Santiago, the capital of Chile, is located in the center of the country and is the cultural, political, and communication hub of the country as well. Founded in 1541, it now has a population of about six and a half million. One of the largest attractions of Santiago are the barrios, or neighborhoods. The historic, downtown area is filled with colonial buildings, art museums, and plazas. Other neighborhoods, like Brasil, have distinct architecture and vibe. Brasil has uniquely themed restaurants and a hippie feel to the place. It is also very near the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. There are many hostels in Brasil and surrounding neighborhoods, but few of them are cheap. We paid 9.000 pesos per person a night at a clean hostel with continental breakfast, and that seemed to be the going rate elsewhere. We, like many other backpackers, have found Chile to be fairly expensive. While there are probably cheaper hostels in Santiago, they are harder to find and probably not as clean.
Because of its development and economic opportunities, Santiago has a large expat/immigrant population from Europe and even a few gringos. Also, because of labor laws many companies prefer to hire foreign women over Chilean women. Indigenous people have lived in the Santiago valley area for hundreds of years. Conquistador Pedro de Valdivia founded the city on a small island between two rivers at the suggestion of the native chiefs. Santiago was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the past five hundred years, first from the Michimalonco Indians, then by earthquakes. When Chile became a sovereign nation in 1810, Santiago was declared the capital. During the dictatorship of Pinochet (1973-1990), under more classical liberal economic policies, Santiago developed and the city grew.
We stayed a total of two and a half days in Santiago, which was enough for us. Soaking in the music and architecture of the town in Plaza de Armas is a good way to rest but enjoy the city. Santiago has a few art museums, history museums, and good bars. We felt satisfied with what we saw. Our first morning we went to San Cristobal hill, which is in the northern/central part of the city and has a spectacular lookout across the land. The best entrances at the foot of the hill are in the neighborhood Bellavista. While you can climb the hill, we decided to pay 2.000 pesos each and ride the funicular up. It was much faster and more fun. Halfway up San Cristobal is the Santiago zoo and at the top is a small church and large statue of Virgin Mary. Over 50,000 pilgrims climb the hill every year at the Feast of Annunciation (I think) to worship and pray. It was quiet when we went, so we enjoyed the church and eventually made our way back down the funicular. In the 1920s the wealthy and elite in Santiago built some neo-Tudor buildings to make the hill pretty and have a place for parties. Now the buildings house the funicular.
At Plaza de Armas is the national museum of Chile. We entered for free. It wasn’t very large, but had beautiful pieces of artworks: landscapes, portraits, and framed, old maps. Everything was in Spanish, but it didn’t pose much of a problem because most artifacts were self-explanatory or had simple descriptions that we could understand. We spent about 45 minutes there and thought it was worth the time (especially because it was free!). It gave a good background image of what colonial Santiago was like. Below is a picture of the clock tower of the national museum.
Finally, we needed to find US dollars. Entrance to Bolivia requires USD in cash for American citizens, and we were all out. I had held out hope that we could pull dollars from an ATM or American bank in Santiago, but after a couple of hours scouring the internet, it seemed that would be impossible. A few years ago it was, but Chile enacted a few new laws that make it harder for American expats or American backpackers to get the dollars they need. So we found ourselves at an exchange house. So far I had avoided these because I wasn’t sure the rates would be good—whoever sells the dollars gets the better deals. I stopped at a bank and asked about their rates, but the teller recommended I go to the exchange place for a better transaction. The one most recommended online and by the tellers was Cambio Exchange, near the central business district of Santiago. It was quick, fairly painless, and simple. While getting dollars out of an ATM would have been preferable, I can say that this cambio house was perfectly fine and a good place to go for exchanges.
Our second day in Santiago we wandered around some more, getting to know the public transportation system and the city, then visited the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. I highly recommend this museum visit, which I discuss more in another blog post.