14th October 2014
Most guidebooks will tell you that Santiago is not as exciting as Rio or as elegant and enchanting as Buenos Aires, and should be used only as a gateway to the rest of the country. To some extent this is true, however, I feel it is still an interesting place to explore for a day or two. This is my second visit to the Chilean capital and both times I have enjoyed it.
Like many large Latin American cities, Santiago does suffer from schizophrenic urban planning where the city’s impressive colonial past is often dwarfed and obscured by its far less attractive modern present; the city is littered with ugly tenement towers and, since its emergence as a regional economic powerhouse (Chile has the highest GDP per capita in South America), glass fronted office blocks.
However there are still some really impressive sites to check out including the main square – Plaza de Armas (although this is currently undergoing renovation), inside the impressive San Pedro Cathedral, the Palacio Modera (the city’s main museum), Santa Lucia Hill and the Mercado Central, where I enjoyed a delicious king crab lunch. Curiously, so my waiter informed me, the roof of the Mercado Central was actually made in Birmingham in 1864 and shipped out to Chile in 1872. If, like me, you find such things interesting, you’ll also enjoy a stroll past the Estacion Central, which was designed by a certain Gustav Eiffel – check out the picture, if you didn’t know you could probably have guessed. All this is easily done in a day.
Santiago is also reinventing itself as a gastro city and the highlight of my stay was dinner last night at a really great restaurant called Bocanariz, situated just next to my hotel in a district known as Lastarria. Lastarria is an up-and-coming neighbourhood bordering the central old town and, like Palermo in Buenos Aires or Notting Hill in London, is awash with cool cafés, bars, boutique hotels and restaurants. What makes this establishment so special though wasn’t just the food, although that was first class, it was the wines. They have over 420 different Chilean wines on offer, 38 of which you can get by the glass, and the glasses range in size from 50ml to 150ml, meaning you really can try a few. I thought this was an excellent idea for wine lovers like myself; without much idea of Chilean wines, it gave me the chance to sample a few different types and discover which ones I really liked. Needless to say, it was a very good evening.
I'm now sitting on the plane heading north to the Atacama Desert, with a surprisingly clear head. Goodbye towns, hello wild nature…