Travel

Santiago, Chile Is Hot!

by Michael K. Lavers
National News Editor
Wednesday Feb 23, 2011
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It’s official, Santiago is hot!

The New York Times last month selected the Chilean capital as its top travel destination in 2011, but the old gray lady apparently couldn’t get enough of Santiago’s museums, architecture and gastronomy so it sent reporter Liza Foreman back - for 36 hours!

Even Lollapalooza will roll into town in April. Characteristically low-key Santiaguinos, however, will quickly note their city at the base of the majestic Andes has one foot squarely planted towards the future. But just don’t drink their instant coffee!

The best way to appreciate Santiago’s proximity to the Andes - when the city’s notoriously bad air pollution actually allows - is to have a refreshing, but potent Pisco sour while watching the sunset at a rooftop bar or restaurant.

The high cordillera, which remain snowcapped throughout the year, turn pastel pink as the sun slowly sinks behind the Coast Range and into the Pacific Ocean. Santiaguinos often choose their apartments based on whether they have an unobstructed view of the Andes, but Piso 17 at Plaza El Bosque and W Santiago are great places to watch this breathtaking spectacle.

Located above the Bellavista neighborhood, Cerro San Cristóbal affords sweeping vistas of Santiago and the sprawling metropolitan area. The Costanera Center (which will be South America’s tallest skyscraper once it is completed), the old Mapocho Train Station’s copper roof, and Santiago’s financial district, known as Sanhattan because the ever-increasing number of skyscrapers somewhat evoke the Manhattan skyline, are all clearly visible.

Tourists and locals alike pack the century-old funicular that transports visitors from Calle Pío Nono to the summit. Lines can prove somewhat long on summer weekends, but the fresh breezes at the top provide a very welcome reprieve from Santiago’s hustle-and-bustle (and pollution).


Chile’s bohemian capital

Bustling restaurants, lively bars, artisans and colorful street art are a common sight in Bellavista, which is affectionately known as Chile’s bohemian capital.

Santiago’s most popular tourist attraction is poet Pablo Neruda’s house on Calle Fernando Márquez de La Plata at the base of Cerro San Cristóbal.

Neruda named his home La Chascona in honor of his third wife Matilda Urrutia’s curly red hair. He kept two other homes at Isla Negra and Valparaíso on the coast, but La Chascona contains the Nobel Prize for Literature that Neruda won in 1971, a portrait of Urrutia that Mexican artist Diego Rivera painted, a fully-stocked bar, lush gardens - and even a secret passageway. Be sure to try and get a guided tour with the very knowledgeable and slightly irreverent Alejandra, who also has a chic style that evokes the 1980s on the Lower East Side.

Neruda passed away on Sept. 23, 1973-12 days after Gen. Augusto Pinochet toppled President Salvador Allende and his socialist government in a coup d’etat. Pinochet’s soldiers ransacked La Chascona, but Urrutia still held Neruda’s wake in their beloved home.

Visitors to Santiago should not expect to see many rainbow flags flying or public displays of affection between gay Chileans, but Bellavista remains the heart of the capital’s gay nightlife. Bunker on Calle Bombero Nuñez, Fausto on Avenida Santa María, Bokhara on Calle Pío Nono and Vox Populi on Calle Ernesto Pinto Langarrigue are popular gay haunts in the area.

Shangay is a monthly gay party that alternates between Cine Arte Alameda on Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins, Bar Santería on Calle Chucre Manzoor and Club Berenjena on Calle Agustinas.


Capricho Español on Calle Purisima is a gay-owned restaurant that serves Spanish and other non-Chilean food. Another safe bet is Azul Profundo on Calle Constitución - the grilled fish, machas a la parmesana (razor clams with Parmesan cheese) and expansive selection of local vintages can prove quite satisfying on a Saturday afternoon. And the restaurant’s handsome maitre d’ provides some particularly good eye candy.

Nearby Bella Vista contains a number of sidewalk cafes and pubs that provide a perfect place to soak up Santiago’s late-night street scene while eating a sandwich, having a beer or glass of wine and even using Grindr to meet men.

Located in a former political party’s headquarters, The Clinic, which is named after the London clinic to which Pinochet went after the British government detained him in the late 1990s, on Calle Monjitas serves a heaping dose of political satire - often at President Sebastián Piñera and his wife’s expense - along with their fricandelas (large pork sandwiches), completos (giant hot dogs) topped with chucrut (sauerkraut), porotos verdes (green beans), tomatoes and mayonnaise and puré de papas (mashed potatoes).

One particular eye-popping souvenir is a coaster that bluntly suggests how women can use their anatomy to teach a lesson or two.


Vino

No trip to Chile would be complete without spending at least a couple of days in one of the country’s 14 wine producing regions.

