Figuring out Santiago

After weeks of travelling through jaw-dropping natural scenery and experiencing nature’s peace and quiet, we knew it would be an adjustment to arrive in Santiago, a city of over seven million people. While we were ready to hit city streets once again, it has taken a bit of time to adjust to the reality of Santiago.

My template for Latin American cities will always be Mexico City and that sets a pretty high bar. Mexico City has it all – vast green space, tiny corner parks, tree-lined pedestrian streets, fabulous food, world-class museums, knockout architecture and innovative street fashion.

Santiago is not that. While we waited in line for ice cream today, we struck up a conversation with a young couple who asked us if we liked Santiago and were surprised to hear us answer in the affirmative. They are Santiago natives who want to leave their own city and were gratified to hear we had also visited other parts of their country. For them, Santiago is not the best of Chile.

Maybe that expresses it best for us as well – Santiago is not the best of Chile. But that doesn’t mean that there is not a lot to discover here, it just takes a bit of patience and unwrapping.

We booked a terrific Airbnb in Santiago Centro as it is within walking distance of most attractions. We are in a small condominium building on the 13th floor and this is the view from our balcony:

We’ve only been here three days and so far, have not stumbled upon any upscale neighbourhoods with mansions hidden behind high gates. Block after block is lined with apartment buildings, stores, restaurants, and kiosks.

Life is lived on the street: below us is a large space devoted to community gardens, a children’s playground, a dog park and a few food trucks offering really good food and a pleasant sitting area.

We also have a rather haunting mural painted on our wall. Just out of sight, the young woman’s hand stretches out and above it is a small child, laughing and surrounded by twinkling stars. Why is the woman’s face covered and the area filled with clouds? Has she lost her child? Am I reading too much into this?

Street art turns up in the most unexpected places. We walked for a few blocks without seeing so much as a tag and then came upon this hyper-realistic mural:

We were on our way to Barrio Yungay, one of Santiago’s oldest neighbourhoods, which is well-known for its street art and strikingly beautiful architecture. Most of Santiago’s older architecture is neo-classical, with some art nouveau and art deco.

This mural covers three sides of a building and much of it is done in glass mosaic tile.

An expression of the suffering, strength and hope of Chile’s women. And not to be flippant, but those fingernails are very typical. No matter what, Chilean women get their nails done.

This colourful street was blocked off by the police, but this is as much as we could see from the road.

There are high rises in the Yungay neighbourhood, but also townhouse styles. The mural at the front of this little cul de sac sits in front of a more modest style of home.

Many of the streets looked like this one – doorways coming straight to the sidewalk.

Or this one, a little prettier and better tended. The trees make all the difference.

Another neighbourhood scene. The dog and gent didn’t seem to belong to each other. Chile has a massive number of stray dogs and Santiago is reputed to have over 200,000 of them who free-range the city streets. With the exception of the odd dog with a rabid hatred of cars and a death wish, most dogs are placid, seemingly cared for and very much a fixture of the city.

Another notable fact about these dogs is how many of them are large and how many of them appear to have sprung from some recognizable breed. This Airedale terrier-type is typical.

Two mirror-image homes.

An office building.

A workshop/museum.

The Peluqueria Francesa is the oldest barbershop in Santiago – in operation for over 150 years. Intrigued by the storefront, we popped our head in to talk to Juan, the barber. He was happy to show us around; the building also houses a small museum and a restaurant and is filled with memorabilia.

Juan the barber.

Barrio Yungay is a neighbourhood that one could walk around for hours. It is also a mixed neighbourhood that bears paying a little extra attention. We had two different people stop us and remind us to watch our belongings.

This is typical of Chileans – we don’t know if it is because we are tourists or because we are older tourists, but we feel quite well cared for in South America. Yesterday, we were waiting for the light to change and a young girl popped up really close to us and greeted us. I had my camera in my hand and I’m not sure if she was weighing her options, but before I could formulate that thought, another woman slid in between us and said to us, “Hola.” Her daughter explained that her mother was protecting us from what appeared to be a potential threat. It is very touching.

Also in the Yungay neighbourhood is the quite incredible Museum of Memory and Human Rights, built in 2010 to commemorate the victims of human rights abuses during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship between 1973 and 1990.

I was aware of Pinochet in the way I was aware of Pol Pot, Idi Amin and Papa Doc Duvalier, which is to say I was aware of the broad strokes of their evil, but did not know the details.

The museum bears witness to the torture of tens of thousands of innocent people and the murder of thousands more, through graphic photography, video footage, survivor testimony, and audio recordings.

While there are a few overview panels in English, most everything is in Spanish, so we missed a lot. We had audio devices, but they only applied to part of the exhibits. Still, it was emotionally hard to get through it. Especially moving was the wall showing photos of the dead and disappeared.

In most cases, the remains of these people have never been found and their families have never received closure.

What is hard to understand is how the world mainly stood by and did nothing and how to this day, Pinochet still has supporters.

One film clip showed the Pope arriving in Santiago and while addressing the crowd and praying for peace, he stopped short of condemning the atrocities. It seems that the U.S. leaders did very little and Margaret Thatcher was a Pinochet ally.

We walked by this scene today in the Constitution Square. Apparently, 33 years after Pinochet’s regime ended, there is a protest every single day, to keep the memories of the disappeareds alive and to protest the fact that while Pinochet is gone, much still needs to change.

