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Santiago, Chile 72-Hour Vacation

A Vibrant City Under the Summits of South America
by Andre Gayot

La Moneda, home of the Chilean presidents since 1846
La Moneda, home of the Chilean presidents since 1846

A safe, clean, modern European city, Santiago is not the typical South American metropolis. Besides the entrepreneurial mind of the Santiaguinos proud of their European roots (not only Spanish but also to a lesser extent German and Yugoslavian) the reason for this modernity can be found in the considerable seismic history of this area. Frequent earthquakes have almost erased the city, founded in 1541 by conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, sparing few vestiges of its past. Buildings can be reconstructed but the charm of the vanished eras cannot be recreated. This constant change results in a modern, vibrant city with nicely designed contemporary high rises, heavy traffic on the urban freeways and, alas, the pollution that goes with it. This six million plus agglomeration is widely spread at the foothill of the majestic décor of the Andes that encase Santiago with their spectacular snow-capped summits.

History meets modernity: the cathedral reflected in a new building

There’s no other way to reach Chile’s array of unique tourist attractions than transiting through Santiago. It is the obligatory point of departure to prestigious destinations that attract visitors from all over: Patagonia, Antarctica, Easter Island, El Norte Grande (the Northern deserts) and the Lake District. Santiago offers a break in long voyage, as well as an introduction to the considerable diversity of the Chilean world.The socio-geography of the city places the chic quarters and their large avenues on the East side while the Center and the West are occupied by the smaller but well-kept houses of the middle class. South (nearer to the airport) are the problaciones—a maze of shacks of the less well-heeled.


Santiago has a safe, French-engineered state-of-the-art subway (Red line 1) that follows the main artery with stops at the major attractions and offers a good solution for visiting the town depending upon the location of your hotel. Taxis are plenty metered and cheap. It’s quite a show to watch the late afternoon whirlwind of buses, but their itinerary needs to be deciphered, not to mention the pressure of the crowd rushing home.

A soldier stands guard at La Moneda
A soldier stands guard at La Moneda

At 18 kilometres long, the main artery and backbone of the city (oriented North-East South-West and bearing the name of the founder of the Republic, Bernardo O'Higgins) was designed in the 18th century along an arm of the river Mapuche. Locals call it the "Alameda," an Arab world meaning "promenade." On the red line N°1, get off at La Moneda station. La Moneda ("The Mint") was built in 1799 by an Italian architect and has been the residence of the Chilean presidents since 1846, who shared it with the services of The Mint. This massive monument, built to withstand the shock of tremors, is the highlight of the South American colonial architecture. This is also a place for meditation; during the coup d'état of September 11, 1973, president Allende died in La Moneda burning under the bombs that opened the doors to Pinochet's dictatorial regimen. In front of this palace, the Plaza de la Libertad honors a charismatic figure of Chile's history—three-time president Arturo Alessandri. On the other side of the Avenue, Plaza del Liberator pays tribute to General Bernardo Higgins, who is buried there. In this patriotic environment, the changing of the guard takes place at 10 a.m. every day with the tallest soldiers of the Army performing the goose step.

Santiago below the Andes
Santiago below the Andes

From the Plaza de la Constitution behind La Moneda, it's a three block north walk to the Plaza de Armas, the lively historical center of the city, filled with musicians, painters and artists entertaining the gawking Santiaguinos. The cathedral tells a bumpy history; the first structure, built by the pioneer of Chile, Pedro de Valdivia, was torched by the Indians, and earthquakes destroyed three successive reconstructions. Italian architect Toesca, who designed La Moneda, also rebuilt the cathedral.

It would be a good idea to walk three blocks more in direction of the Mapuche River to the Mercado Central. This handsome metallic structure, engineered and built in England in 1870, hosts 80 shops and abounds with Picadas (quick bites) and marisquerias serving fresh fish and sea food for a fistful of Pesos. Try the typical paila marina, a fried combo of local fish, but be careful with uncooked shellfish.

