By Amy Eisinger
Skyscrapers bathed in the afternoon sunlight, backed by the pristine Andes Mountains. This is the view on a good day. On a bad day, the same scene will be covered in smog worse than anything Los Angeles has ever seen. In many ways, this contrast between modern progress and nature permeates much of the cultural climate in Santiago, Chile.
Many affluent Chileans, for instance, have never seen a homeless person, even though they live and work in Santiago. In recent years, Chile has been touted as the golden-child of economic development gone right in South America. With a steadily rising GDP and one of the highest percentages in South America of students who attend college, there are plenty of reasons to assume Santiago is just like any other international metropolis.
Upon closer inspection, however, this postcard perfect image gives way to another one: poverty. In many of the neighborhoods located to the south and to the west of Santiago Centro, including La Granja, Pudahuel and Peñalolén, tourists are seldom—if ever—seen. It would not be unusual to see seriously ill or malnourished individuals living on the street. Locals are often told to not trust the carabineros, the police, in such areas, as crime is an hourly occurrence and often overlooked. These neighborhoods, known simply as poblaciones (“poor neighborhoods”) seem to exist in a parallel universe in comparison to the more wealthy areas of Santiago.
Despite such differences, travelers can find plenty to do in Santiago, provided they are willing to head off the proverbial beaten path and speak some Spanish. Perhaps the best part about Santiago is the chance to experience a city still virtually untouched by tourism. So skip the usual rounds of cathedrals and museums and instead, head straight for St. Cristobal, a hill near the city center. From the top, climbers can observe a breathtaking panoramic of the city on clear days. If possible, climbing St. Cristobal shortly after it rains generally ensures a clear view. And, if climbing is out of the question, visitors can take a funicular for about $2. Back on the ground, don’t miss the chance to explore a feria, or neighborhood market. Going between 11am and 3pm ensures travelers will see the full scope of just about anything and everything, from cheap fruit and household items to pirated DVD’s and clothing.
After sunset there are certain comunas (neighborhoods) that should be avoided. In terms of nightlife, many bars and clubs are located on Pio Nono in a section of Providencia, known as Bellavista. Aside from Pio Nono, there is a less expensive area known as Barrio Brasil. This Chilean version of Greenwich Village, sandwiched between the comunas of Santiago Centro and Quinta Normal, offers laid-back cafes, intricate and colorful architecture, as well as an assortment of boutique-style shops. The slightly more intimate atmosphere of this area can be good for either a casual evening out or a leisurely cup of coffee in the morning.
Aside from cafes, comida de la calle (“street food”) offer good, flavorful food for the traveler on a budget. Among the most common snacks worth sampling are completos (like a hot-dog, with chopped tomatoes on top), and sopaipilla (flat, circular fried bread made of flour and squash or pumpkin). For a more daring dish, add aji, a spicy sauce made with peppers and onions. Also available are empanadas, a fried bread turnover stuffed with a variety of fillings like cheese or beef.
Visiting Santiago can be an unceremonious eye-opener for travelers unfamiliar with poverty. It can also be a welcome respite, as the city is nearly free of the “tourist traps” so frequently seen in places like London and Paris. Yet somewhere between these extremes of poverty, affluence and the Andes, travelers will find themselves immersed in a truly authentic cultural experience, one which is rich in beauty and ripe with life.
Photo by Amy Eisinger