Santiago has a bevy of food options. I was initially disappointed with the food selections because they largely resemble the U.S. Same brands, same quality, and in some cases just disgustingly unhealthy. The Completo is one of the worse “dishes” I have ever seen and it’s on pretty much 75% of the menus in the city.. It’s basically a skinny hot dog with mounds of guacamole and mayonnaise. Not until I specifically started dining with Chileans and searching for Chilean restaurants that I discovered the quality food in Santiago.
I’ll start by saying Chileans can EAT. The average body of Chileans largely reminds me of southern Texas/northern Mexicans. I soon discovered this is largely due to the VERY similar diets. Santiago food culture is surprisingly diverse. From Korean Bulgogi to Peruvian Ceviche (Peru has a huge showing on the Santiago food scene and for good reason). You can find anything you like (but the quality may not be the same as home). Where Santiago really shines is with traditional Chilean dishes as expected.
I LOVEEEEEEE pico de gallo. It’s my favorite condiment. Lucky for me, Chile has an almost identical offering called Pebre. After doing some research on the dish I can safely say, it’s basically the same thing.
You can also find excellent variations of common Spanish dishes such as Empanadas and Sopaipillas. Although very similar to their cousins, I find Chilean variations to be more hearty and filling. Especially Empanadas when compared to say Argentina.
I could go on and on about the food but I’ll save some dishes for my time with a traditional Chilean family which introduced my new favorite alcoholic beverage. And DELICIOUS potatoes for my papa fritas.
Pebre: A salsa/pico de gallo like garnish for pretty much everything from meats to bread
Empandas: large pastries filled with meat, vegetables, and whatever else you can think of. Careful, most have a whole olive inside that still has the seed. (try from La Nona in La Reina Santiago)
Reineta Fish: I’m not a big seafood eater but I loved this dish grilled.
Pan amasado: a biscuit like bread served with pretty much every meal. Very filling and tasty. Good with jam or Pebre
Marraqueta: I believe I had this every day. Traditional chilean bread with a hard crust and soft center.
Vino con chirimoya: My new favorite alcoholic drink. Basically wine with fruit in it. I had never had Chirmoya before and fell in love.
Proximity to Nature
Not enough can be said about how blessed the residents of Santiago are from a purely naturalist point of view. Santiago is basically in a fish bowl formally known as the Santiago Basin. The gorgeous Andes are to the east of the city and Chilean Costal Range to the west. The rest of the cities borders are covered in vineyards. The Mapocho River (which is more of a stream than a river now due to urbanization), which begins in the Andes, flows right through the center of the city. This location in the Basin has it’s pros and cons.
Pros include beautiful parks such as Parque Metropolitano and Parque Forestal, fertile soil for growing delicious grapes (wine) and potatoes (papa fritas), and a central location for some of the best skiing in the world. These spaces provide spectacular views of the city, it’s residents, and the mountains not to mention fairly mild weather in general. I visited in the middle of winter and found it ridiculously nice to the point where all I wore was a hood and long sleeve fleece (I actually skied in a t-shirt). I would say the average temperature during my stay was about 55 Fahrenheit (about 80 on the mountain). This amazing weather also lends itself to fairly frequent open air bazaars and street vendors. The location does have one glaring drawback. Pollution.
The smog in Santiago is a BIG environmental problem I hope they get solved quickly. About 80% of the days you couldn’t see the mountains because of it. Santiago is undergoing a bit of an economic boom right now. The prices of vehicles has drastically dropped recently and an increase in cars has caused a major issue. Chile does have a pollution control driving restriction program but having sat in their traffic and seen the smog, I can say it’s not working very well.
Tour with La Bicycleta Verde: If you can’t ride a bike then obviously you can’t go BUT if you can, this is the best way to see the city. Take the morning tour. The evening tour can be a bit much with traffic and everything.
Skiing in the Andes: Even if you can’t Ski. GO. The views are breathtaking. Although on the expensive side, the snow of there is second only to Colorado.
