Bienvenidos A Santiago, Chile: Before Or After Your Cruise

Bienvenido means welcome in Spanish, therefore welcome to Santiago, Chile. At either the start of your South American fjords cruise or at its conclusion, you will be using the international airport in Santiago for your overseas flight. Please accept my advice and spend at least two days in Santiago before going to Valparaiso to board your ship or after leaving the ship in Valparaiso, depending upon the direction of your cruise.

Santiago is one of the great cities of South America. It is vibrant, exceptionally clean and blends Old World traditions with the 21st century, making it quite dynamic. Also its setting is spectacular, located at the base of the Andes Mountains, second highest peaks in the world. There are several one-day trips that can be taken into the surrounding countryside that will be memorable, this in addition to sightseeing in the city. I recommend a minimum of two days, but to fully appreciate Santiago, you should stay longer. The last time I was there (not my first visit), I stayed for nine days and still did not get to do everything I had planned

 Downtown Santiago from high atop Cerro San Cristobal
Downtown Santiago from high atop Cerro San Cristobal

Santiago is the largest city in the nation and the national capital. Santiago is a modern city of 7,200,000 people, gently tucked into a valley between the coastal mountains and the high Andes. The site is spectacular without any question, as the Andes form a backdrop of peaks rising to the roof of the Americas. Aconcagua overlooks Santiago from the northeast, its peak rising to 22,834 feet, making it the highest mountain peak in the Western Hemisphere. Other adjacent peaks tower well into the 20,000-foot range, but hiding Aconcagua from view. This mountain wall is draped in snow year around, especially dramatic during the winter months.

To the west, across the coastal hills is the important harbor of Valparaiso and the beautiful beaches of Viña del Mar, an hour’s drive along the major motorway linking the coast to the capital. In the opposite direction, the ski slopes of Valle Nevado are only 40 miles outside of the city. Southwest of the city lies the Chilean wine-producing region, an extensive series of beautiful valleys in which some of the world’s finest vineyards thrive. And remember that you will be visiting during summer when the days are warm and the evenings mild with a very low chance of rain

Santiago is an old city, dating to 1541. The area around it ultimately became the heart of a vast ranching region filled with gracious haciendas, and by the 19th century wine production developed. Spanish architects have continually beautified the city, expressing the wealth of the surrounding land. The Palacio de la Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace, was built in neoclassical style, the largest such palatial building along the Andean front. From early experiences with earthquakes, they learned how to build well with thick walls capable of withstanding all but the most catastrophic of tremors. The city has seen many strong earthquakes throughout its history. The area will have at least one 4.0 or greater magnitude quake every month and a major one at least every two years.

The city of Santiago essentially has a grid pattern with some streets that radiate outward from the city core. Today’s Santiago has developed a north to south expressway, connecting to a westward expressway that links the city to Valparaiso and continues east through the city center to the elegant suburb of Las Condes.

On the outer edge of the city, a belt expressway encircles the bulk of the city proper. Santiago has placed several portions of the expressway system in the city center underground to minimize disruption of the surface configuration of streets. The central city lies to the south of the Rio Mapocho along whose banks there are numerous parks, museums and public facilities. Two primary hills rise up from within the city, Cerro San Cristóbal and Cerro Santa Lucia. San Cristóbal is over 2,700 feet high, rising up just north of the river, affording superb views of the downtown, the Andes and the entire urban region when the air pollution factor is minimal. Being in a bowl shaped valley, the city does suffer from recurrent bouts of smog.

Santiago is undergoing a massive surge in high-rise development. For years the average height of downtown office blocks and apartments was under 20 stories. But with newer engineering techniques to resist the ravages of earthquakes, buildings now commonly rise to 30 and 40 stories, with the highest tower over 60 stories.

East of the city center is Las Condes, the wealthiest suburban zone of the city. And with its lofty apartment towers it bears a striking resemblance to Vancouver or Toronto, Canada. Fortunately the buildings are erected on large plots of ground and are beautifully landscaped with gardens and trees. This is quite unlike the cheek by jowl high-rise construction seen in Buenos Aires or cities in Brazil. There is a more open and spacious feel to the new neighborhoods of Santiago. And the every present dominance of the high wall of the Andes to the east dwarfs the urban skyline, but adds great beauty.

