Chile stretching over 4,300 km north to south but only 350 km at its widest point east to west, is strikingly beautiful. I had a 3-day stop-over in Santiago before heading to Brazil.Introduction
Lying between the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Chile has an area of 748,000 km² but a small population of about 18 millions. It is rich in mineral resources and has become a major wine producing country. Like most countries in South America, Chile became a colony of Spain around 1540. It was liberated in 1881 and went through a prolong period of political upheavals including Pinochet’s dictatorship from 1973 to 1989. The country has made tremendous stride enjoying remarkable economic and social progress in the 21st century.
I have been to South America twice. In 1988, Lillian, my best friend and I spent over a month visiting Rio, Belo Horizonte and Ouro Preto in Brazil, Iguacú Falls, Buenos Aires, Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and Ushuaia in Argentina, Lima, Cuzco, Machu Picchu, Puno, Arequipa, Nazca in Peru and La Paz and Lake Titicaca in Bolivia.
In February 1999, I joined a 21-day expedition trip to Antarctica and the meeting point was Santiago, Chile. Before the expedition, I visited Easter Island, the Atacama Desert (the world’s driest desert), Arica at the northern end, Puerto Natales and Torres Del Paine which is in the far south with Shirley, my niece, Kai from Hong Kong and Michel from Belgium. I had to take a chartered flight to the Falkland Islands before boarding a small 54-passenger Russian research boat Professor Multanovsky. After disembarking at Ushuaia in March, I took a 4-day ferry from Puerto Natales to Puerto Mott through the fjords.
The Antarctica is awesome and its beauty is beyond description. Easter Island and the landscapes of Chile are unearthly beautiful and unforgettable. I find the country modern, more developed and remarkably efficient by South American standards. As Qantas and LAN Chile are partners of the One World alliance, Santiago naturally becomes my first port of call on the South America leg. As I have already been to various parts of the country, I decide to make a brief stop-over.
December 25 Friday: Sydney, Australia – Santiago, Chile (GMT- 4)
I had two Christmas this year. I left Sydney around 1pm on Christmas Day, crossed the International Date Line and arrived in Santiago, capital of Chile around noon on Christmas Day.
I booked a room with Travesia B&B online for 20,000 peso (about US$40). The airport transfer costing 1,300 peso is reasonable and comfortable. Mauricio is an enterprising young man who has his professional job with the Ministry of Economy and runs this 7-room B&B with his wife. The location of the B&B near the Baquedano metro station is good. It is a quiet and nice neighbourhood with most of the houses in the area restored and repainted in vivant colours.
It was very hot with temperature well over 35ᴼC. As I did sleep much on the plane, I took a nap in the afternoon. I left the B&B around 5pm, walked towards Barrio Bellavista, an area renowned for its bohemia and artistic atmosphere. My faint memories came back: I had been here before. As I passed by Galindo, a well-known eatery for Chilean food, I decided to have a wholesome meal to celebrate Christmas. I had a good meal with pork sirloin, rice and a draft beer for only 6,800 peso.
As the sun would set late, I had enough time to walk up to Cerro San Cristóbal where the statute of Mother of Santiago stands. I passed by the Neruda Museum which was closed. The walk is popular and the top was fairly crowded. It was so hot that I thought I might have a heat stroke or a heart attack!
On my way to my B&B, I made a quick stop at Plaza Italia. It was like daytime even at 9pm. I was tired and slept as soon as my head hit the pillow.
December 26 Saturday: Santiago
My original plan was to take a public bus to Valparaiso, a seaport about 75km from Santiago. I got up before 5am. Mauricio came after 8am to serve breakfast. In the dining room I met Kamyla, a Brazilian young lawyer working for a NGO in Sao Paulo. She helped me find and book a hotel. By the time I was ready to leave, it was after 10am. I therefore dropped the idea of going to Valparaiso. Instead I explored downtown Santiago on foot.
Santiago was founded in 1541 and ‘El Centro’ is its historical part with the Plaza de Armas as its symbolic heart. The square is dominated by the statute of liberator Simón Bolivar, a magnificent fountain and hundreds of Chilean palm trees. Many colonial buildings including the neoclassical Cathedral Metropolitan built between 1748 and 1800 and the National Museum planked the square.
