Composed and elegant on the outside Santiago has a wild side. Stay awhile and you just might find out...
Expect: Busy streets, excellent shopping, great nightlife and incredibly friendly and helpful people (once you break the ice).
Pack: A nice pair of shoes (shoes make a look), credit card and Spanish phrasebook (even a little bit of Spanish will mean you experience a very different Santiago).
Weeks of wandering the Patagonian wilderness had ill prepared me for the smog and noise, bustle and choice, of Chile’s prosperous capital. As I swayed haphazardly on Santiago’s crowded subway, the pollution caught in my throat, making me cough uncontrollably. I felt like I was back at home; back in London. This sense would stay with me throughout my stay in Santiago.
Some wax lyrical about how Buenos Aires is “so Paris”, but they are often Americans (or Argentines) who have never been. Buenos Aires might look the part, but for me, Santiago, with its balanced, formal and occupied manner, was much more like the European cities that I know. Indeed, for many, Santiago’s high-rise apartments, giant malls and exotic restaurants are so similar to home they leave after just a few days mumbling, “this is not what I came to South America for”. This is a mistake. Santiago might seem a little distant or inaccessible on arrival, but a bit of perseverance reaps its rewards.
Beneath the efficient, composed exterior, student radicals push against old-timers who wish Pinochet was back; fresh artists and writers converse ambitiously in the numerous little cafes; and the frantic, sexed-up nightlife throws Santiago’s day-time caution to the wind. Latin America’s famous passion is here for sure, but years of repressive dictatorship have pushed it just beneath the surface. For a feel of the ‘real’ Santiago head to its famous Plaza del Armas, one of the most exciting central squares in Latin America. Here you check out the history museum, the stunning cathedral, or just sit and watch the city’s colourful characters play chess, paint, vend and perform.
Most of the cheapest hostels in Santiago are situated in Barrio Brazil. This so-called bohemian district has a number of small cafes and nice restaurants. However, the place hardly crackles with excitement and in many ways the good hang-outs are too sparsely spread for the area to take on a hearty character. Instead you get whiffs of cool; the great bar you stumbled into one night when you were lost (and drunk) – and can’t find again, or the bustling cafe/club with great music and quality people which the next day (when you’ve brought your entire hostel) is deserted and playing Shania Twain. However, the good places are definitely there (somewhere) and if you have the time and the energy to find them you will be justly rewarded with a more gringo-free insight into this fascinating city. I would recommend this place for long stays.
However, if like most backpackers you are on a tight time-frame and want a small, trendy and accessible district that will quickly allow you to explore the perks of Santiago then Bellavista is the place to go. The hostels are a tad more expensive, as are the cafes, bars and restaurants, but the upshot is instant gratification. This place hums with activity, with a huge choice of quality establishments. It is no surprise that Neruda’s Santiago pad is situated here.