Chileans know how to party. Now they aren’t quite Brazilians but they know how to have a good time. It might be the copious consumption of ridiculously cheap wine or that drinking starts at 10 am. I don’t know. But I do know it leads to some pretty interesting nights. And let me mention right now. The mixed drinks in Santiago are STRONG. Quick example:
I go out to a salsa club called Maestra Vida with some hostel friends. Me and an Aussie saunter up to the bar and he orders a gin and tonic (he actually asked what a gin and tonic was in Spanish……yeah…). It just so happened I was chatting with the tender making the drink while Aussie was scanning the place. He filled the glass about 75% with gin. Aussie turns around and grabs the glass. Me and the bartender both yell whoaaaaaaa. You need the tonic. lol. He goes, “That’s all gin?!?!?!?!? And that folks is how they get down in Santiago.
The major bar scene is located in Barrio Bella Vista. A bohemian area complete with great street art, open air markets, and university students. You can find places in Barrio Brazil and Provedencia but no place has as much variety as Barrio Bella Vista.
Although very fun, nightlife in Santiago isn’t particularly unique. Nothing about it stands out more than any major westernized city in the world. What does stand out are the people. Chileans are quite laid back. Every bar and restaurant has a very similar vibe. Not much douchebagginess to speak of (except in one area where the noveau rich are). On any given night you might see traditional Chilean Cueca dance performing in the middle of the street, a drum team, or a guitarista serenading people dining on the sidewalk. This relaxed and free spirit translates to VERY public displays of affection.
In all my travels I haven’t seen a place where people are so openly affectionate with each other. Go to any park in the city and you’ll see dozens of couples making out and heavy petting. I’m talking very raunchy in some instances. I’m no prude but the first few days it caught me off guard. It’s almost like a competition. And this isn’t just with the youth. You see the elderly going at it as well. It really is hard to not stare out of pure fascination coming from the U.S. where sexuality is shunned in the public eye.
I applaud South America in general for their progressive views on sexuality.
Maestra Vida: A kind of hole in the wall on the corner of the two main bar strips in Bella Vista (Constitucion and Pio Nono). Sunday nights offer a very diverse crowd for salsa nights and they easily have the best drink prices (and strength) in the area. Beware of the cops though. Twice they showed up checking identification and writing tickets for people drinking outside the club while smoking.
Bar Constitucion: It’s a very western style club. Nice open design with your typical techno/dance/hip hop mainstream music. Kind of a place to be seen in Bella Vista.
Patio Bella Vista: Not so much a club than a food/shopping court. Several times walking through I stumbled upon art exhibits and events. Very good restaurants and laid back yet upscale atmosphere.
Black’s: This is one of the famous “cafe con leche’s”. Coffee with legs. Basically a coffee shop with strippers (they don’t strip). Depending on where you go the women are in various stages of undress. From neon thongs to start breast pasties. Worth a trip.
Club La Feria: Kind of has that douchbag vibe but some people like that. Reminds me of every club in Vegas/Miami but not as good. Prices are accordingly ridiculous. Not a bad place if you’re into this kid of venue
Piano Bar @ The Aubrey: This is a little kept secret. The Aubrey sits behind a huge gate which would lead you to believe you can’t visit. Not the case. At night (around 6pm) they open their fantastic piano bar. Prices are a bit high for the area but you are paying for the ambiance and privacy. Take a date here. You won’t be disappointed.
Quick spin off from the previous point. Chileans are amazingly nice. Especially the older Chileans. It seems that you have two kinds of Chileans. The go with the flow types and the blame everyone else for their problems types. Luckily most are the go with the flow types. Now with this comes one EXTREMELY annoying habit. Chileans are notoriously late ALL THE TIME and it drives me nuts. I tried to understand it but I never will. I just can’t. A friend said I was a time Nazi. Maybe I am but I’ll be there when I say I’ll be there. Ok, rant over.
