City visited: Santiago, Chile
City Rating: 7 (robust food and wine, exhilarating skiing, rich local culture)
Our AA Abroad: Evan Russell, medical student and public health worker. While a student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Evan traveled to Chile on a research assignment.
Should you visit Santiago? Our AA says YES! Here’s why:
Santiago, Chile offers all the fun and food you might expect of a South American city with all the 3G coverage you’d expect in southern San Francisco. Set against the towering Andes, Santiago offers world class skiing alongside historic beachside towns.
Even with limited Spanish, many of the amenities of Santiago remain very accessible. The modern subway system and its stylish Chilean patrons reflect the city above. Divided roughly into neighborhoods, a trip through Santiago alternates between quiet suburbs, bustling shopping centers and European boardwalks. As engaging as the city is by car, bus, taxi or even bicycle, the real fun starts when you hit pavement and begin your exploration on foot!
Any visit to Santiago should start with the food and any meal should start with pastel de choclo. This corn-based dish is like a Chilean Shepherd’s Pie complete with meats, olives, onions and an oddly enchanting hard boiled egg. Familiarity with the phrases “hola” (hello), “gracias” (thank you) and “yo quiero pastel de choclo” (I want “pastel de choclo”) will ensure a polite impression and a happy palate at any dinner table. Seafood is another big hit in Chile. As you’ve likely had Chilean fish in the past, shoot directly for their shelled bottom dwelling companions. While the mountains may fool you, Santiago is virtually a seaport and your food will reflect it. For the more adventurous eatera mollusk inhabiting a volcano like shell and sea urchin are unique tastes offered locally.
At the risk of muting the exciting flavors ahead, many Chilean meals start with a delicious local wine. Although one personally enchanted by Shiraz and Syrah, Chilean whites provided a pleasant reprieve from these more aggressive reds and a fitting complement to the native seafood-centric cuisine. If you’re just starting out, ask for a local recommendation and then hone your future pairings from there as you discover the regional nuances of Chile’s seemingly ubiquitous wine country.
The transition from casual dining to Santiago’s nightlife is not complete without a pisco sour. This unique drink, a combination of tequila-like liquor, lime, salt and a small amount of the seemingly omnipotent egg, this delectable concoction is a great sidekick to any evening. Depending on your scene, Santiago offers some interesting options although be prepared to shift your timeline as most nightspots are barren until 2am. A few fun places include El Tunel a popular dance club for the younger crowd with a decor that readily indicates its seedy past Some live salsa music at one of Santiago’s Cuban restaurants will have more than a couple of the bar’s patrons interested in your potential Cuban heritage which, even if non-existent can be a great conversation starter with some friendly folk.
Whether you’ve enjoyed a night of electronic, salsa, rock or jazz, reward yourself with a hot dog from any of the late night beer gardens or street vendors. Forgo the usual mustard, ketchup and relish, because palta (avocado), tomato, mayo, salsa and/or cheese are the centerpieces of this fast food treat (egg optional this time). When you’ve finished your meal or it has finished you, hop in any of the cheap taxis and enjoy the pleasantly familiar sense of fear as the driver urgently delivers you home.
Whether following a night of revelry or relaxing, any good breakfast includes “pan con palta” (avocado with bread) along with a little cheese and possibly yogurt. Made from local ingredients, vendors selling avocados line many major highways, this simple breakfast is a pleasant preparation for any day that will be spent exploring the city.
While public transit is efficient and safe, walking will quickly orient you to the city structure and whet your appetite for another tasty lunch or dinner. A great place to start is the Presidential Palace.
Notable for a brutal dictatorship in Pinochet, Chilean government has since stabilized with regular elections and smooth transitions of power. Although the President may no longer be seen grabbing coffee at a local café, the palace itself and the adjacent cultural center are great places to enjoy the arts including a free cinema and periodically local music. Surrounding the palace are a labyrinth of passages alternating between small roads and large footpaths. Make your way toward the old market where the lingering smell of fish and sense of antique grandeur compete for your attention.