From here, the Museo Chileno of Arte Precolombiano is not very far—either a walk or a short taxi ride. It displays remarkable collections of 3,000 pieces, some of which are 10,000 years old. Visitors will find ceramics, sculptures and paintings of the neighbouring Indian cultures: Moche, Inca, Maya, Toltec and Aymara. It will absorb the rest of your day before returning to your hotel.

For dinner there are many options. Choose the one that suits your location: El Bosque Norte along Avenida Vitacura close to the Radisson hotel; Borde Rio in the residential neighbourhood of Vitacura, which hosts a collection of restaurants of any description, not far from The Ritz-Carlton (Station El Golf Red Line N°1); or Barrio Sueccia (Station Los Leones on Red Line N° 1).

Farther from the Centre, Bellavista is not only a stronghold of local gastronomy, but also the romantic night spot of the city, boasting theatres, discos and art galleries. Pablo Neruda had a house there called La Chascona, which is open to the public (Station Baquedano Red Line N°1). Bellavista is at the foot of San Cristobal Hill the highest point in the heart of the city at 2,600 feet (800 metres). After visiting the Enoteca Wine Museum, where you can sample and buy Chilean wines, you can access the top by cable car where a splendid view of the city waits you.

Continue to Day 2


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Travel Documents
U.S. and Canadian travelers need passports but they do not need to apply for a visa before arrival. Chile does, however, impose a “reciprocity fee” of $55 for Canadians and $100 for U.S. citizens, as these countries impose visa fees on Chilean citizens. Paid in cash on arrival at Santiago’s international airport, these fees are valid for the life of the passport.

Main International Airport
Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benitez, Santiago (SCL)

The city of Santiago is considered to be safe—nevertheless, as in any trip, it is recommended to take the normal precautions. Do not take objects of value, such as expensive jewelry, and do not lose sight of belongings like cameras, luggage, etc.

Time Zone
Atlantic Standard Time (-4 GMT), one hour ahead of U.S. Eastern Standard time; Easter Island is -6 GMT, equivalent to U.S. Central Standard Time. Daylight savings time is observed from mid-October to mid-March. The hour changes two times a year: on the second Saturday of March, the clock is turned back an hour, and on the second Saturday of October, it is turned forward an hour.

Business Hours
Most Santiago shops are open around 10 a.m. and close between 6 and 7 p.m. Many shopping centers may stay open until 9 p.m. Outside of shopping centers, many shops are open for a half day on Saturdays, and most business are closed on Sundays.

Urban Transport
Many taxis are available, distinguishable by their black bodies and yellow tops. All have their registration number visible and a taximeter. Smoking is forbidden inside public vehicles. For long trips out of the city, it is recommended to negotiate a price with the cab driver. Urban buses (called “mikes”) are also available, as well as “collective taxis.” These are taxis with a fixed route shared by many people and identified by signs on the roof indicating the destination. The Santiago Subway or “Metro” is a model of cleanliness and good service. It is fast, secure and inexpensive. The four lines are the Red line (west to east, crossing Downtown), Yellow line (Downtown to southwest), Green line (Downtown to southeast) and Blue line (Providencia/Tobalaba to Puente Alto).

The code to call Chile is 56 and Santiago is 2. Prepaid phone cards are a practical and easy way to call, and they can be bought in news stands.

220 volts, 50 cycles; dual-voltage laptops and similar appliances work here, but require adapter plugs. Other appliances may require a converter.

The currency unit is the peso. ATMs are abundant in cities but hard to find in remote areas (carry Chilean pesos and some U.S. dollars). Travelers’ checks are generally easy to cash at banks, but difficult at businesses.

The value-added tax (VAT) is 19% and included in the price of products and services.

La Moneda

Travel Guide Chile

*Andes picture courtesy

(Updated: 06/09/08 HC)

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