A soft (and hard) landing in South America
27.04.2014 - 04.05.2014 19 °C
We arrived in Santiago on a late Sunday morning, the streets were quiet so it was hard to get an immediate sense of the city. We had been told it is one of South America's most westernised cities with a big American influence, good for us as it was probably an easier introduction to the continent.
One of the first things to strike me was the light. It was soft and hazy, almost as if we were looking at everything through a soft-focus lens. It was warm at 22c but the sunlight was weak - like a November day in eastern Europe. Santiago's air quality can be quite poor, especially in winter. It's nestled in Chile's central valley with the Andes as a backdrop - smog collects in the valley and further hills within the city itself effectively act as a windbreak, so pollution just hangs in the air.
We had a bit of a strange week in the city... it's fair to say it was a stay of two halves. I promise not all the SA blogs will be this long but there are so many contrasting experiences to talk about and I guess everything's still very much a novelty!
The first day was a bit of a write-off as we had slept so little on the 11 hour flight from New Zealand. We'd zipped back in time to the tune of 16 hours so we'd more than flipped our day/night. It was the worst jet lag we've ever experienced and our body clocks were totally screwed. It was nonetheless very amusing and weird for us to arrive in Santiago before we'd taken off in NZ - the longest day of our lives!
It took us more than half our time here to re-adjust and get over the jet lag... for the first 4 days we were mostly in a zombie-like daze! But our second day proved very entertaining. After a late and lazy start (due to PING! eyes wide open at 2am) we caught the metro to Plaza de Armas - the main square lined with impressive buildings. Unfortunately for us it was going through a refurb so the central plaza was boarded up, but we could still admire the surrounding buildings, including a look inside the beautifully ornate Catholic Catedral Metropolitana.
A cute bar off a main street for a post sight-seeing pitstop, we were served by a Chilean Carol Vorderman
There were plenty of bars and eateries within walking distance of our B&B, we stumbled across lots of great places... including one doing 2-4-1 cocktails... cue Kir Royals for just £2 each! We found a buzzing bar/restaurant packed to the rafters (this was on a Monday night) and it wasn't long before the guy next to Ant struck up conversation (in English I should point out - our Spanish is miles away from entering conversational realms). As he left to go home to his wife, gesturing a cut throat if he didn't, he was instantly replaced by two Chilean guys who were just as happy to chat. One didn't stick around but Juan Carlos Sanchez (no I didn't make that up) chatted for another hour about Santiago life. We finally left the restaurant around 11.30pm having had a very unexpected and really fun evening. People seemed really friendly and we concluded that they were all keen to practice their English on us, plus we were also a bit of a novelty judging from the rest of the Chilean clientele.
We both awoke on Day 3 with an almighty hangover as a nice accompaniment to the jet lag. We had to write that whole day off... oops... but I think that's a first on the whole trip.
After our initial experiences we were excited about being in this vibrant city with its new sights, smells and sounds. Our 'travelling flames' had definitely been relit and our initial feelings of intrepidation were becoming alleviated.
Then it started to go a bit Pete Tong.
We decided to check out the central market and 'La Vega' - a vegetable market across the river. Our B&B host had said that the central market was very touristy and La Vega wasn't in a great area so we needed to be careful. The first market was a big disappointment. We were expecting locally made crafts and the chance for a souvenir of Chile, but it was predominantly made up of fish stalls (mmm Ant's favourite!), and empty cafes and restaurants (presumably to cater for all the tourists - who, incidentally, were very thin on the ground).
The river we crossed to La Vega
Onto the vegetable market... we couldn't see any other tourists anywhere and with our host's warning ringing in our heads, we started to feel a bit uneasy. Then an older woman turned to me talking in Spanish and pointed at my camera. The only word we picked out was 'dangerous' but that was enough to know it was time to put it away.
The area was really run down and after a brisk walk around, neither of us were particularly enjoying the experience so we headed out. I would have liked to have taken some pics to show what it was like but I didn't want to get the camera out! We were getting a lot of stares and stuck out like a very large sore thumb. Perhaps our paranoia was on overdrive.
We'd only booked 3 nights at the B&B and decided to spend our remaining 4 nights in another district. Having found a cheap but lovely apartment, we gave the address to the B&B to call us a taxi. He commented that our new location was "a bit sketchy but you should be ok." Hmmm. The taxi driver spoke in Spanish to us the whole way despite us saying we didn't speak any, but with hand gestering and a limited knowledge of words we picked up a very key point. As he drove down our road, which wasn't looking appealing, he said "it's not safe to walk here after 6.30-7pm." Cripes!!! That news put us in a very solemn frame of mind.
Before we set off we said we'd never do anything that would significantly jeopardise our safety, so we made the only right decision and cancelled our booking. A valuable lesson learnt that our first priority in South America has to be location, location, location! Our second attempt was infinitely better and we secured a cosy apartment in Bellas Artes, close to the main sights. We slept well that night...
The next day was Labour Day, a public holiday when virtually everything shuts... including museums, galleries and the metro. It's never great to be a tourist on these days! In Chile, it's also a chance for a workers' union to hold their annual street protest and invite 150,000+ citizens to join in. We didn't know this when we set foot out the door. We were greeted with the empty shopping streets we were expecting and a significant armed forces, police and armoured vehicle presence we were not.
At first we were intrigued and excited by the commotion, drum noise and crowds on the main thoroughfare, but after seeing a smashed glass window of a bank and law enforcement running down the road holding riot shields, it was time to get the hell out! We noticed most windows had been boarded up and all shop front shutters were down - it was all a bit uninviting. We retreated to our base and googled what the heck was going on. Lordy, this city was dropping down our favourites list faster than the demise of Max Clifford.
Quick shots I managed to get
With the streets looking desolate the city took on a very different feel
An example of a beautiful building in need of some tlc - a common sight
After what felt like three wasted days - hangover day, changeover day and Labour Day - we ended Santiago on a high.
We squeaked another wineries tour in (should our blog be renamed GlobalGalavino?) to the Maipo Valley wine region. It was grey and cold so it had a very different feel to our other vineyard visits, as indeed did the overall experience. The two wineries we went to - Santa Rita and Concha y Toro - were huge, by far the largest wine production we've seen. The cellars were vast, housing a staggering number of bottles, oh and the onsite factory can fill up to 12,000 bottles an hour, all ready for distribution. Blimey.
You may recognise this Chile wine brand 'the devil's cellar' - from the Concha y Toro winery we visited
The devil's cellar
After a thick blanket of cloud for several days, the sun shone for our last day and we were up and at 'em to see more of the city. It was so different in the sunshine and we got to tick off some of the highlights. I'll let the pics do the talking - think I've done enough!
The view from Santa Lucia hill towards the Andes and the tallest building in South America
The city's smog clearly visible
A pharmacy and a sex shop. A packet of aspirin and errrr... something for the weekend please
A cuppa Santiago style - frothy milk with tea bag dipped in. Surprisingly delicious!
A beautiful mosaic floor of a craft market
We watched the changing of the guard which takes place every other morning outside La Moneda, the Presidential Palace. Fascinating to observe the pomp.
And on our last night - a Saturday - our street erupted with a huge procession... loud, colourful and infectious. Amazeballs!
Viva South America!