The Plaza de Armas is the centre of Santiago and the country, both literally – all distances to the rest of Chile are measured from here – and symbolically. It was the first public space laid out by Pedro de Valdivia when he founded the city in 1541 and quickly became the nucleus of Santiago’s administrative, commercial and social life. This is where the young capital’s most important seats of power – the law courts, the governor’s palace, and the cathedral – were built, and where its markets, bullfights (no longer allowed), festivals and other public activities took place. Four and a half centuries later, this is still where the city’s pulse beats loudest, and half an hour’s people watching here is perhaps the best introduction to Santiago.
These days the open market space has been replaced by flower gardens and numerous trees; palms, poplars and eucalyptus tower over benches packed with giggling schoolchildren, gossiping old men, lovers, tourists, indulgent grandmothers and packs of uniformed shop girls on their lunch break. Thirsty dogs hang around the fountain; shoe-shiners polish the feet of dour businessmen clutching El Mercurio; and ancient-looking chess players hold sombre tournaments inside the bandstand. Against this is a backdrop of constant noise supplied by street performers, singers and evangelical preachers. Meanwhile, a constant ebb and flow of people march in and out of the great civic and religious buildings enclosing the square.