Day two in Chile
28.10.2016 - 28.10.2016
Exploring the city
Street musician in Providencia
Our first challenge on the first day of our visit to Santiago was to change some money. It’s quite hard to get Chilean pesos ahead of your trip and also not advised, as exchange rates outside the country are very poor. But when we first arrived in Santiago we found it a bit of a challenge to change some of the US dollars we were carrying into pesos. We hadn't done so at the airport as we knew the rates would be less favourable and also that we would find exchange bureaus near our hotel as there are several near Manuel Montt Metro station. However, although it was only about 4.00 PM when we ventured out to visit these, they had already closed for the day, as had the banks. So we used plastic to pay for dinner that evening and the next morning tried again. The banks open at 9.00 AM but the exchange bureaus, which we would have used as a preference, were still closed at 9.30 and we wanted to get on with some sightseeing, so a bank it had to be. The first one we tried, Santander, had a very long queue controlled by numbered tickets (they were serving #12, we would have been #35, and only one person was serving!) At the second bank, Itau, we were told they could only change money for us if we had an account at the bank, which of course we didn't. But in the third, Scotiabank, we struck lucky – no problem serving non-customers and only one person ahead of us in the queue. Money changing sorted, eventually! Time to head into the city centre …
Baquedano Metro station
Being used to the complexities of London's Underground network we found the five line Santiago subway pretty simple to navigate. Stations are marked with a large sign showing three red diamonds (I think intended to represent a stylised M for Metro) and easy to spot. The lines are numbered (although slightly confusingly there is no line 3 and instead a 4 and 4A) and colour-coded, and we used two of them during our stay, the red (line 1) and green (line 5). As well as the line number and/or colour, you need to know the direction of travel you have to take – that is, the terminus station – as platforms are signposted with these. Platforms also have useful maps of the immediate area around each station which you can check when you alight if there are multiple exits.
You pay a flat fare for travel anywhere in the city, but the price varies according to the time of day, with three categories covering peak time travel, a mid-priced general fare and cheaper early morning and late night fares. We travelled on the general fare (“Horario Valle”) which applies between 9.00-18.00 (and 20.00-20.45) and cost us 660 pesos for a single trip (November 2016 prices). To access the platform you put your ticket into a slot at the barrier. You don't get it back by the way, which threw us a bit at first, and there are no checks on exiting. The trains were busy at all the times that we travelled, even though they were very frequent – this is obviously a popular way to get around the city. Stations are all announced in Spanish and English, and signposting on the platforms and walkways is very clear.
Some of the stations have interesting art work. The mural in my photo above is on the concourse of Baquedano station and is one of a series depicting “common Chilean people and subway users” – you can read about them and the artist here: Art on the Santiago metro
Every Spanish colonial city has its Plaza de Armas, where once the occupying army soldiers paraded, and Santiago is no exception. As elsewhere, it occupies a single block within the gridded street pattern of the city’s historic centre. It is surrounded by a number of buildings dating from varied periods (older and more modern) and with a varied degree of interest for the visitor. Among the more notable are:
~ Catedral Metropolitana, dating from around 1775 (see separate tip)
~ Correo Central, in an elegant 1882 Neo-classical building
~ Palacio de la Real Audencia, once home to the country’s supreme court and now to the national history museum
~ Municipalidad de Santiago or City Hall
Just off the square is the acclaimed Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino as well as the city museum, Museo de Santiago – the latter housed in one of the few 18th century buildings left standing, the Casa Colorada. But I found the centre of the square itself of more interest than its surroundings, as it’s a great place for people-watching and also has some interesting statues and sculptures. My favourite of these was the one in the south-west corner – a monument to the heroism and courage of the Indigenous People, by the sculptor Enrique Villalobos. In the diagonally-opposite corner is an equestrian statue of Pedro de Valdivia, founder of Santiago and in the centre of the square a fountain which is dedicated to “the glory of Simon Bolivar”.
There are plenty of benches on which to sit for a break from the hard work of sight-seeing, and shade if needed from plenty of trees including tall palms and my favourite jacarandas. The latter were luckily in bloom at the time of our visit and providing a canopy of purple across the square (and indeed much of the city). I love jacaranda trees and Santiago is a great place to see them as they are planted all over the city, in its parks and squares and lining some of the main streets and avenues too. I spent quite a bit of time trying to capture their soft purple shades on camera, with only limited success (part of the challenge is that their colour doesn’t contrast well with blue skies, so you need a different back-drop).
Jacarandas are native to South and Central America so it’s not surprising to see them thriving here, although today you can find them in tropical and sub-tropical climates all over the world (they are one of the charms of Lisbon, one of my favourite European cities, and earlier in 2016 I had enjoyed seeing them in Faro while at the VT meet there). But how lovely to see them at home here in Chile!
There were also a few craftspeople and artists in the square, with stalls set up to sell their work, and for a while a busker playing in the corner near the monument to the Indigenous People.
