Our cruise dropped us off at the port in Valparaiso, Chile, just a couple blocks from the bus station. Tickets to Santiago were mercifully cheap, even last minute, ($5/US) and the ride was under two hours. Like many other places in South America, drivers love speeding as soon as they are on a road with any sort of space. The highway goes by many wineries, which we took as a good sign.
The forecast for our arrival was “smoke,” which turned out to be sadly accurate. Chile was in the middle of the worst wildfire season in its history and scores of separate blazes were burning in the regions around the capital. The air was so thick that breathing was scratchy and our eyes watered overtime. We booked our apartment in part because of the mountain views, but hills just a mile away were barely visible. More than a million acres have already burned, along with vineyards, whole farms, towns, homes. Several lives were lost in the fast-moving fires. Thankfully most of the fires are now under control due to the efforts of thousands of locals and tanker aircraft crews (with some help from slightly cooler weather). We have seen several small fires on hills around the city, or at least little thin clouds of black smoke rising in the mornings, but so far those have been quickly brought under control.
Santiago is another massive, sprawling city, and when we finally did get a clear day, we walked over to Parque Metropolitano to take the funicular up the hill. There were large sprinkler systems that seem to run around the clock, no surprise given the country’s recent experiences. Several hundred feet up, we had a great view of just how far the city stretches – we couldn’t see an end to the buildings except in places where the land became too steep to build on in the mountains’ foothills.
At the top were the usual stray dogs, ice cream stands, and mote con huesillo carts. The highest point on the hill is home to a statue of the Virgin Mary and a sanctuary garden and chapel celebrating. the Immaculate Conception. A concrete are was full of candle holders and rosaries left in thanks.
Gondolas run from near the summit toward the Costanera Center, the tallest building in South America, and the Bellavista neighborhood. We started at the stop and turned it into a shopping trip to the Costanera mall, saving ourselves an extra mile of walking each way. Heading back later in the afternoon, the wind picked up and came whistling through the gondola windows and swaying the cab. Not quite as fun. The start and end of the trip is extra exciting because the cab speeds up or slows down rapidly and barrels toward the one in front of it. More rollercoastery than I expected.
A muddy and polluted river runs through the middle of the city, confined to a home in concrete flood control barries. But the city has turned much of the riverfront into a park that forms a greenbelt with bike and walking paths connecting large portions of the city center.
Other parks contain one of my favorite spaces, Cafe Literario, a mix of cafe, library, and public work space. You can come in and read any of the thousands of books on the shelves, have a coffee, use the free wifi. There might be a patio outside as well. Their central locations in parks means they act as gathering places as well. Definitely a relaxing space in the middle of such a vast city.
We visited the Chilean Museum of Precolumbian Art on one of its free first Sundays. It showcased a much wider range of cultures than we expected – focusing not just on civilizations from inside Chile’s borders, but from all around Latin America. I’m always struck by how modern (and even futuristic) some of the pieces look and the wide range of beliefs and traditions. Didn’t know until we visited that some places here mummified their dead centuries before the Egyptians got around to it, and then cared for their ancestors for centuries after they passed away. Or that in other valleys, it was traditional to be buried with a statue of yourself (if you were lucky and wealthy) with a puffed out cheek full of stimulant leaves to chew on to show off your status.
Naturally the art museums were also on our list, though Contemporary Art Museum, which is run by a university, was closed for summer break. The free-to-enter Bellas Artes Museum remained open and had a fun collection of Chilean art. Some more modern pieces being showcased looked as though the artist smashed soap operas, my 8-year-old-self’s Lisa Frank sticker collection, and bad ’80s album covers together. Brilliant, in other words.
We are already down to our last days in Santiago, and have a few more places we want to visit. Sadly, Kevin has had some serious computer issues this month and now we need to spend time computer shopping rather than playing at tourists.