28th February 2009
‘Be very careful,’ said Mauricio, as we climbed into the car. ‘Always keep your wallet in your front pocket and your backpack on your front. The pick-pockets of Santiago are very clever.’ Tourist guides the world over love to start with an introduction to their country’s criminal ways. It seems there is a certain pride in such things. I assured him I’d take good care.
At first glance Santiago appears pretty run down. I had been led to believe that Chile’s economy – fed mainly by the country’s copper and silver mines – was one of South America’s great success stories and if it’s true that you can judge a country's wealth by the cars on the road, then Chile is a prosperous nation. But besides the Mercs and BMWs, and a few shiny offices blocks situated near to my hotel, to the casual observer it certainly doesn’t appear that way. Walking down Avenue Apoquindo – the city’s main drag – most of the buildings look rough and run down, with graffiti splashed across the walls, windows covered in cardboard of polythene, some simply derelict. And if there is an interesting colonial building its usually sandwiched by concrete tenements and thereby loses its appeal. It reminds me of a communist city, like Tashkent or Kiev, with the wide streets of potholed asphalt, large squares surrounded by grey proletariat civic centres, the centre of one – opposite the Libertador building – even housing a giant star, and grey tower blocks. Perhaps that's a throw-back to the time of the Marxist Allende government... I don't know. True, its cloudy today with a light drizzle in which even pretty towns rarely look their best but I’m not sure that’s enough of an excuse. Buenos Aires has elegant Regaletta, trendy Palermo, chic San Telmo. For the first hour of wandering I am struggling to find anything comparable here. Undeterred I turn right, following a crowd, and suddenly find myself in La Plaza de Armas, a grand colonial square embraced by a Baroque cathedral, town hall, museums. In the centre, beneath the palms are statues of famous Chileans, now rubbing shoulders with balloon sellers, fortune tellers and artists that paint caricatures of the passers-by. Further on I come to the Central Mercado. This is a wonderful old building, open-sided with an elegant domed roof. Apparently it was built in Liverpool and shipped here over a hundred years ago. Inside is a combination of lively eateries specialising in seafood and fruit and vegetable stalls. Annoyingly I have just finished a sandwich otherwise I would certainly have been tempted. I think about bringing the group here tomorrow. As I walk outside again I hear loud music, lively samba – kettle drums, keyboards, bongos, harmonious singing – coming from just up the street. As I get closer I find Santiago’s answer to Take That doing an impromptu open-air concert. Dressed in turquoise sequin jackets and black pants, six young lads entertain the crowd with fantastic melodies and provocative gyrations. I like it so much I buy a CD for $2. The town that had seemed rather drab, lifeless, has suddenly some soul, some life, some colour. I like it.
After another hour's wanderings I jump back onto the subway and ride back to my hotel. Very annoyingly Delta lost my bag, so I can’t shave or change. Still it could have been worse, with high winds at JFK my connecting flight was cancelled and I nearly didn’t make it here at all. The group arrive tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. I just hope they’ve all brought enough warm clothes, what fell as rain down here today, may well be snow up there...