As we have walked around the city and with the effects of Pinochet still simmering, I wonder about the psyche of the average residents. I look at people in their 40s and realize they went through this as a child. What was their childhood like? People in their 50s and older were directly affected – many of them lost friends and family members and many of them could have been tortured. It is inconceivable to me how people survive such things, living with unrelenting fear for years.

As we gazed at this statue of President Salvador Allende, who was murdered by Pinochet during his coup d’etat in 1973, a gentleman walked by and gave him a solid thumbs up.

This is the first of three Santiago blogs. For a city that we’re still trying to figure out, there’s a lot to tell! To leave this posting on a high note, I want to show you a peculiar food trend in Chile, or at least in Santiago, that bears a resemblance to poutine.

We were in the bohemian Lastarria neighbourhood which makes room for both art school students and high-priced goods, when we passed a huge lineup. I stopped to ask what they were waiting for.

Papachecos is a purveyor of a Chilean staple – a cone of French fries, covered with a cheese sauce and often (shudder) chopped up hot dog bits. This one – a little fancier than the food truck variety, had French fries, shredded curried chicken, a cream sauce and an avocado sauce.

And finally – the ice cream cone I will never eat! Chile is not cheap – I just paid $7 for dental floss.

If you stop by a one-on-every-corner ice cream shop, you will get a healthy cone for about $4. If you choose to go to a shop that is located in a fancy little plaza filled with cute little stores that sell curated “objets“, the price shoots right up.

Mind you, it was hard to resist this display, but I could not bear to spend $9 for a single cone, so I will content myself with this photo.

Back in a couple of days with tales of our trip to Valparaiso.

11 thoughts on “Figuring out Santiago

  1. Great writing as always! I don’t see that you are monetarizing this in any way … but you should! As for Pinochet … I believe you will find that unlike Thatcher .. the Americans did much more than merely support him. Cheers!!


    1. Oh boy, I read a fair bit about the American involvement and encouragement and still have such a foggy grasp about how many hands were bloodied during that time. I really want to find a comprehensive book about Pinochet and learn a lot more about that time.
      Would love to see you and Bonnie this summer!


  2. Those were quite the murals. You two world travelers have seen so much. I don’t know how you can absorb it all Thank goodness for your blog. I’m anxious to hear about Valparaiso as I think that is where we were supposed to board the cruise ship that we had to cancel in 2012 when Don was diagnosed. I’m still thankful for all the travels we did and often relive them by watching our DVD’s. Enjoy every moment. All is well here and next week it’s supposed to be in the 20’s C. It’s about time ! Love Lyn


    1. Lyn, don’t you find you relive the emotions and memories when you watch your DVDS or look at photos? I’m so grateful for our photos and blogs – it is remarkably easy to forget things, and it is almost like being there again when you go back over your recordings.


      1. I certainly agree! We were treated to a concert in Moscow, bought their CD and every time I play it I run into the living room to sit between the two speakers and feel the emotion I felt at the concert. I thought we did a lot of traveling but you two have us beat by far. I’m sure if Don was still alive he’d be saying, “let’s join them.’ Well, at least on some of your ventures !! Keep on enjoying . Love Lyn


  3. Sure loved all the murals I never saw!
    The museum of Human Rights is indeed incredible!!!
    Families are divided into Pro Pinochet
    Or against!! Even our best friends and yet they married and are happy as long as you do not talk about politics!!!
    A taboo subject!!
    Do not forget to go to the Pablo Neruda houses!!


    1. Danielle – I had no idea that to this day Chileans are still so divided about Pinochet. Much like Trump, it is hard to understand how anyone could be in favour. We just assumed that the whole country was much relieved once he was gone, but of course, his influence lives on. We discovered during a tour that talking about him is a delicate subject.


  4. Wow. What a trip. The mural of the young girl is amazing. We never spent much time in Santiago as we were stationed in the south so we don’t have much to compare to modern day Santiago.

    Will you be going to Vina del Mar as well as Valparaiso? It was our preferred coastal city. I would guess it might have become quite touristy so I don’t know if I want to recommend it to you.

    With regard to food, have you tried Chilean empanadas? They used to make both fried (frito) and baked (de horno). They are delicious! The other dish we loved was Pastel de Choclo (a corn and chicken cassarole) that is very tasty. The French fry dish you mentioned didn’t exist in the south, not sure about Santiago.

    Bob has several stories to tell you upon your return about robberies and being out after curfew after the coup d’etat.

    Enjoy Valparaiso and we’ll look forward to reading about your visit.


    1. Jeanne, we did not make it to Vina del Mar – just our one day in Valparaiso, and we are quite regretful that it was only the one day.

      And yes – we have eaten empanadas throughout South America, and as is so often the case, the very best one we had was in a small town during a bus ride in Colombia. We stopped for a food and bathroom break – bought a chicken and onion empanada at a questionable-looking little restaurant, and thought we had died and gone to heaven. But when in doubt – they are my favourite choice on the menu.

      We were so curious as to whether you guys were in Chile during Pinochet’s time, so quite keen to hear the stories. You may even have some suggested reading – I really want to learn more.


  5. Like you, I have heard of Pinochet, but little about him has stuck with me. Reading what you learned about him and is atrocities is horrifying. Time and time again, it seems as if the world stands by and does nothing. When will human beings learn violence is never the answer?


    1. Heather, I’ve always thought that if everyone approached one another with respect – no need to agree or even to like the other person, but just grant one another respect, then how different the world would be.
      Curiously, no-one has asked for my input!

      For the sake of our beloved children and grandchildren, we wish the world to be a much better place, don’t we?


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