How I fell in love with Santiago

The guidebooks are unanimous – avoid Santiago. To be fair, I can see where they’re coming from. I arrived at the end of August 2010, the tail end of winter: grey sky, acrid air and monotonous concrete buildings.  I emerged from a taxi onto a virtually deserted street in downtown Santiago Centro. Several hundred metres away a neighbourhood security guard was huddled in a glass cabin. In the distance, a black canine streak, somewhat reminiscent of the grim, frantically chased cars whipping along Diagonal Paraguay. 

When I left Santiago for the final time ten months later, the sky was equally grey; heavy clouds trapped above pressed down on the capital.  By that point it was winter again, but through that spring, summer and autumn, I had fallen head over heels for Santiago.  As flat mates can testify, I spent a large amount of time complaining bitterly about the weather, the transport, the noise, the pollution, the prices, the dogs… but there is a fine line between love and hate.  So, here are three ways in which Santiago de Chile seduced me. 

It began with the first flat I moved into.  Not, I have to say, the flat I arrived at on that very grey day in August. That flat was an unmitigated disaster; no heating, a shower with either a trickle of scalding water or a freezing torrent, and a landlady with a more than relaxed attitude to use-by dates. My first flat was perched above Salvador metro in the heart of Santiago. A thin glass balcony ran the length of it. Satellite dishes and wires protruded from the apartment block’s 1970s exterior, a sharp contrast to the Art Deco and colonial buildings opposite. 

Santiago is nestled in a deep basin, hedged between the Cordillera and the Andes. This brings a myriad of problems, including smog so bad you can’t see more than a few blocks away. One night, shortly after moving in, it rained; a rare occurrence in Santiago. The morning after, the sky was crystal blue. To the south and the east, the Andes were drenched in fresh snowfall. To the north, Cerro San Cristobal loomed up, a lush mountain in the middle of the city. Below the green vein of Parque Forestal ran through the centre of the city alongside the Mapocho River; it was the first day of spring.

As summer drew closer, Santiago took its next step. I took an executive decision to stop going to the gym in order to save money to put towards a trip down south.  Instead, I decided to run in the park, which was, in theory, a perfectly rational decision.  However, there was the unanticipated problem of the dogs. Cities in the UK have pigeons, in Greece they have cats, in Latin America they have dogs. The ‘kiltros’ (street dogs) act more as communal pets than pests.  They are guard dogs on the way home at night, sources of heat for tramps on the street at night and as an incentive to run very, very fast. I credit the dogs in Santiago with not only keeping me safe at night, but pushing my running to a whole new level. 

After I returned from travelling around, I moved…next door. On the top floor of the apartment block, the flat had once had an open-air terrace. At some point it had been closed off with glass sliding windows but the original tiled floor and flowerbeds still remained. The flat itself was huge with the same views stretched out over the city, but the cold autumn air again trapped in the car exhaust and factory fumes. At sunset, the entire city was overwhelmed with a rose coloured haze. 

One afternoon, we returned from a cheeky trip to La Piojera. La Piojera is an infamous watering hole, just off the central market.  They only serve one drink called a 'terremoto' made with vino pipeño and topped off with ice cream.

On the former terrace, we decided to have an ‘asado’ (BBQ); chorizos in ‘marraqueta’-style bread, known as ‘choripan’, and huge chunks of beef simply pasted in salt and spices, and then barbecued.  The national Chilean obsession for meaty BBQs is only rivalled by the Argentineans.  

Having celebrated Chilean food and drink, we continued onto music. Three hours later, we had somehow arrived at a concert for Banda Conmocion, one of the most popular live performance bands currently in Chile. They are essentially a twenty-man brass ‘cumbia’ band. If this doesn’t make them different enough, they enter every concert weaving through the crowd whilst playing their instruments, accompanied by one member of the band dressed as a red devil and another as a gypsy. Add to this bizarre situation, an old warehouse with anti-government posters hanging off the rafters and a thousand or so twenty-somethings, frantically dancing a strange mix of salsa and cumbia; it’s an experience that no guidebook could ever tell you about. 

And that is why I love Santiago; it’s incredibly grey, ugly and dull from the outside, but on the inside it’s unbelievable.

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