The Santiago downtown is exuberant with numerous remarkable landmarks. After visiting the cathedral, I went to Mercado Central which main hall is now filled with restaurants. Smelly fish stalls are located on the four sides. I love fresh seafood and have been to many fish markets in the world. This one is not appealing and I was disappointed with the seafood soup.
I crossed the road to visit the old Estacion Mapocho (Railway station) which main hall has been preserved and is now used for exhibitions and community functions. I walked back to the charming Plaza de Armas. It was Saturday and the streets were busy with shoppers. On my way to Barrio Paris-Londres, I strolled aimlessly along the streets and passed by the Opera House. Then I spotted a church with a very different architectural style across the road. It is the Church of San Francisco and I find the interior and ambience awesome. Barrio Paris-Londres is made up of two cobbled streets Paris and Londres lined with many impressive European style town houses. Most of the buildings have been turned into hotels or hostels. I could have stayed here happily!
My next stop was the National Library. I am impressed by how the opulent interior has been redesigned with a touch of modernity. Next to the library is Cerro Santa Lucia, another iconic landmark. I walked to the top for a view. But it was too hot and hazy. I continued walking along Av Libertardor B. O’Higgins, taking a quick look at Centro Gabriela Mitral, a modern cultural centre full of energetic young people who were dancing in the open space. When I passed by Bellavista, I decided to book a tour to Valparaiso instead of going by public transportation in a hot day. I paid 3,300 peso for a full day tour.
December 27 Sunday: Viña del Mar & Valparaiso
I was picked up by a minibus at 8:45am and the coach with some 40 tourists set off around 9:30am. The journey took some 90 minutes passing through the Casablanca Valley which is an important wine production region. We arrived in Viña del Mar, nicknamed the Garden City after 11am. We were taken to Park Quinta Vergara to see the Palacio Vergara built in 1908 in Venetian-style. It has been badly damaged in the 2010 earthquake and is now closed. We were taken to the Museo Fonck which focuses on Easter Island. An original moai (stone sculpture from the Easter Island) stands outside the museum. I did not go in as we only had 20 minutes. The guide took us to a restaurant near the casino (the oldest in Chile) where we had 90 minutes for lunch. I had my packed lunch by the seaside.
Around 3pm we finally arrived in Valparaiso which was once the leading port along the Cape Horn and Pacific Ocean routes. Its eminence disappeared following the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. Today, it is a popular stop for cruise ships and a working port for Chilean exports to Asia.
Valparaiso is a World Heritage Site known for its history, culture and architectures. Its topography and colourful houses on the hillside make it photogenic and interesting. The best thing to do is to stroll leisurely along the streets and ride some of the 15 ascensores (funiculars) built between 1883 and 1916 by the British. Our guide took us on a short walk in Cerros Concepcion and Alegre which are lined with traditional 19th century houses with painted corrugated-iron facades. When we reached Palacio Baburizza (now Museo de Bellas Artes, he arranged us to take Ascensor Concepcion, the oldest one built in 1883 to descend to El Plan. I had no time to really see or to gain a sense of the place.
El Plan, the flat commercial centre next to the port is atmospheric. Plaza Sotomayor dominated by the blue Naval Command Building and the Monumento a los Heroes de Iquique is magnificent. We had one hour free time. Instead of taking a boat trip to view the city from the sea, I walked on my own to take a closer look at the crumbling stone facades of the buildings which are remnants of times gone by and its former glory and prosperity. Hotel Reina Victoria where the Queen once stayed is still standing. Before rushing back to the coach, I managed to have a seafood soup for 4,600 peso. It’s excellent and most delicious. The bus departed for Santiago at 5:15pm and I got back to Bellavista around 7:30pm.
I had a short stay in Santiago in 1999 and could not recall where I had visited. Hence I am glad to have a chance to rediscover this gorgeous city. Valparaiso is also worth visiting. But I have made a mistake by joining a tour. I have wasted my time without seeing much of Valparaiso. I hope to return to Valparaiso if I come to South America for the fourth time.
I have been most fortunate to meet Kamyla in the B&B. She has given me so many tips about her city and let me share her room. Otherwise, I had to pack up and move to another B&B on the last night. I look forward to seeing her in Sao Paulo and hope to reciprocate one day.