For the last decade or so, Chile has been a very stable government with a burgeoning economy. But it has had a fascinating history in which the country experienced oligarchy, military rule, police state, democracy, socialism, free market economy, human rights violations, extreme recession, export based recovery, everything in between, and yet has somehow survived it all to come out on top. Chileans are a pretty chilled out bunch as they have been through a lot, and now want to savor their new found freedom, and (relative) prosperity. Santiago, the capital of Chile, is also it’s cultural and financial center, and is where one can experience this spirit.

We arrived early afternoon in Santiago, and had sufficient time to do a half day city tour. We needed some refueling first, so Patricia, our guide, suggested we have what the locals have when they need a quick lunch…empanadas with ensalada chilena. It was “muy bueno”! (It took us a while to switch from saying “muito bom” in Portuguese). I got myself a kuntsmann cerveja (beer) since unlike the locals, I wasn’t going back to work. From there, we headed to the Plaza de la Constitucion to take a quick look at the Presidential Palace, and other government buildings.

Plaza de Armas, the central square of Santiago, was only a few blocks away from our hotel (Galerias Hotel). The square is surrounded by colonial era buildings like the San Agustin Church, and the central post office. Many of them had to be rebuilt multiple times due to earthquakes that have hit this city periodically. There was a lot of activity on the streets which made for good people watching. Patricia asked us not to get too close to a gathering around a street comic, lest we become the butt of his jokes! From there, we proceeded to Mercado Central (Central Market) where fish, meat, vegetables, etc. (based on the smell, I’d say fish primarily) are sold. I guess Indians are in short supply in these parts of the world…several vendors wanted to know where we were from, why Uma wasn’t wearing a bindhi 1 on her forehead, etc….folks seemed inquisitive, but in a friendly way.

We made a quick stop at a jewelry maker that specializes in a semi precious stone called Lapiz Lazuli. The jewelry making process was interesting to watch. Lapis is found in limestone mines in a few countries like Afghanistan, and Chile. Fortunately, Uma did not find anything she really liked even after scouring the store…whew!

San Cristobal hill was also part of our tour. It has a Virgin Mary statue on top. ‘Statue on hilltop with city view’ is a downright popular theme all over South America…sort of like the ‘temple on hilltop’ theme one might observe in India. We saw lots of hikers, bikers, and joggers along the road as we effortlessly drove up…we did however do a short hike at the very top.

There are decent views of the city from up there, but foliage and other obstructions come in the way of a true 360° view.

We headed to the Bellavista neighborhood at a pretty late hour one night. There were a series of connected courtyards with restaurants, bars, and a few clubs. The place was teeming with people, and had a great vibe to it. We settled on a Mediterranean restaurant called ‘El Antojo de Gauguin’…Uma enjoyed her lamb dish, and my falafel sandwich hit the spot. Though tired, we felt compelled to walk around a little more before heading to the hotel.

We were warned to avoid hiring a parked taxi, the theory being that such taxi drivers may be looking specifically for tourists to dupe. So we walked to the nearest busy street, hailed a passing taxi, and asked the driver to turn on the meter, por favor. In general, our taxi experiences were uneventful. On a couple of occasions, we were taken on a merry go round and charged more than usual, but that is to be expected in any country.

Other dining places we tried were El Huerto in Providencia, El Naturista in downtown, and Majestic, all of which had good vegetarian options. El Naturista was great for lunch, and Majestic was well, majestic! The coffee at Wonderful cafe in Lastaria, was pretty good. Due to the frequent occurrence of seismic activity in Chile, it seemed like most establishments carried some sort of “in case of earthquake” instructions to the effect of “don’t panic, duck under a table and stay put”.

On our last day in Santiago, we decided to just walk around downtown and adjacent neighborhoods. The Santa Lucia hill was within a few blocks of our hotel, was fun to hike up, and had way nicer views of the city than San Cristobal, even though it is a shorter hill. Adding to the atmosphere, were folks practicing martial arts, fencing, and someone (me) being blown away by a canon (see pic).

We walked around the Lastaria, and Bella Artes neighborhoods, which had more of a university/artsy/bohemian feel to them. There were several book/music stores, cafes/restaurants, stalls, and street artists, as we walked around. I bought a Chilean comic book to add to my collection of comic books I can’t read. We stopped at this really awesome restaurant/cafe/bar/hangout/shop/arts-display/leftist-newspaper-printer/whatnot called “Bar the Clinic”…it seemed to occupy multiple floors or maybe the entire building…it was hard to tell as we walked up and down checking out the fantastic murals painted all over the walls. If we had one more evening to spend in Santiago, this is the place we would have headed to.

Santiago was one of our favorite cities from this trip. It is a fun cosmopolitan city that has a lot to offer regardless of who you are: foodie, health nut, history buff, party animal, etc. We also felt it was a little easier to get by on limited Spanish here than in other South American cities.