99% of Chileans I met seemed genuinely happy to meet me and curious about why I was there (African-Americans are like Unicorns in Chile). During my two couch surfing experiences I stayed with two groups of the most amazing people I had met. On a personal level, they saved my trip by just being who they naturally are. Open and accommodating.
Santiago is one of the few cities that I felt 100% safe. I never felt in any danger at all. Chileans are just not very threatening in their demeanor. Now don’t take this as an invitation to walk down a dark alley wearing hundred dollar bills or your vest. Crime exists in Santiago like any other major city. Take it as an advocacy for Chilean positivity.
You only need to look at the way the people of this city treat stray dogs. I have never seen anything like it. Strays are like personal city pets. Each one is healthy and well fed. The people build dog houses in various neighborhoods for the dogs and give them doggy coats in the winter. The dogs are very tame and relaxed. Friendly and not aggressive at all. I only saw the dogs get aggressive when some homeless people were bothering the patrons of an outdoor restaurant we ate at. They chased the homeless away and returned to the sides of their temporary “owners”. When the patrons left the dogs did also. It’s awe inspiring and bizarre at the same time. Another thing I noticed that the streets are remarkably clean (unlike Buenos Aires which is covered in dog crap) for a place with so many strays. They have literally toilet trained themselves to use bushes and dirt areas.
Couchsurfing: Can’t recommend this more. Try to stay with host outside of the city center. You won’t regret it. Also attend the weekly meet up in Bella Vista. If you don’t know anyone you soon will. Introduce yourself to the fantastic group organizer and he’ll do the rest. I promise.
As a western travel journalist I have a unique perspective on things. I actively seek what makes a place unique. When you’re in Brazil you know you’re in Brazil. The same can be said of Bangkok, Thailand, London, England, New York, NY, or Buenos Aires, Argentina. In Santiago…….not so much. If you removed the Chileans and replaced them with Californians it would be San Francisco.
From friends to tour guides, I asked most everyone a simple question. What is Chilean culture. I would get fairly confused looks and vague answers but nothing substantial. Chileans are finding their identity again. After the rule of Pinochet the country remains very much divided. I liken it to democrats and republicans in the U.S. The difference is the U.S. has a clear national identity. I met an American journalist working on an article for the AP leading up to the 40th anniversary of the Coup. She said that Chile reminded her of the U.S. in the 1950’s. Still trying to find it’s national identity. It’s very fascinating.
Rarely in a world as developed as ours can you see an entire society changing and transitioning. Evolving and devolving at the same time. Sure Santiago has developed some VERY bad western habits. They have also made some very impressive strides towards equality and prosperity especially given their political history. If nothing else, time in Santiago will provide you a view of history in the making. I’m excited to return to Santiago in 20 years to see what it’s become. For better or worse.
Visit the Centro Cultural GAM. Steeped in history, this building shows the Santiago past, present, and future. On any given day you can see great art, dance classes, or project screenings. Worth a visit to really understand what has and in happening regarding Chilean culture.
WRAP IT UP
Santiago isn’t Chile. New York isn’t the U.S. Rio isn’t Brazil. Each has it’s own personality unique of the rest of their countries so it’s unfair to judge by just visiting the major cities. I know it’s cliché but I have a love/hate relationship with Santiago. Although it largely lacks in several areas for me as a tourist, it makes up for that with the amazing people. Chileans are some of the most gracious, open, and honest people in South America and it’s hard to say anything bad about them. They are a people who have overcome some huge hurdles and still carry on with smiles on their faces. This is admirable. Santiago has quite a bit of growing to do if it wants to become a true travel destination in South America. It lags far behind Rio and Buenos Aires as the must see places in SA.
My current recommendation is to visit Santiago for a few days. Visit Barrio Bellavista, the amazing parks, Ski in the Andes for a day or two, and try some Pebre with papa fritas. Then head north or south. You can’t go wrong in either direction. But before you go. Make sure you Couch Surf with a Chilean family if possible. One of the fulfilling experiences of my career.