The 11 hour bus ride felt more like 20, with no food supplied and the view of the 5M highway that runs 5,000 kms from north to south of the country. As we traveled north we followed the snow peaked Andes all the way. It was 8.30pm as we arrived at the dusty bus terminal (one of 5) in Santiago. Tired and looking for a good night sleep and meal we traversed the efficient local subway to reach the central square of Plaza de Armas, a beautiful square where our hostel was awaiting. Emerging from the underground subway we were in the center of of the square which comprised of a beautiful church, food stalls selling hotdogs and epanadas, a few palm trees reminding us that the temperature had risen 10 degrees from the south and city folk enjoying their Friday night before a long weekend.
Hostel Armas was hard to find but with no signage it was located on the sixth floor of an old 18 century building. Finally being directed to reception we greeted the hostel staff member and asked to ‘check in’. ‘You have a reservation?’, ‘yes we do for a private room booked on line.’ He fussed around for 10 minutes which now made it 10pm, sighed and went off to find his manager. They both came, viewed the computer booking system and then explained that ‘there was a problem…we have no rooms and have double booked’. With the city shutting down for the long weekend this wasn’t good news. After Murray showed his frustration, they ran around and booked another room for us at Hostel Rio Amazonas and paid for our taxi fare. Bonus. Hostel Rio Amazonas was a great surprise, in a quiet area of town and in an old Spanish mansion to which the owners colorfully decorated, they served a delicious breakfast and hot chocolate at night. We were happy.
The following two days were spent exploring the metropolis. With around 5 million inhabitants, the city was made up of key areas – El Centro, Barrio Bella Vista, Barrio Brazil and Providence. With a large university population Santiago is also recognised for international ties and exchange programs to which we met an Australian from Newcastle who was spending the next 12 months studying at one of the local universities. After landing 6 days before he couldn’t get over the ‘graffiti’ and ‘pollution’ of the city.
El Centro was a nice area comprised of wide boulevards lined with museums and bounded by the Rio Mapocho (which wasn’t much of a river but more a brown stream that ran down from the Andes). Walking a few kms south along the river and the tree lined boulevards we came across the central markets famous for fantastic seafood. Markets are always alive and interesting places, great for getting a feel for the culture of a new place and this was no exception. Chilean fisherman lined the stalls hollowing the specials of the day – prawn, crab, seashell and many other creates that looked more like something from out of space. In the center of the market were the restaurants set up to indulge in the local produce and we filled with families having their weekend meal together, tourists trying the national dishes and all the cats that lived in Santiago!
The smell was overwhelming so we thought we’d take a walk to Barrio Bella Vista in the north of town where it was described as the ‘eating place’ filled with cafes, restaurants and bars, the key area for a night out. As we walked out of the markets we noticed well above the horizon and towing above the city skyline the snow capped Andes mountains. The most bizarre sight looking more like an incoming tsunami or a set on a Hollywood production. They were just too monstrous to be real. They were also responsible for keeping the city trapped in a blanket of pollution that obstructed the view most of the time. Barrio Bella Vista was colorful, lively and filled with touts trying to get you to sample their menu del dia (menu of the day). A little more expensive and definitely a tourist hotspot we decided on an afternoon pizza and Astral local beer, well deserved after a 10km walk around the city. With Bob Marley playing in the background and the sun in the afternoon it was great fun. The tourists were all heading to Cerro San Cristoball, Santiago’s largest park retreat with a tram leading up the mountain to swimming pools and a zoo. Cerro Santa Lucia also offers residence respite from city life which we climbed a beautiful Spanish staircase to the top of the hill for some foggy views over the city.
Being that Sunday the museums were opened to the public for free, we took advantage and viewed a traditional culture museum and then toured some of the impressive government buildings in the area including parliament, the central station and a few older building which were partially destroyed in the major earthquake of 1985. Being the financial hub of Chile, a number of key corporates also resided their such as Microsoft and Yahoo.
Back at the hostel we meet an Australian family traveling with their 20 year old son. They had flown in to Peru to trek Machu Pichu, got altitude sickness and then were kind of stuck in Santiago as their plans to cross the border of the Andes to wine country in Mendoza, Argentina was not possible due to high snow levels. However we suggested they check out Valparasio – a world heritage site and one of the key ports in South America for trade back in its heyday. We had decided to go there next before heading into northern chile, so on Mondays public holiday, we packed up, caught the subway back out to another bus station and got two tickets to the colorful coast.