My nine-month South American backpacking trip started in Chile and, like most travellers, I didn’t know much about its capital, Santiago, before boarding the plane. My time on the continent was physically demanding, eye-opening, and a series of confirmations and contradictions as I put one foot after the other in search of authenticity.
People often talk about Rio, but if they took the time to walk the streets of Santiago then chances are that this would be the city they talk about the most; a foreign city that sometimes gets lost in the sea of content where Machu Picchu and Brazil – although awesome and deserving of such prominent highlights – reign supreme. Perhaps this is a good thing, especially for the traveller who yearns to get off the beaten path and face new experiences head-on, because if we aren’t travelling to experience something for the first time, something that’s special and hidden from our digital periphery, something that has, as far we can see, escaped the lens of an Instagram influencer’s account, then what’s the point of travelling halfway across the world?
The Spanish colonial architecture’s royal appearance runs through Chile’s capital like a pulsating electric vein, one pumping with a thriving restaurant scene and fun nightlife. When I write ‘fun’, I mean every branch of its connotation: Good. Positive. Upbeat. Friendly. Somewhat wholesome. Santiago’s bars, especially in the bohemian backdrop of Bellavista, are a refuge for local artists who busk the night away between Pisco Sours and ceviche as the night owls cut across blocks of street murals – as dazzling as anything in New York or Melbourne – before heading to “the big white place” for Chilean craft beers and pub grub at Kross Bar (signified by the running man logo, and yes, after your first plank you’ll be running back for more). Try the avocado and shredded pork pizza, and the K15 Cerveza Nativa craft beer (made with 100% Chilean ingredients) to really kick-start your night.
Patio Bellavista is one of the main stomping grounds during the day and night, and the perfect spot to pick up unique keepsakes (such as the copper native mask hanging on my wall, looking right at me while I write these words). The square has a ton of restaurants, all serving everything from traditional Chilean soups and stews to American-style burgers. Everything tastes as good as it looks (head to Barrica 94 for local oysters, short ribs and red wine), and once it hits 5pm, those bars you’ve been eyeing off come alive with people doing the rounds on impromptu bar crawls.
When the morning arrives and you’re in need of a hearty meal, head to Galindo for traditional Chilean empanadas and the garlic and pepper prawns. It’s a lowkey local joint reputed for home-style cooking at fair prices (look out for the red and green exterior on the corner of Dardignac 098), and a good meal is exactly what you’ll need if you plan on heading to Cerro San Cristóbal, the city’s answer to Christ the Redeemer (Rio) with the Virgin Mary at the summit, overlooking the mountain-ridged metropolis. There’s a wine museum on the walk up because, you know, water isn’t as fun a thirst-quencher as Chile’s world-famous grape drops! After taking in the incredible views of the snow-hooded mountains on the horizon, catch a train or taxi to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights – a place for thought, reflection, and education about the civic-military regime and the ensuing human rights abuses that defined former President Pinochet’s dreadful tenure.
Few museums in the world have touched me the way this one did, and it serves as a sobering reminder that in travel, it’s important to take the time to understand the history as well as the contemporary, in all of the places that you go, in order to get a sense of the political landscapes which shape societies around the world. While I’m confident you’ll be heading to Patio Bellavista for the colours, sounds and warm smiles afterwards, a visit to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights is another worthwhile layer in what is a remarkably beautiful city – arguably the most beautiful on the entire continent.
If you travel the way that I travel, and like to save some extra money for a special experience to treat your significant other (yes, looking in the mirror counts), give that bank account a slight shake and make a reservation at Boragó Restaurant. It’s an organic top-tier restaurant which operates on the premise of sustainable farming, supporting local producers (including buying directly from the fisherman themselves), and serving you the experience of a lifetime (right down to the Patagonian rain water). If there’s a better way to round-out sunny Santiago before catching a train to Valparaíso, then I’m yet to hear it.
While it’s an odd way to conclude a piece by talking about a sunrise, it’s something I’m going to do anyway. My first steps on South American soil were in Chile’s underrated capital. I made my way to the hostel’s rooftop balcony, walked over to the edge, gripped the iron railings and inhaled the crisp, cool air as the sky’s darkness found itself replaced by a golden burst of orange.
The Andean mountains were in the backdrop and in front of me was a bustling metropolis, its inhabitants waking up as the clock hit 6am. The sunrise was unlike anything I had seen before or since, anywhere in my native Australia or the 50 countries and innumerable villages, towns, and cities I’ve travelled to.
When my Latin American adventure ended some nine months later in Havana, Cuba, I thought back to this moment (as I do more regularly than you’d probably believe), and I smiled at the irony of it all. That I came to the world’s most spectacular continent to see Machu Picchu and Rio was more than understandable – it was expected – but to leave knowing that I took a chance on Santiago and it paid off in ways I wish other people could relate to, was the icing on the cake.
Life moves quickly and most moments never turn to memories, but that sunrise in Santiago is here to stay. And while droves of travellers will no doubt be starry-eyed for the Incan ruins and gritty charm of Rio’s fun-loving beach culture, I hope those of you who are reading this decide to go against the grain, and make space in your plans for Chile’s capital city.
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Feature image by Angela Maria, Shutterstock.