Finding Sanity in Santiago – a Layover Guide…

I really don’t recommend back to back long hauls, at any time, but especially if your wife is 6 weeks pregnant… That, for some reason, is what we chose to do. A 10 hour flight to Sydney followed by a 14 hour flight to Santiago, with next to no break in between. Covering some thousands of nautical miles and jumping 24 hours back in time as we crossed the international date line, all the way from Hong Kong, a mere eleven-hour change in body clock. But… we made it. Santiago, Chile, and the start of another epic HollyDave.

To be honest our initial impressions of Santiago were a little muted. Perhaps it was because we already live in a hectic city, or that exploring cities is effectively written into my job description. At any rate, we hadn’t traveled all that way to visit another city. The magic of Chile, after all, lies well beyond the boundaries of Santiago. That said the city did warm to us and is well worth a couple days, should you have the time, to regain a little sanity if nothing else. Here are some suggestions.

GO?

Santiago is a relatively easy city to navigate with the majority of sights and major districts hugging the rather ugly Mapocho river that runs roughly East – West through the city, passing south of the Cerro San Cristobal. (The San Cristobal hill which can be easily seen from most areas of town.) Conveniently the rather inexpensive yet efficient metro roughly follows the same path and would be my recommended way to get around when not exploring the various districts by foot. The roads themselves can get notoriously busy and taxis are not reliable when it comes to charging you a fair fare. If you have to, may I suggest grabbing an UBER instead.

SEE?

Art lovers would be in their element here. A number of decent art museums abound, including the quirky Centro Gabriel Mistral arts centre that houses a number of ever changing exhibitions. If you’re into graffiti, the colourful neighbourhoods of Bellavista and Brasil are both worth a gander. However if you’re really into graffiti art, then I can highly recommend doing a day tour to Valparesso. We did it as a combined tour with a company called Isto e Chile that included Vina del Mar and a stop at one of the major Casablanca wineries. Frankly it felt like a box ticking exercise and the ugly seaside port of Vina del mar can definitely be missed! Still Valparesso itself is well worth exploring. If you choose to go, may I suggest finding another organiser who will just tour Valparesso so you can spend more time there. Alternatively you can make your way own there by bus.

For the best views of Santiago you have three options. The first is the relatively cheap gondola to the top of Cerro San Cristobal Hill. We tried to go up on our last day but turned away when we saw the size of the queue, so perhaps try on a week day and head there early to beat the crowds. Alternatively, for arguably better views and with little to no queuing involved (at least when we went), I can highly recommend heading to the top of Costanera, South America’s tallest building. The downside here is the price which is significantly more. The secret third option, for free and with no questing involved, is to hike up to the look out point inside the quaint Cerro Santa Lucía park. The views aren’t quite as good but is a decent option for those who are on a budget and/or hate queuing…

If you’re a history buff you can head to the Museo de la Memoria to learn about the brutal 17 year Pinochet dictatorship which opened to commemorate the victims of his regime. We made a stop at the fascinating La Chascona, the former house of romanticist and Nobel prize winning poet Pablo Neruda, which can easily be combined with a trip up the gondola of Cerro San Cristobal hill and a wander around the Bellavista neighbourhood.

EAT?

The best two restaurants we ate at during our time Santiago happened to be located next to one another in the wicked Lastarria neighbourhood. The first was CHPE LIBRE – an excellent restaurant run by a very enthusiastic group who are famous for their Pisco sours (a drink that originates from northern Chile/southern Peru and is made using fermented grape juice). If you’ve never tried it before, I highly recommend heading here for your introduction. The food, staff and Pisco sours (of course) were all outstanding.

Sat right next door is a fantastic little wine bar/resto called BOCANARIZ. The staff are accommodating and extremely knowledgeable. One neat aspect were their tasting trays where you can order smaller portions of several wines to try with your meal. We ordered a number of creative tapas to share for starters, followed by some stunning pork ribs for a main. The food was exquisite! I recommend booking ahead.

One other restaurant we really enjoyed was 99 RESTAURANTE located in the Providencia district close to the Costanera Centre. We went for lunch as dinner was completely booked. They offer an ever changing tasting menu and depending on whether you go for dinner or lunch, they offer a wine pairing. As it was lunch we didn’t have this option but took their recommendation for a wine to have with their 6 course set lunch menu (2 starters, 2 mains and 2 deserts). In particular we loved their empanadas and deserts. Again I would book in advance.

One restaurant I strongly recommend NOT GOING TO is PEUMAYEN. Although the concept is great (they have a menu that showcases different food and produce from across Chile) we found the staff to be disinterested and food completely uninspired, lacking much in the way of flavour. It’s a shame that such a restaurant – which I suspect was at one point decent – has yet again fallen victim to the Lonely Planet affect (it comes highly recommended by). This place is a tourist trap, clearly milking their previous reputation and seemingly no longer bothered because they don’t have to be. Sadly you can’t win them all. I urge anyone else to spend your money elsewhere.

If you want to get a better idea with regards to the food scene in Santiago, plus learn a little about the origin of Chile’s cuisine, I can highly recommend doing a FOOD TOUR instead. We booked one of the Mercado Central with FoodyChile led by the very personable Colin. The tour was extremely informative and a great look at the local market life. We absolutely loved the little market restaurant where we stopped to try a couple of local bean and meat stews along with some crispy sopaipillas (a bread made from flour and pumpkin fired in hot oil). While you’re in the area I might also make a point of stopping by the famous Empanadas Zunino for one of their, you guessed it, piping hot empanadas. Bliss…

SLEEP?

Santiago has, as you’d expect, a large variety of accommodation options that suit all budgets. We decided to book at the Rio Amazonas hostel, not far from the nightlife/foodie districts of Bellavista and Lastarria. The idea being, as we prefer, that we would could sight-see elsewhere during the day, but finish with dinner and drinks much closer to home. If you‘re on a budget we can highly recommend it. We got a comfortable double bed and bathroom with breakfast included. The staff was were very accommodating, happy to give suggestions plus book transport to/from the airport.

If you prefer something a little fancier we also spent one night at the Hotel Magnolia located very close to our favourite neighbourhood Lastarria. The rooms are of a very high standard and the staff were very friendly. Breakfast is included in the price.

PLAY?

The way I see it there are 3 major excursion-type activities you can do from Santiago depending on your preference.

If you love the outdoors then I highly recommend booking a tour to the beautiful Cajon del Maipo. We didn’t as it was mid summer and baking hot, and Holly was pregnant. However the scenery is undoubtedly spectacular and among numerous activities includes hiking, horse back riding and rafting.

If arts and urban exploration is your thing then consider spending a day exploring the quirky seaside town of Valparesso which I mentioned earlier.

Thirdly, if you’re a wine (or alcohol) lover then I highly recommend doing a wine tour to either the nearby Casablanca region or, if you can spare more than a day, the Colchagua valley.

CONCLUSION

It took a while for us to warm to Santiago, but once we did we were happy we had decided to spend a few days here. It’s a great city to stroll around with numerous leafy parks and hipster neighbourhoods to get lost in. On its door step are beautiful beaches, world renowned wine regions and an outdoor paradise in the Chilean Andes. Add to the mix a wicked art scene, cracking nightlife and some world-class restaurants, and you really have everything you could possibly want from a capital city. It certainly served us well to recover, before setting us on our way to fall in love with this spectacular country…

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