Street Walking In Santiago
It’s my first morning in Santiago, Chile’s cultured capital, and I’m beginning it in true South American style with a seriously strong black coffee. Once fuelled with enough caffeine to power-walk my way around the city I meet my handsome guide, Leo, from Santiago Adventures, for a walking tour of the city centre.
We start by taking a long downward escalator to the underground where a train whisks us along to Constitution Square. We’re just in time to join a crowd of onlookers facing the stately entrance of Palacio de la Moneda (The Palace of Coin) so named because it was originally the national mint office. In 1848 it was transformed into government headquarters and the presidential palace.
The parade ground becomes more spirited as a police band trumpets along to marching carabineros swinging arms and legs. With absolute precision shiny knee-high boots click and stomp simultaneously, swords are inspected and salutes are smartly executed, leaving me in no doubt that this force means business. As palace guards exchange places other officers parade on horseback under a Chilean flag, its colours – blue, symbolising the sky – white, the
snow-covered Andes and red, signifying blood spilled during independence from Spain in 1810, moving restlessly in the breeze.
We walk under the palace archway, past guards at their posts and into an interior square decorated with orange trees, monuments and historic canons. The interior plaza was once the roof over Pinochet’s purpose-built bunker, which today serves as a public underground car park.
The palace’s darkest hour was on the 11th of November 1973 when it was bombed by the military in a final effort to remove democratically elected President Allende from power so that ruthlessly ambitious General Pinochet could take control of the country. Chile has slowly recovered from its years of dictatorship.
Nearby, under leafy trees in Plaza de Armas, families sit on benches chatting and eating ice cream. It was here that Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Valdivia founded Santiago in 1541. Plaza de Armas has remained the city’s heart ever since.
In front of the Cathedral artists sit before easels painting and drawing caricatures, shoe shiners briskly work a brush over shoes, while those at the end of them muse through pages of the daily paper, El Diario. A street entertainer, posing as a miner, painted from top to bottom in gold stands like a statue, only swinging his pickaxe when coins are dropped into his tin. Intermittently a roar of laughter comes from a crowd encircling a comedian as he pokes fun at passers-by.
On the plaza’s northern side fine examples of ornate colonial architecture line up…the Government Palace built in 1715, now the central post office, the Palacio de la Real Audiencia and Municiplidad de Santiago.
Leo leads me down Paseo Rosas, one of the city’s oldest streets, now a pedestrian mall covered by a peaked glass ceiling. Here older women come to buy lace, buttons and cotton while younger ones peer through glass cabinets at wedding cake decorations. Smiling plastic figurine
ornaments and frilly silky white bows with apricot centres seem from another era. A group of women sit at a table working on a large piece of fine embroidery; they smile proudly when Leo takes an interest in their handiwork.
I turn a corner into the central market and into the obvious aroma of fish. An entire alleyway is devoted to trays of freshly caught seafood, delivered from the nearby port of Valparaiso. In stalls behind the displays, men donned in white aprons and caps gut fish. Locals with shopping bags locked in the crock of their arms scrutinise produce thoroughly before ordering portions, never taking their eyes off their pick as its weighed on old-fashioned metal scales, so antiquated the dial constantly quivers under pressure.
The central market was assembled in Santiago after its wrought iron roofing structure was brought out from England in 1868, thus giving it the architectural ambience of a railway station. Shafts of sun splay through its arched windows softly lighting stalls of stacked vegetables arranged in contrasting colours; avocados, oranges, tomatoes and lemons.
Dining tables decorated with tablecloths centred by plastic flowers are arranged outside the different eateries and, although it’s too early for lunch, it doesn’t deter waiters from trying to usher and secure you at one of their tables. Dining at the central market almost always guarantees the accompaniment of a musician strumming a guitar between tables.
We take a car, cross over Rio Mapocho and head to nearby Saint Christopher’s Hill. We are soon high above the city looking across to magnificent views of it and its surrounding valley. Snow on the Andes can just be seen high above the haze while the city, of just over six million people, sprawls below between large patches of greenery like O’Higgins Park.
Saint Christopher’s Hill sits in the centre of Parque Metropolitano and entertains visitors not only with its views but also with its gardens, zoo, café and restaurant. The hill is crowned with a white, 14-metre high statue of a young, pretty Virgin Mary, shimmering in the sun. A predominately Catholic nation, Chileans make a pilgrimage here every year on December 8, climbing the stairs to the Virgin and attending mass in the open chapel behind her.
Leo insists I have not experienced Santiago’s culture until I try un café con leche (a café on legs). A what? He smiles wickedly and says this is what people of Santiago indulge in so I should see for myself.
Back in the centre of town we walk into a shop with blacked out windows. Inside a smoky bar topless women clad only in mini skirts and knee high boots serve drinks to businessmen sucking on cigarettes and chatting to other businessmen. Only it is not an ordinary bar… behind its counter is a barista and the drink on order is coffee.
While I sip my coffee I reflect that I’ve passed through Santiago a few times and strolled its streets gazing at its outer shell. But it is only by taking a walking tour with a local that I have felt its culture and felt its heart beat.
Every December Chileans make a pilgrimage to a statue
of the Virgin Mary crowning Saint Christopher’s Hill.
View of Santiago city from Saint Christopher’s Hill
Statue in Plaza de Armas
Outside Palacio de la Mondea, Palace of Coin, a military brass band sounds
An alley in the central market is dedicated to fish mongers, gutting and selling fresh fish
Women doing handy work in Paseo Rosas, one of the city’s oldest streets where lace and buttons are sold