Travel writer Laura Botia writes about Snowdonia National Park and the diverse range of activities and landscapes this corner of Wales has to offer.Written by Laura Botia on 16th March 2018
Travel Diary | Chile
Travel writer Ben Smith sings the praises of South America's elusive destination, Chile
“Why on earth would you want to go to Chile?”
My Spanish classmate stands in one the corridors of the university, staring at me quizzically. I think for a moment, then shrug.
“I don’t know really… I mean… it just sounds like an interesting place, doesn’t it?”
His expression doesn’t change and I suddenly realise, at that moment, that I don’t have an answer to his question. Why am I going to Chile? It’s miles away. 7,381 miles to be exact. The furthest I’d travelled before that was to Portugal on a family holiday. Hardly adventurous. Now, for some reason, I’d decided I was going to the other side of the world and that was that. No real reason other than it “sounded interesting”, apparently. My classmate shakes his head and walks off.
Flash forward three months from this awkward encounter in the corridor and I’m stood outside the Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport in Chile’s capital, alone, confused, tired, a bit cold and absolutely buzzing. I spent eight months over in Santiago for my year abroad, but I’m going to condense it into a typical day that would leave you exhausted yet incredibly cultured by the end of it.
One of the most interesting and surprising things about Santiago is that once you’re there, it’s very easy to forget that you’re in South America. After arriving at the city centre (I paid well over the odds for a taxi journey from the airport by the way) I could have fooled myself into thinking I was in Madrid. There weren’t tiny indigenous-looking people with big hats riding along dusty roads on the back of donkeys (that would come later). Instead, there were roads, pavements, cycle lanes, streetlamps, cars, parks, cinemas, gyms, Starbucks, McDonald’s. It all felt very…European. That was until I noticed the looming mountain range in the distance, its snow-capped peaks visible from miles away – that didn’t really happen in Madrid. Nor did the sight of stray dogs chasing motorbikes up and down a busy road. That’s the strange thing about Santiago. One second you feel like you’re just around the corner from everything you know, and then suddenly you see a man walking around with a llama on a lead and you’re hurtled back to the reality of being thousands of miles away.
One of the reasons Chile has this modern, European feel is that it’s the most developed nation in the region, having enjoyed a long period of economic prosperity in the 20th century. This has undoubtedly taken away some of its cultural identity, however, it has also brought some advantages. There’s a sea of cafes, restaurants and bars offering all varieties of food on every corner. Most travel guides will point you towards an area called ‘Bellavista’, yet a short stroll away from the grotty, tourist-filled streets of this area will take you across a park and into the ‘hip’ neighbourhood of Lastarria. Here, the cafes don’t have indoor seating; instead, you can eat the food on the benches just out the front, or better, whilst walking along the cobbled streets where vendors are stood selling art, jewellery and second-hand books. A favourite of mine was Buffalo Waffles, where they give you a waffle filled with anything from strawberries and cream to pastrami and cheese for just five quid (or 3,500 Chilean pesos). No brainer.
On the topic of food, it must be said that traditional Chilean cuisine isn’t actually that great. Even the Chileans themselves admit it. Avocado is a bit of a delicacy back in England but in Chile, they use it so much that it starts to become a bit like ketchup or mayonnaise, while they insist on putting sugar in almost everything. However, geography has been kind to Chile and, being on the border with Peru, means that there is a whole range of amazing Peruvian restaurants serving some of the best food you’ll ever try (without an avocado in sight).
After filling yourself up on a waffle or three, the next logical step is to go on an indigestion-inducing hike up Cerro San Cristóbal, the giant hill overlooking the city, featuring a large statue of the Virgin Mary at the summit. The locals will tell you that the best time to go up is just after a day of rain. This is because the city sits in a valley between mountains, meaning the pollution from the cars and factories gets trapped, forming an almost constant layer of smog, and hence obscuring the view. Although considering that the average rainfall in Santiago is less than four days per month, its unlikely you’ll be lucky enough to see the views smog-free. The walk takes around half an hour (alternatively you can take the funicular) but boy, is it worth it, particularly if you’re there for the sunset.
Next stop is the beating heart of the city, Plaza de Armas. This place was the central meeting point in Santiago after the Spanish conquered the city in 1541 and, to this day, it has a buzz like nowhere else I’ve experienced. The receptionist at my hostel told me sternly: “Keep a lookout. They’ll pickpocket you at any opportunity,” meaning I spent my first few visits there with my hands firmly in my pockets, eyeing everyone who came near me with extreme suspicion. Nevertheless, I soon realised that although Santiago is known for its high levels of pickpocketing, as long as you’re always vaguely aware of your surroundings, you’ll be fine. In my entire time there I wasn’t robbed once and I’m never vaguely aware of anything. Surrounding the Plaza is the cathedral, history museum and within a short walk, the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, that features an astonishing collection of pieces from the time of the Incas. Most of the museums and galleries in the capital are free to visit and may just ask you for a small donation.
Travelling all the way to Santiago and not trying the famous ‘terremoto’ drink would be like visiting London without shimmying your way to the top of Nelson’s Column, wearing an ‘I heart London’ t-shirt and singing ‘God Save The Queen’; for the sake of being cultural, it should be tried once. The best place to find these is a bar called ‘La Piojera’ and is certain to provide you with that ‘South American feeling’. It’s always rammed with locals and there’s usually a little man with a hat playing guitar in the corner. Like the majority of Chilean food, these drinks are horrible, however, people love them for one reason: they get you hammered. Oh, and they’re cheap. Translated to literally mean ‘earthquake’ for their ability to make your legs go wobbly, terremotos are made up of wine, grenadine, fernet and pineapple ice cream (told you they were disgusting). However, just three of these will have you dancing on the tables with the rest of the locals. Just remember to watch your pockets!
At night, Santiago comes alive. ‘Pionono’ is the city’s central strip of bars and nightclubs, offering everything from techno to cheesy classics. The bars are fairly cheap and vary widely in style. One thing, however, is that not just Chile but the entire Spanish-speaking world are obsessed with a genre of music known as ‘reggaeton’. At first, I didn’t mind it. It gets you in the mood for a night out and is quite good fun after a few drinks. But after you’ve heard it every single day, in every shop, supermarket, bar, club, restaurant and taxi, it starts to drive you mad. If you think ‘Despacito’ is getting on your nerves, try spending a few weeks in Chile. Apart from that, you’re almost certain to have a good night out on Pionono and it won’t break the bank either.
Overall, Chile really is a special country. Santiago will most likely be your first stop should you visit, however, there’s so much to explore beyond the capital, from the surfing beaches in the west to the vast desert in the north to the stunning glaciers in the south. Without a doubt, a trip well worth the effort. I’ll never be stumped by anyone asking questions in the corridor again. Well, probably not.