Looking toward the high Andes at sunset from suburban Los Condes
Looking toward the high Andes at sunset from suburban Los Condes

The heart of every city in Latin America contains a major plaza or great monument. In the case of Santiago, the heart of the city is Plaza de Armas, located just north of the Avenida Liberatador Bernardo O’Higgins, often referred to as the Alameda. The plaza is a meeting place for Santiago residents when they arrange to get together downtown. It is just south of the Casa de la Moneda, the elegant presidential palace, and office of the national president. Plaza de Armas celebrates the 1810 revolution against Spain. It is always thronged with people, and many of the shops around the plaza represent the very heart of the city’s commercial district. There is a great degree of retail activity in central Santiago, as people still consider the downtown as the best location for shopping, dining and theater.

The many parks and squares in the central portion of Santiago reflect the strong European heritage of the city, the largest being Parque Forestal, which was designed by a French landscape architect. This is also the location for the elegant Museo de Bellas Artes, one of many European Neoclassical buildings that add an Old World touch to the city’s central district. Across the Rio Mapocho, under Cerro San Cristobal is the Bellavista district. This is home to many of the cafes and fine restaurants as well as nightclubs, giving Santiago an after dark image that rivals that of Buenos Aires.

The main highlights not to be missed while in Santiago include the following recommendations:

  • Cerro San Cristóbol – The high mountain vista adjacent to downtown affords the best views of the city, but only visit if the air is clear. If there is heavy smog, your visit to the top of this mountain will be wasted. You can reach the summit either by car, taxi or the funicular.
  • Plaza de Armas and the Metropolitan Cathedral – The true heart of Santiago steeped in history, as this is the core of the city in every way. The cathedral is quite grand, and the plaza is surrounded by numerous examples of 18th and 19th century colonial and neoclassical architecture.
Plaza de Armas in downtown Santiago
Plaza de Armas in downtown Santiago
  • Casa de la Moneda – The presidential palace has a sharp changing of the guard, but you must check with your hotel for the time of the ceremony. There is generally no admittance into the building, but it is still an important site to visit. It was in this building that when revolutionaries stormed the interior, President Salvador Allende committed suicide, ushering in the Pinochet era. Bullet holes can still be seen in the building’s facade.
Changing the guard at the Casa de Moneda, the presidential palace
Changing the guard at the Casa de Moneda, the presidential palace
  • Parque Bicentenario – One of the most beautiful and tranquil parks in the city, located along the Mapocho River in the upscale barrio of Vitacura, offering great views of the city skyline.
  • Parque Araucano – Located in the heart of Las Condes, surrounded by high-rise towers, this is a massive park filled with many outdoor activities. It is a great place for people watching, and it is adjacent to several major four and five-star hotels as well as the Araucano Shopping Mall.
  • Parque Forestal – One of the largest parks with many hiking trails through beautifully wooded groves. This park is close to Barrio Lastarria, a district filled with cafes and pubs
  • Metro de Santiago – Ride the metro if you have time, as many of the larger stations are artistically decorated and very beautiful. This is a popular means of travel and its lines cover the entire city. In the outer suburbs many lines operate above ground so it gives you a chance to see various parts of the city. But be aware of pickpockets, especially when the system is crowded, but otherwise it is safe.
  • Providencia – A popular close in, yet upscale district that is filled with great shops, restaurants and night clubs. Providencia is quite lively at night.
  • Mercado Central – One of the major public markets filled with colorful produce, meats, seafood and prepared dishes and people by the thousands, you get a great chance to appreciate the essence of food in the Chileno culture.
  • Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos – A museum that chronicles the brutal years under Presidente Pinochet, it is a must to truly understand the recent emergence of the country from that repressive era.
  • Museuo Chileno de Arte Precolombiano – Located near Plaza de Armas at Bandera 361, it has an excellent array of exhibits on the arts of the Pre Colombian cultures of the Andes.
  • Museo Nacional de Historia Natural – A good museum to learn about the natural environments of Chile, a country where the physical landscape is so dramatic, and geologically still so very active. It is located in Parque Quinta Normal.
  • Museo de Bellas Artes – A unique building with a massive glass canopy, and it has a good collection of Chileno art. It is located in Parque Forestal.
  • Grand Santiago Tower – Located at Vitacura 180, this tallest building in the city is not to be missed on a clear day. The observation deck on a clear day gives a 360 degree view of the city from a totally different perspective than Cerro San Cristobal.
  • Barrio Bellavista – A great neighborhood filled with restaurants and pubs and very lively, this is definitely an in place to visit.
  • Estacion Central – One of the few grand old railway stations in South America, but this one functions. You might wish to take a ride on one of the local commuter trains to view parts of the city in passing, or take a day trip south into the wine country.
  • Centro Artisanal Pueblito Los Dominicos – This is the best place for a broad selection of Chileno arts and crafts.

