Santiago, smog and South Africans

22 06 2010


Pucon – Santiago – Valparaiso      

The screams penetrated the walls, jerking me from a deep slumber. I stumbled out of my room into a deafening roar and peered at the garish yellow shirts screaming around the room. Their bodies jerked sideways and revealed the TV.  

It was then that I realised it was either the start of the World Cup or South Africa had just invaded Chile.  

The South Africans (and me) suffering from World Cup fever in Santiago

Once the vuvuzelas had died down and the screeching had stopped, we ventured from the TV zone and into Santiago. The smog was thick as it clung to the city like a leech, sucking the life out of the Andes mountain range which forms the city’s backdrop.  

The yellow shirts and I decided to check out Santiago from up above and clambered up man-made Cerro Santa Lucia. Again, the pollution left a grey tinge to our photos but there was something about the city that I loved: the wide streets, grassy parks, the slither of water that they call a river, the lack of pretentiousness and the non-bourgeois aesthetic of Bellavista.   

Santiago sprawls out for miles but it doesn’t have the vibe of a never-ending city. It appears somehow tranquil and the concrete maze that characterises other cities seems absent.     

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The city was founded in 1541 by Pedro de Valdivia, a Spaniard who waged battles against the indigenous Mapuche people of Chile. It soon became the main trading city in the country, protected from invasion by the natural defence of the Andes.  

Today it’s the South American hub for conglomerates such as Yahoo! and Microsoft. Perhaps one reason business is flourishing could be due to the secret ingredient added to coffee in downtown Santiago, designed to keep businessmen’s morale, and libido, up.      

Coffee with legs      

The British have their coffee with milk, Europeans black and Americans with plenty of sugar. In Chile, however, the men have theirs with bikinis.  

In Santiago’s central business district you’ll be hard pushed to find businessmen scurrying around during their lunch hour. Instead they’ll probably be crowding into the seedy cafe con piernas (coffee with legs cafes) catering to men’s one-track minds.  

Scantily clad women serve men multi cups of coffee in darkened out cafes. Three times a day, at no particular time, is a ‘happy one minute’. (Uh huh, I was wondering what this was, also.) Apparently the girls strip from their micro bikinis while the men ogle away.  

Sexist? Degrading? No claim the businessmen, it puts them in a better frame of mind to make business deals. Perhaps now it’s easier to see why the international giants are based in Chile’s capital.      

Beyond the seedy side of the city lies Bellavista, the artists’ corner, with murals and tasteful graffiti adorning building walls. It’s also the pulsing vein of student nightlife and pisco sours, Chile’s national alcoholic drink.  


Another Santiago liquid favourite is terremoto, or earthquake. A mix of white wine made from pisco grapes and ice cream. After a  few glasses the ground starts to tremble and then comes the earthquake forcing your legs to give way. I’ve heard the aftershocks the next day can be quite violent, too.      

Change of plan      

As a teetotal, it wasn’t the booze that dragged me up to Santiago but the warmer climate. I was debating whether to head south from Pucon into the freezing conditions of Patagonia. However, after several cold and sleepless nights in Pucon, I decided this would be a death warrant so I bolted north instead.      

I spent four days exploring the sights of Santiago, including the funicular at Cerro San Cristobal and the rather disappointing Museuo Chileno de Arte Precolombio. The February 27 earthquake, the second worst in Chile’s history, has left the national museum (Museo Historico Nacional) closed due to structural damage. Several buildings in Santiago have surface cracks but generally no major destruction was reported in the city centre. The strict building regulations make it a tough job to build sky scrapers in such an earthquake prone zone.      


The postcard picture of Valparaiso

Leaving the smog behind, I  took the bus to Valparaiso, a coastal town 120km northwest of Santiago. Built on a series of hills, the centre has several ascensors, or elevators, to take weary commuters to higher roads. Built from 1883 to 1916 they, alongside the battered yet colourful houses, have gained the city the accolade of a Unesco World Heritage Site. 

Valparaiso is a labyrinth of cobbled streets weaving from one side to another, past rusty houses and vibrant murals. Even on a rainy day, and I experienced one of those, it remains a semi-upbeat place with its rainbow effect. Like all towns, there are grim neighbourhoods with derelict shops and rundown houses, but more than I was expecting. The deceptive photos in the guidebooks disguise them and euphemistically say Valparaiso is brimming with bohemian character.  

The real Valparaiso

Still, it’s a worthwhile trip, even in a downpour. But two days of getting completely lost in Valparaiso’s warren-like streets were enough for me.     




One of the many murals in Valparaiso

How to get around Santiago – free city tour   

From Monday to Saturday a free tour runs for 4 hours around Santiago. It covers the history of the city, a brief intro to the country’s politics and lots of humour. Meet outside the cathedral at 10am and look for the guide in a red coat with Free Tour emblazoned on it. Donations of 5-10,000 pesos recommended.  


Eco Hostel, 349B  General Jofre – dorms from 7,000 pesos      

Eco Hostel in El Centro is a sanctuary from the party hostels that overrun Santiago. It’s a chilled-out and friendly place with a living room, patio and plentiful breakfast. Jan, the French guy working there, is extremely helpful and will go out of his way to assist you. Room 5, however, can be quite noisy as it’s right next to the living room.      

There’s no hostel sign outside, just look for the coloured mural and ‘349 General Jofre’. It’s a 10-minute walk to Universidad Catolica subway station.  


Hostal Luna Sonrisa, Templeman Street – dorms from 8,000 pesos  

I opted for Hostal Luna Sonrisa which was  pretty quiet, dare I say dead. It’s an informative hostel but the excursions they offer are expensive and you can do them alone. It’s not very warm in the winter, Chile doesn’t appear to have central heating. A small gas fire heats the kitchen and reading room but the rest of the hostel isn’t exactly boiling hot. It’s clean and has spacious rooms. Breakfast included.  



  • Home to more earthquakes than anywhere else in South America
  • Divided from its neighbours by the world’s longest continental mountain range, the Andes
  • It has scorching desert in the north and glaciers in the south (Chile is the closest country to Antartica)


  • Chile’s capital with abundant parks and viewpoints
  • One of South America’s most expensive cities to live in
  • Home to the leg-trembling drink, terremoto



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