Set on a wide plain near the foot of the Andes, Santiago boasts one of the most dazzling backdrops of any capital city on earth. The views onto the towering cordillera after a rainstorm clears the air are magnificent, especially in winter, when the snow-covered peaks rise behind the city like a giant white rampart against the blue sky (though smog, unfortunately, often obscures such vistas). The city itself is a rapidly expanding metropolis of around seven million people, and though long in the shadow of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro has its own proud identity.
Santiago is divided into 32 autonomous comunas, most of them squat, flat suburbs stretching out from the centre. The historic centre, in contrast, is compact, manageable, and has a pleasant atmosphere. Part of the appeal comes from the fact that it’s so green: tall, luxuriant trees fill the main square, and there are numerous meticulously landscaped parks. Above all, though, it’s the all-pervading sense of energy that makes the place so alluring, with crowds of Santiaguinos constantly milling through narrow streets packed with shoe-shiners, fruit barrows, news kiosks and sellers of everything from coat hangers to pirated DVDs.
Architecturally, the city is a bit of a hotchpotch, thanks to a succession of earthquakes and a spate of undisciplined rebuilding in the 1960s and 1970s. Ugly office blocks and galerías compete for space with beautifully maintained colonial buildings, while east of the centre Santiago’s economic boom is reflected in the glittering new commercial buildings, skyscrapers and luxury hotels of the comunas of Vitacura, Providencia and Las Condes. These different faces are part of a wider set of contrasts – between the American-style shopping malls in the barrios altos, for example, and the old-fashioned shops in the historic centre; between the modish lounge bars and the greasy fuentes de soda; and, in particular, between the sharp-suited professionals and the scores of street sellers scrambling to make a living. It’s not a place of excesses, however: homelessness is minimal compared with many other cities of its size, and Santiago is pretty safe.
Although it is not Chile’s most dazzling highlight, Santiago is a cultural, economic and educational hub, and the best place to get a handle on the country’s identity. Dipping into the city’s vibrant cultural scene, checking out its museums, and dining at its varied restaurants will really help you make the most of your time in this kaleidoscopic country.
You can get round many of Santiago’s attractions on foot in two to three days. A tour of the compact core, centred on the bustling Plaza de Armas, should include visits to the Palacio de la Moneda, the excellent Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino and the evocative Museo Colonial, followed by a climb up Cerro Santa Lucía. Less strenuous options include lunch at the colourful mercados Central or La Vega.
North of downtown, on the other side of the Río Mapocho, it’s an easy funicular ride up Cerro San Cristóbal, whose summit provides unrivalled views. At its foot, Barrio Bellavista is replete with cafés, restaurants, bars and clubs, plus the former home of poet Pablo Neruda, now a wonderful museum. West of the centre, the once glamorous barrios that housed Santiago’s moneyed classes at the beginning of the twentieth century make for rewarding, romantic wanders, and contain some splendid old mansions, including Palacio Cousiño. Moving east into the barrios altos of Providencia and Las Condes, the tone is newer and flasher. Apart from shiny malls, there’s less to draw you out here, with the notable exception of the crafts market at Los Dominicos.
Santiago is also a great base for exploring the surrounding region. With the Andes so close and accessible, you can be right in the mountains in an hour or two. In winter people go skiing for the day; in warmer months the Cajón del Maipo offers fantastic trekking, horseriding and rafting. Heading west towards Valparaíso you’ll also find good hiking opportunities in the Parque Nacional La Campana. Nearby villages such as Los Andes and Pomaire can provide a relaxing antidote to Santiago’s bustle. Still more tempting are the many vineyards within easy reach. There are also a number of excellent beaches less than two hours away.
Some seven years after Francisco Pizarro conquered Cuzco in Peru, he dispatched Pedro de Valdivia southwards to claim and settle more territory for the Spanish crown. After eleven months of travelling, Valdivia and his 150 men reached what he considered to be a suitable site for a new city, and, on February 12, 1541, officially founded “Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura”, wedged into a triangle of land bounded by the Río Mapocho to the north, its southern branch to the south and the rocky Santa Lucía hill to the east. A native population of Picunche was scattered around the region, but this didn’t deter Valdivia from getting down to business: with great alacrity the main square was established and the surrounding streets were marked out with a string and ruler, a fort was built in the square (thus named “Plaza de Armas”) and several other buildings were erected. Six months later they were all razed in a Picunche raid.
The town was doggedly rebuilt to the same plans, and Santiago began to take on the shape of a new colonial capital. But nine years after founding it, the Spaniards, in search of gold, shifted their attention to Arauco in the south, and Santiago became something of a backwater. Following the violent Mapuche uprising in 1553, however, the Spaniards were forced to abandon their towns south of the Bío Bío, and many returned to Santiago. Nonetheless, growth continued to be very slow: settlers were never large in number, and what opportunities the land offered were thwarted by strict trade restrictions. Moreover, expansion was repeatedly knocked back by regular earthquakes.
Santiago started to look like a real capital during the course of the eighteenth century, as trade restrictions were eased, more wealth was created, and the population increased. However, it wasn’t until after independence in 1818 that expansion really got going, as the rich clamoured to build themselves glamorous mansions and the state erected beautiful public buildings such as the Teatro Municipal.
As the city entered the twentieth century it began to push eastwards into the new barrio alto and north into Bellavista. The horizontal spread has gone well beyond these limits since then, gobbling up outlying towns and villages at great speed; Gran Santiago now stretches 40km by 40km. Its central zones have shot up vertically, too, particularly in Providencia and Las Condes, where the showy high-rise buildings reflect the country’s rapid economic growth over the past decade. Despite this dramatic transformation, however, the city’s central core still sticks to the same street pattern marked out by Pedro de Valdivia in 1541, and its first public space, the Plaza de Armas, is still at the heart of its street life.