Three Days in Santiago

The first stop on our grand South American adventure is Santiago! Home to nearly 7 million people, Santiago is one of the largest metropolises on the continent, with an urban sprawl to rival Los Angeles. The city has been in the news quite a bit over the last few months for political unrest and protests triggered by a metro price hike and increasing economic disparity of the population.

Despite its size, Santiago never feels huge or overly bustling. Its short stature contributes to this, and many streets reminded me of Paris, Barcelona, San Juan, and Budapest. Bursts of green peek out in between streets and sidewalks, a public recreation area suddenly emerging unexpectedly on a corner or between some buildings. Many of the buildings lack character, and just as you think you’re not going to see anything interesting, you’ll come across a pop of color in the form of street art or a brightly painted building. The sidewalks are busy without feeling overly crowded (at least in the neighborhoods we explored), and you never know when you may stumble upon a street market.

We only had a few days in Santiago, and and had to consider three very different age groups of travelers so we faced some physical limitations*. It was also stifling hot in the mid-to-late afternoon, which is no fun to explore in, when there’s not much air conditioning to give you a respite from the heat. All of that to say, that even though we didn’t see or do as much as we usually would have, we still feel that we got a good taste of this city.

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Before our trip, Justin pulled up our AirBNB on Google Earth street view to get a sense of the neighborhood, and he commented that the area looked really run down and covered in graffiti. This surprised me because none of the reviews had mentioned anything sketchy; in fact, the place had over a hundred positive reviews and the host was a Super Host. 

With so much going on before our trip, we forgot about the potential issue until we arrived and saw that it was not only our neighborhood that was marked up, but the entire city. Once we got within the main inner city, there wasn’t a building not slathered in the passionate scrawl, decrying the government, cursing the police, and even calling for the death of the president.

Typical graffiti is often curvy, colorful, and artistic, stylized and hard to read. While that does exist here, most of the graffiti that now coats this city is not that. It is a fresh wound, angry and loud, written in large letters demanding justice. It’s clearly made by people who don’t usually spend their free time tagging buildings. But desperation leads people to do all sorts of things they wouldn’t usually, including burning metro stations and defacing national monuments. In order to get what they needed, they had to destroy their own city. 

We have been loosely following the protests and riots since they began just days after we booked the trip. I closely monitored a few threads in some Facebook travel groups where Santiago locals were providing daily status updates and providing travel recommendations for fellow travelers. By the end of 2019, it seemed the real threat had died down, with sporadic protests popping up in short bursts. The main thrust of the public outcry was over since the people had (mostly) gotten what they wanted. So we were a little surprised to find ourselves in the middle of another protest on our way to the Costanera building; thankfully, the protestors were helping direct traffic to keep bystanders and car passengers out of harm’s way. It was still disconcerting to drive through something I’ve only ever seen on the news — it’s exactly as suffocating and intense as you imagine. Later we found out it was a scheduled protest so we’re not sure how the cab driver hadn’t known about it and didn’t choose an alternate route. As we finally made it to a street that he could turn down, we witnessed a water cannon mobile gearing up and spraying the sidewalks. We never felt particularly unsafe, but we also didn’t feel comfortable taking photos just in case it incensed someone enough to attack the cab. We left the people to their protest, and could not see the commotion from the height of the Costanera tower once we got there.

• • •

We did not do our usual research before going on this trip. I was a bit preoccupied in the weeks leading up to our departure since I had quit my job and was doing everything I could to ensure that my team had everything they needed before I left. So that meant I knew next to nothing about where we were headed and had to cram a lot of research into just a few days before the trip…. Which mostly became doing research on the fly as we went along. 

I did not know, for example, anything about the currency exchange rate and was pleasantly surprised by the how affordable everything was. Justin bought a case of a local beer for under $12 USD; our 3 bedroom, 2 bath apartment with air conditioning and a rooftop pool was $85 a night. One of the things I did read about in a travel forum the day we arrived — and that I’m glad to have learned! — was that you aren’t supposed to put toilet paper in the toilets. Apparently, Chile has a terrible plumbing system and, like elsewhere in South America, you do not flush toilet paper, instead placing it in a trash bin. 

I had read about South Americans’ penchant for late dinners and later bedtimes in various memoirs but seeing it in action was still surprising. With the sun not setting until after 8 pm, and the late afternoon sun scorching hot, we quickly fell into the Chilean way of doing things and didn’t eat until after dark. One night after a delicious Peruvian feast, we left the restaurant at 10 pm just as it was filling up with families ready for dinner; and this was a week night! Skyler didn’t go to bed before 11 any night that we were in Santiago (and thankfully let us sleep in as a result). Walking home from dinner, we enjoyed the cool night breeze and noted the number of young children out late, playing on one of the numerous playgrounds or eating ice cream on their way home. 

In fact, Chile’s reputation for being kid-friendly turned out to be true. Everyone was accommodating and kind to us. Waiters rushed to bring high chairs and one brought us a bowl of mashed potatoes, unprompted. In the US we have priority parking for expectant mothers, but in Chile they have special accommodations everywhere, including lanes at the grocery store, for “persons of priority” — handicapped, elderly, pregnant women, and parents with small children. Skyler earned smiles from passersby everywhere we walked, and some folks approached us to ask if he was comfortable in his baby carrier. (One man even told us he must be choking. He wasn’t.)

• • •

We enjoyed our brief time in Santiago but I can’t say it’s a place we’d rush back to. We were visiting a city with little to no context so I’m sure we missed a lot of things. Perhaps if we’d had more of a background in Chilean history then we’d have a longer list of must-see monuments and museums. Also, many of the blogs and articles I read online suggested leaving the city to instead visit other regions and take in the beautiful nature of the surrounding areas, so I wonder if there’s just not that much for visitors to do in Santiago. Either way, we enjoyed the food and the people immensely, and are very glad to have visited. 

But now it’s time to discover some other places in Chile and Argentina!

Have YOU ever been to Santiago? What did you think of the city, the food, and the people? What was your favorite area to explore? If you haven’t been to Chile, where would you like to visit?

*For example, I was worried my panic would be triggered riding in the cable car up the San Cristobal hill, so we skipped that common tourist destination. We also missed going in the big market because we got a late start due to the heat on the day we explored the historic center.