Santiago, Chile

It may not have much to occupy you for more than a couple of days, but Santiago is an enjoyable and underrated place to visit. It was quite refreshing to visit somewhere seemingly almost devoid of tourists, with plenty of local energy and things of interest to see. Like the major city in many smaller countries (Auckland in New Zealand, Reykjavik in Iceland, and Stockholm in Sweden to name a few), Santiago is disproportionately large in relation to the rest of the country, and where the bulk of the wealth and 40% of it’s population live (including the Greater Santiago region).

I thought a good place to start would be heading up the 880m summit of Cerro San Cristobal, a huge park with panoramic views of the city, to get my bearings and get up there before the temperature exceeded 30C. It was worth it, but was more of a challenge than expected. I’d recommend taking the clear path on the north-western side, the southern side must have been under maintenance as quickly I ended up scrambling off track up the side of a steep slope, not that easy. The funicular, housed in mock castle station, was out of action.

At the top is a 14m statue of the Virgin Mary, with great views to the south. I thought the many signs saying ‘silencio’ were somewhat ironic given the quite hideous festive Christmas chorals being sung in Spanish by children blaring out of nearby speakers. Humbug.

Getting to the top and back down ate up the best part of a couple of hours. On the way back down the north-western side I went through the unusual Parque Bicentenario de la Infancia. It was completely empty on a beautiful Friday, unlike every other park in town, and was home to by far the most slides I’ve seen in my life. There was an entire terrace with perhaps up to 100 concrete slides, 10 wide by 10 tall. It would be an amazing (and likely dangerous place given all the hard surfaces) place for an epic race to the bottom.

This took me close to the enormous Cementerio General de Santiago, which warrants it’s own post shortly, but here’s a taster.

On my walk back to the city centre I stopped at the pleasant and free (like the majority of museums in Santiago) Museo de Artes Decorativas before returning to the lush (and well watered) greenery of Parque Forestal. Within the park is the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which includes the National Museum of Fine Arts and Modern Art Museum (both free). As is often the case I enjoyed the building more than the contents, particularly these unusual columns.

Nearby the cultural centre, Centro Gabriela Mistral, was home to a totally unexpected Maori carving, presumably a gift from New Zealand to Chile. The two counties have a lot in common, as Pacific rim neighbours, and Chile apparently exports more kiwi fruit globally than New Zealand.

Close by is another great city park (note they don’t open until 9am), Cerro Santa Luciahill, which was home to reflections, some lions guarding the place, an Italian style fountain, and impressive views from the top.

The Plaza De Armas is the bustling main plaza, home to this fountain, Catedral Metropolitana, the national cathedral, and the unexpectedly free and reasonably interesting Museo Historico Nacional.

One block away from the plaza was Santiago’s standout museum for me, the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino (Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art), filled with beautiful pre-Spanish objects, very similar to the equally impressive Museo Casa del Alabado in Quito.

I then took the efficient metro system (like the Paris system the trains have rubber wheels) three stops to Parque Quinta Normal, which was huge (40 hectares) and somewhat draining by that point of the day given the heat and distance walked. It was worth it though for final set for four museums, bringing my daily total to nine, plus the cathedral, two cemeteries (also visited the less interesting Cementerio Católico), a couple of decent hills, and much walking in-between, a full day!

I started with the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural (Chilean National Museum of Natural History), which wasn’t huge but it was free, and in classic natural history fashion had some impressive skeletons (of this Blue Whale and some dinosaurs) in the main hall and various dioramas.

The Artequin was a collection of poorly reproduced images of famous paintings, not worth the entrance fee, other than to see inside this beautiful building, designed at the same time as the Eiffel Tower.

One for anyone interested in trains, the Museo Ferroviario de Santiago is a collection of 15 trains attractively presented trains outside, though there was little information on Chilean railways to put them in context.

Final stop for the day was the free and powerful (despite almost all the commentary being in Spanish) Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, dedicated to the 1973 military coup and it’s aftermath under the dictatorship of General Pinochet. Note no photography is allowed inside.

The next day I finished off seeing everything I had planned (and one more), popping across the road from my hostel to the oldest church in the city, Iglesia y museo de San Francisco, and the neigbouring Museo Colonial de San Francisco, which was more interesting for the architecture than the contents.

Finally I walked ten minutes to the rather plain Palacio de La Moneda, and found underneath the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda, which had a brilliant free exhibition of Roman artifacts from the Vatican Museum.

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