Visiting The High Andes

One incredible all day tour is to visit Portillo, one of Chile’s major ski resorts perched high in the Andes adjacent to the border of Argentina. The drive on the Careterra Internacional is one you do not want to undertake on your own. This is the main highway between Santiago and Buenos Aires, but it only has one lane in each direction and once it begins to climb to the summit at around 14,000 feet, the highway snakes back and forth in dozens of sharp switchbacks that are not protected with guardrails. But professional drivers hired through your hotel are totally skilled at navigating this breath-defying highway. Even when you reach the summit, the mountains on either side are still rising 7,000 feet or more above you and have permanent snowfields or glaciers. A late morning snack of empanadas or a light lunch is possible during summer at the lodge in Portillo. Or you can return and detour slightly north to Termas Jahuel, a famous hot springs resort for a gourmet lunch amid vineyards and orchards.

Another mountain drive you can take is to Valle Nevado. This is a popular ski resort perched high in the Andes above Santiago. Again you need a car and driver, as the road is exceptionally steep with many sharp curves. There are no guardrails and the drops are unimaginable. You want to be able to enjoy the scenery and not concentrate on the driving. This is an especially scenic trip and one you will find memorable.

The Careterra Internacional between Santiago, Chile and Mendoza, Argentina
The Careterra Internacional between Santiago, Chile and Mendoza, Argentina
In the high Andes en route to Valle Nevado behind Santiago
In the high Andes en route to Valle Nevado behind Santiago

Visiting The Wine Country

Outside of the city, dozens of small towns serve as local service communities for the hundreds of farms and ranches that dot the landscape. The central valley region is actually a collection of individual valleys whose primary orientation is east to west, as major rivers and streams pour their snow melt to the South Pacific Ocean. In some cases, low hills separate the valleys, and in other instances one valley just seems to merge into the next. Thus the region is often referred to as the Central Valley of Chile, but it is not a distinctive single valley as is the Central Valley of California, although its agricultural role is similar.

Throughout this region there is a mix of farms and large hacienda estates, as ranching was the older of the two activities to first lay claim to the central valleys. The smaller towns exhibit more of the traditional colonial Spanish architecture with a central plaza, church and government buildings. But even in these smaller communities, there is not much of the typical flat roofed, Spanish adobe type of construction that would be found in other old regions colonized by Spain.

The wine country in the Colchaga Valley south of Santiago
The wine country in the Colchaga Valley south of Santiago

The Rio Maipo is joined by the Rio Mapocho southwest of Santiago. It is here that the major wineries are located, set amid lush vineyards that are tucked into every fold of the surrounding hills. Although there are vineyards throughout the central valley region, this particular valley exhibits the greatest concentration of orchards and vineyards, making it Chile’s equivalent to California’s Napa Valley.

A trip south into the wine and fruit growing country is memorable. I say such a trip is an absolute must. Your hotel can arrange a private car and driver and make reservations for tours of several wineries with lunch at a noted bodega or restaurant in the region. This is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable ways to spend a day, seeing beautiful countryside, experiencing the importance of the vineyards and fruit orchards, passing through small agricultural communities and tasting great wines and food. This can be costly, usually around $300 for a full day car with driver plus lunch. If you team up with other guests and make arrangements to share the expense, it then is a bargain. But forgetting cost, it is a must do event while in Santiago.

Book Cover
Book Cover

Final Thoughts

Once again I ask that you allow yourself a few days in which to enjoy all that Santiago has to offer. Both Santiago and Buenos Aires are world-class cities. The cruise between the two, actually between Valparaiso and Buenos Aires simply gives you a chance to savor two of the great cities of the continent. And they are very different from one another both with regard to natural setting, architecture and the way of life. If I had to choose between them, I would be hard pressed to make a decision, as each is unique and each is special in its own way.

Submitted by Dr. Lew Deitch

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