From day trips to full week excursions, Santiago offers some exciting outings and some convenient ways to get away. For all visitors to Chile, a vineyard tour is a must. Just a few miles from the city center, is a small estate vineyard, identified by its looming antique brick cellars and wide sandy promenades. Inside, the exterior grandeur dissolves with a casual greeting from the resident sommelier confirms your reservation and invites you to join one of their daily tours. Starting with the old cellar, the dimly lit gigantic barrels of imported French Oak and perhaps your first glass of wine may distract you from your guide’s lively narrative, in English and Spanish, on the history of the vineyard and Chile.
Conclude your tour by purchasing a few bottles of wine at the front desk or enjoying a final glass with other members of the tour. While public transit does serve this suburb, the bus schedule can be confusing so the convenience of a rental car (along with a designated driver) or a cab are good bets for your journey back into the city.
Back in town, head to any of Santiago’s neighborhoods for an afternoon of fun. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is a great places to stop as is the nearby park, a lively area packed with families and jugglers. Wandering in any direction will lead you through small neighborhoods and bustling commercial areas interspersed with historic monuments. Duck into almost any cafe and enjoy a coffee and a sweet slice of the rich dessert, tres leches before continuing your exploration. Although generally safe, check-in with a local ahead of time if you’re planning on being out particularly late and always use your best judgment. As the evening wanes, check out a movie in either English or Spanish in any of the major malls or shopping centers.
For those with a little more time in Chile, a solid foundation in Spanish will be advantageous. Language schools like Escuela Bellavista offer affordable classes and private lessons In addition to being a great way to learn Spanish, many schools offer social activities in the afternoons and evenings which are great ways to meet locals and other visitors.
Use these new or refreshed language skills on some short trips outside of Santiago. The city of Valparaiso is well worth the short bus or car trip out to Chile’s coast. Having played an important part in the life of several notable Chileans including Pablo Neruda, Augosto Pinochet and Salvadore Allende, Valpo’s humble blend of small streets and aging buildings don’t betray its notability as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Walking through the undulating hills that compose this port city, you will notice the remarkable vibrant works of art adorning buildings, doorways and alleys. While perhaps mistaken for graffiti because of their location, these purposeful works of art, often inlaid with mirrors and tiles, stand out even amongst the colorful houses up and down the mountainside. Conclude your day with a visit to El Huevo, a five story music and dance venue featuring multiple types of music, people and entertainment.
When you’ve tired of the beach, head back to Santiago and the slopes! Whether an experienced skier/snowboarder, a beginner or just know a snow enthusiast, no winter visit is complete without a trip to the ski resorts high in the Andes. With a variety of companies offering both rentals and transportation, the quick trip from Santiago to the resorts is a sightseeing experience itself. Make sure to bring your camera as even the base of most resorts offer breathtaking hundred mile views.
After a long day of skiing or relaxing, head back to Santiago on your tour bus or, for the more affluent traveller, spend the evening lounging in Valle Nevado‘s outdoor jacuzzi overlooking the slopes. As with most places in Chile, Valle Nevado accepts credit cards and ATMs are plentiful so rest easy if you’ve only brought plastic.
For those looking to range even further, the glaciers in southern Chile, Easter Island, Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay are great options.
Chile offers some amazing experiences both personally and culturally. Whether keen to explore Latin American culture, brush up on some Spanish or simply the great outdoors, you will enjoy your trip to Chile. Despite its distinctly metropolitan feel, Santiago hasn’t been settled by as many immigrant groups outside of South America as have other cities on the continent. While you can certainly find “Black Music” at stores, there are very few tourists or locals of African descent which can make some of the culturally specific amenities you may enjoy at home hard to find. Similarly, while you may find yourself a rarity, Chileans tend to be very friendly once you’ve gotten to know them. Whatever the duration of your travels, Chile has a lot to offer and will be well worth your trip!