the guide told us about the 21 military coups since Chile gained independence in 1810, with specific focus on the coup which lead to Pinochet taking power. The elected socialist president wouldn’t give up power in 1973, so the military took action and bombed the palace. They then drove tanks into the plaza and stormed the palace, only to find the president had already hanged himself. At this point Pinochet started his 17 year dictatorship. Both the deposed president and Pinochet polarise opinion to this day, and it seems the Chileans have mixed feelings towards that part of their history.
The next part of the tour took us past the opera house, which turned out to be a fitting point to discuss the earthquakes which continually plague the country. In 2010 there was a huge (8.8 on the Richter scale) earthquake which killed hundreds of people and severely damaged the walls of the opera house, with the damage still visible today. The guide also told us about the strongest earthquake in history which occurred in a town south of here called Valdivia in 1960. It was so strong that a river was created as the ground cracked apart, and apparently today the river is very scenic. Historically, the whole of Chile was an area avoided by the Incas from the north, since they thought the earthquakes were a punishment from the gods.
From the opera house we made our way to the ‘trendy’ part of town, which became so after Pinochet’s rule ended, and artists and creative types were allowed back into the city. They settled in roughly the same area, which divides the economic centre of the city from the cultural centre of the city. Today there are lots of nice coffee (not coffee with legs) shops, as well as what is apparently one of the best wine cafes in the region. The café features an ever-changing list of the top 300 wines in Chile, and if you like one which is made locally, the café can arrange a tasting tour at the vineyard for you.
The final part of the tour took us through the cultural centre of Bellavista, where all the best restaurants, bars and clubs are, as well as the university. Since the area is close to the hostel I had already explored quite a bit of it, though it was still good to revisit. On the way we stopped for ice cream at a café which consistently wins the best ice cream in Chile award, and I’m pleased to say we were both impressed. The café was next to a large waterfall sculpture which was donated by the Germans in 1910 to celebrate 100 years of Chilean independence. Apparently the joke in 2010 was ‘where is our 200 year anniversary present?!’. The Chileans have always shared a close relationship with the Germans, and much of their cuisine features German influences.
The tour ended in the northern part of Bellavista, next to the Neruda house museum of Chilean artefacts. Neruda was an eccentric man who collected artefacts (many worthless, many worth a lot) to do with Chilean culture and history. He put these on display in his three houses, and anyone was welcome to turn up at any time to visit and enjoy them. When he died it was decided to turn the houses into museums so everyone could still appreciate what he had collected.
After the tour we headed back to the hostel for dinner and to sort out plans for tomorrow. In the end we all decided to fly straight to Buenos Aires since it is cheaper than flying to Mendoza or Cordoba. Jonty and I are flying tomorrow, while Marc is flying on Saturday since he wanted an extra day in Santiago. Strangely, return tickets are significantly cheaper than single tickets, so we all have return flights we are never going to use!
Photo of the day: the presidential palace, and earthquake damage on the opera house.