We landed in Santiago after a long day of travel from Wellington with few expectations. To be honest, Santiago only ended up on our itinerary because it seemed to be the sole entry point in S. America from Auckland. We flew LAN and the flight was happily uneventful, although only Zara slept for longer than 20 minutes and even she managed to squeeze in four movies.

Our day of entry was a rough one.  I had to pay the $160 entry fee for US citizens, whereas Z was able to rely on her British passport, proving that two is better than one in the case of nationality! In our bleary-eyed state, we let our defenses down and  were escorted to a taxi but a friendly, but very persistent “airport employee” (and later realized the cost was double the normal rate).  The heavy air was a bit of a shock after Wellington’s cool, fresh breezes and the horizon was obscured by smog.  We could just barely make out the faint outlines of hills and mountains in every direction though the taupe-colored air.

The ride to the city started off promising on a well-maintained highway, but as we entered the lengthy San Cristobal tunnel that bisects the sprawling city, traffic slowed to a crawl and we understood  enough Spanish from our taxi driver to make out that massive university protests were clogging the streets.  The situation took a decided turn for the worse after discovering that our tunnel exit was blocked off, so we had to endure a slow creep through the overcrowded tunnel for at least 30 minutes as my claustrophobia worsened in the stagnant underground air.  When we finally emerged from the subterranean darkness, our taxi driver was cursing the blocked calles and congestion that seemed centered around our final destination and I just felt overcome with queasiness. We passed teams of riot police but the protests themselves must have been a bit further away because we didn’t see any protestors.

As we negotiated the lair of one-way streets, our taxi driver appeared somewhat confused by the address we gave him but we assured him he could just drop us off on the general block and we could find it. If only it had been that easy.

It turns out that the AirbnB address I only indicated the general neighborhood, not a specific apartment building.

Lesson #1. Always confirm Airbnb directions with your host BEFORE landing in a city where you haven’t yet obtained a local Sim card and thus have no way to call/text to confirm.  Airbnb does a great job of reminding you to do this in its confirmation emails, but unfortunately it was a lesson that I had to learn the hard way.

Lesson #2: The people we met in Santiago were incredibly helpful and kind, but my Spanish was seriously rusty (i.e., borderline useless).

Lesson #3: I don’t cope well with stress when jet-lagged (arguably, you could drop the qualifier).

Lesson #4:  My Spanish needs a serious refresher course.

After over an hour of traipsing up and down several blocks, looking pathetic at random apartment lobbies, coping with dead iPhones and knocking on strangers’ doors, we finally were offered a wifi password that allowed us to contact our Airbnb host and obtain the actual address, which was on the 27th floor.  (Always comforting in a country that has recorded the world’s 2nd largest earthquake.)

That evening, jet-lag knocked us out and we only just managed to rise before noon the next day.  As a result, we took a very que sera sera attitude towards sightseeing, which meant that we meandered the streets through the Centro Mercado, towards the Barrio Bellavista and stopped for a leisurely three-course lunch in a converted casita.  After fortifying ourselves with some pescados fritos we headed toward Cerro San Cristobol, for our fourth urban tram-ride with panoramic views (after HK, Penang and Wellington).   The view gave us a much better appreciation for the spectacular setting that Santiago lies within–similar to the LA basin (certainly in the smog aspect) but ringed by the Andes!  A 22-meter statue of the Virgin Mary sits atop the hill and we soaked up the sun at her feet for awhile until the requirement to remain silent became too taxing for Z.

We opted for the tram ride down the mountain although it’s possible to do it on foot and landed back in the Bellavista neighborhood just as Friday evening happy hour was in full swing.  Not wanting to miss out on the lively atmosphere, we snagged an outdoor table at the Crazy Bar and ordered a large Cerveza Austral, a local lager.

The bar lived up to its name.  Too bad Jonathan didn’t have the opportunity to down more beer before a street performer in drag set up “her” stereo right in front of us and started shaking her coconut knockers around our table.  And before Jonathan had a chance to protest, she was giving him a lap dance as Zara laughed uncontrollably at his side.  Unfortunately, the pics I took didn’t capture his expression, but Zara’s expression speaks volumes.  Unfortunately, Zara now has a few new moves to her dance repertoire that may not be appropriate for a 6-year old and she hasn’t been shy about using them.  That girl will do anything for a laugh.

We later grabbed dinner at another plaza in Bellavista and sampled (okay–we had 2 each) Pisco Sours, the national drink.  If anything–they are too easy to drink.  Luckily, the late hour saved me from a third round.

Saturday morning was another lie-in.  When we finally motivated, we walked to another neighborhood about 1/2 hour away and grabbed a late breakfast outdoors at Leerte.  We both readily adopted the local habit of the cortado, an espresso cut with milk, usually in a 1-1 ratio.  We were scheduled to meet my former assistant at 2:30pm so we quickly walked over the El Castillo de Hidalgo after our meal.  The castle was originally built as a fortress to protect the city in 1826 and is perched atop a rocky hill and offers more great views (smog permitting).  It’s definitely worth a visit.

We were running late to meet Claudia at the ultra-modern Costanera Center mall so we grabbed a taxi there.  It was wonderful to catch up with Claudia, a native Chilean, who is back working at the Santiago office of my old law firm.  Afterwards, we took advantage of the mall to grab an ice-cream, sort out our Sim card, stop by a bookstore so Z could read a bit (the one children’s book in English we could find) and then walked the 3 miles back towards our part of town.

We hoped to grab dinner outdoors, but soon began to appreciate that Claudia’s comment that Chileans don’t eat dinner was spot-on.  There were plenty of bars were snacks could be had, but surprisingly few sit-down restaurants for dinners.  We finally settled on an outdoor bar, which set us back only $20 after a filling meal of empanadas, cervezas and olives and nuts.  It was lovely to experience something closer to SE Asian prices after the sticker shock of Norway and NZ.

In the end, we all thoroughly enjoyed our short stay in Santiago.  It’s a city that is well-run, seems to have a vibrant middle class, little poverty visible on the street, very friendly people and a truly spectacular setting.  Would love to return for a longer visit some day although the lack of a dinner culture is a definite negative. Now if they can only make some progress on the smog…but if LA could, there is hope.

La Virgen - Atop Cerro San Cristobol

La Virgen – Atop Cerro San Cristobol

View from Cerro San Cristobol

View from Cerro San Cristobol

Santiago Sunset

Santiago Sunset

Street Art

Street Art

Bellavista neighborhood

Bellavista neighborhood

Cerro San Cristobol

Cerro San Cristobol

Sidewalk lapdance

Sidewalk lapdance

Atop Castillo Hidalgo

Atop Castillo Hidalgo

With Claudia

With Claudia

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