We chose to ignore the traveller’s unofficial rule that warns against buying coffee at any establishment in the main square rather than cheaper places in the surrounding streets, and sat for a while at one of the outdoor cafes on the west side, finding the cost of our cappuccinos pretty reasonable when you factored in the pleasant setting and people-watching opportunities.
Santiago’s imposing cathedral sits on the west side of the Plaza de Armas. I choose the word “imposing” deliberately, as I found it somewhat solid and grand rather than attractive. It was built during the second half of the 18th century, replacing an earlier cathedral which, like so much of Santiago, had been destroyed by earthquakes. In fact, four other churches or cathedrals have stood on this site – the first of them the Iglesia Mayor de Santiago, founded by the city’s founder, Pedro de Valdivia, whose statue stands in the north-east corner of the Plaza de Armas, facing the cathedral. This current building was altered near the end of the 19th century to create its present-day appearance (with the towers added in 1879 and an ornate façade designed by Italian architect Ignazio Cremonesi), and was declared a national monument in 1951.
There is no charge to visit inside, though it would be nice to leave a donation, and photography (without flash) is permitted. It is certainly worth exploring, with rich Baroque decoration and elaborately painted ceiling. The main altar is of white marble and was made in Munich in 1912. Above each of the two side aisles are attractive semi-circular stained glass windows featuring various saints. Beneath the altar a simple and much more sombre crypt houses the remains of past bishops of Santiago.
Wherever we travel we enjoy visiting local markets – and by “local” I mean a proper produce market where local people shop rather than a tourist-focused one with craft and souvenir stalls (though one of us likes the latter too – guess which!) Such a market is a great place to learn about a country’s culture, or at least its eating habits, and provides loads of good photo opps.
Santiago’s Mercado Central doesn’t quite fit the bill as a “local” market – a fish market, it has largely been taken over by seafood restaurants, most very firmly targeting the tourist peso. Of course, this means that if you fancy a fishy lunch it’s the perfect destination, but we were here too early in the day for this and in any case Chris isn’t fond of fish. Just the same, we enjoyed our visit here and did find those all-important photos.
For one thing, the building itself is interesting – a wrought-iron structure dating from 1872, with an ornate roof and a pretty fountain at its centre. In the halls to the side of the main space we found a proper working market, with plenty of stalls selling an interesting variety of fish and seafood and men in rubber boots hauling in crates to top these up. And as a bonus a friendly cat had found a perch on the edge of the fountain and was happy to pose for tourist photos!
Our visit to Santiago coincided with the build-up to Halloween, a festival which Chile has apparently embraced, importing some of its customs from the US. The result is a mish-mash of Latin American Day of the Dead commemorations and fancy dress Trick or Treat shenanigans. A few days before the end of October we found the shops in the streets between the Plaza de Armas and the Mercado Central full of witches, ghosts and skeletons while not only young children but also teenagers browsed the costumes and masks on display. Our guide on a trip to Valparaiso the following day, Sergio, told us that fancy dress parties for teens are as popular here as the Trick or Treat fun for the younger ones.
There are those in the country though who resent the intrusion of this commercial festival into the sacred Day of the Dead traditions, which here usually consist of fairly low-key family visits to cemeteries to picnic by the graves of family members and remember a shared past. I found the following anecdote online which, while dating from some years ago, illustrates the tensions between the two festivals:
“… on Halloween 2000, an elderly Chilean lady, as religious and superstitious as one could be, was boiling hot water for tea when someone knocked on her door. When she opened it and saw a small devil standing in front of her, she was frightened out of her wits. She panicked, picked up the kettle and threw boiling water at the little devil. The parents of the child in devil costume took the old lady to court. She was found not guilty for an obscure reason to do with being ignorant of the festivity and defending herself from the devil in her own home.” Andrea Carter
From the Plaza de Armas area we headed next to the Cerro Santa Lucia. Every city needs parks and Santiago has several, both small and large. This is one of the smallest but it is also arguably the most central and possibly the prettiest. It is perched on a rocky outcrop (“Cerro” means “hill”) and was laid out in the 19th century at the instigation of one of the city’s mayors, Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna (incidentally, what a great name – vicuñas are such lovely animals!)
Winding paths lead you up the hill past a series of terraces with interesting statuary and lovely planting till you reach the top, from where you get expansive views of the streets below. The contrast between the tranquillity of the park and the busy traffic is even more marked than is usual in a city park because of this birds-eye view.
My favourite of the statues here was perched high on a rock by one of the upper terraces. It depicts Caupolican, the most famous leader of the indigenous Mapuche people. This is the work of Nicanor Plaza, who was only 24 at the time of its creation in 1868, and it has in its time caused some controversy because of its likeness to a North American native rather than South. Some theorise that Plaza was trying to make a sort of Chilean “last of the Mohicans” figure, somewhat romanticising the struggles of the Mapuche. This may be, but the statue nevertheless provides a dramatic feature in the park and lured me into taking several photos of which I think I like the one above the best.
Day two will continue in the next entry