The Maipo Valley is roughly an hour south of Santiago, and it is a popular place for Santiaguinos to get married because many of the vineyards offer wedding packages. The Casablanca Valley is roughly an hour west of Santiago towards Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. The San Antonio Valley is just east of the coastal town of Cartagena, while the Colchagua Valley is roughly two hours south of the capital.

Colchagua contains some of Chile’s better known vineyards. These include Casa Lapostalle, Viu Manuet and Las Niñas. Located a few miles outside Santa Cruz, Mont Gras produces carmenères, merlots, cabernet sauvignons, malbecs and other reds for which this region is known.

The rows of ornate grapevines give no indication of the damage Mont Gras suffered during the 8.8 Maule earthquake that devastated large swaths of Central Chile in Feb. 2010. The powerful tremor toppled several of the vineyard’s storage tanks. Mont Gras lost hundreds of thousands of gallons of wine in the earthquake - and an empty lot on the edge of Santa Cruz’s Plaza de Armas was once a church. The vineyard, however, once again welcomes visitors.

Viña Santa Cruz near the town of Lolol is one of Colchagua’s newest vineyards. One of its more unique features is a wine cellar built into the side of a hillside in order to maintain a constant temperature and humidity.

Visitors can also take a cable car to the top of Cerro Chamán, where there is an observatory and reproductions of pre-Columbian villages that are more tacky than informative - even the poor llamas kept on top of the hill would agree. That said, however, the summit affords sweeping views of the vineyard and the surrounding countryside.

Boutique vineyards have also begun to pop up as the Chilean wine industry continues to mature. Viña Casa Marín near Lo Abarca is only three miles from the Pacific Ocean in the San Antonio Valley. The vineyard produces riesling, sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris, gewürztraminer, syrah and pinot noir. Vintner María Luz Marín is proud to point out to visitors she planted all of her vineyard’s vines herself.


Time to eat!

Along with its wine, one of Chile’s best assets is its food.

Chile’s gastronomic goodness begins with the produce that grows in abundance in the country’s Central Valley. These include duraznos (peaches), damascos (apricots), melons, cherimoyas, porotos verdes, tomatoes, paltas (avocadoes) and choclo (corn).

Santiago’s Central Market offers an abundance of fresh, but slightly overpriced fruits and vegetables. Produce is somewhat cheaper at local supermarkets, but roadside fruit and vegetable stalls are common throughout the country.

For those who are pescatarian, Chile’s abundance of fish and shellfish keep you from going hungry. Sopa de mariscos (shellfish soup) and caldillo de congrio (congril eel stew), and corvina are common dishes. Shellfish and shrimp empanadas with ají (a sauce made from hot peppers, tomatoes, cilantro and lemon juice) are good as either appetizers or a first course.

The abalone (loco) is a mollusk found throughout Chilean waters. The cream of abalone with Gruyere and a Sauvignon Blanc base that Viña Casa Marín served at a recent wedding is easily one of the best dishes ever known to man.

Locos con salsa verde (abalone with green sauce) is a delightful first course that complements soup or a piece of grilled fish nicely. An Algarrobo waitress apologized for the size of the abalones her restaurant served on a recent Saturday afternoon: Japanese fishing fleets have depleted the country’s abalone stocks and the restaurant could only purchase mollusks that were less than half their normal size.

Locos, machas and erizos (sea urchins) are quite expensive - Unimarc, a local supermarket chain, actually stocks empty boxes of canned locos on their shelves. The cashiers actually have to retrieve them from a safe once someone pays for them. The duty-free shops at Santiago’s international airport also keep them under lock and key.

For those who don’t like seafood, Chilean restaurants offer a variety of other dishes that take advantage of the abundance of fresh produce. These include ensalada chilena (a salad with sliced peeled tomatoes, thinly sliced onions with a pinch of salt and a drizzle of olive oil), tortillas (omelettes) and pastel de choclo (a sweet corn paste with ground beef or chicken and a hard-boiled egg that is cooked in a traditional clay pot).

Hallula (a flat round bread) with ají, salty butter, olive oil or mermelada (jam) usually accompanies any Chilean meal. And queso mantecoso is a local cheese that goes well with hallula.

The milkshake-like café helado (iced coffee) is a literal meal itself, but ask for café a la maquina (machine-made coffee) if you want anything that resembles a good cup of Joe.


Valparaíso

Neruda described Valparaíso in one of his poems as an "absurd city" that "hadn’t had time to comb its hair." At face value, this description is certainly not the most complimentary way to describe Chile’s second largest city, but this bustling port that literally rises into steep hills that overlook the Pacific Ocean certainly has a charm all its own.

Valparaíso - or Valpa as Chileans call it - is roughly a 90-minute drive from Santiago through the Casablanca Valley. The Chilean Congress also convenes in Valparaíso.

President Sebastián Piñera’s inauguration took place here on March 11, 2010 - less than two weeks after the Maule earthquake. A strong aftershock struck during the ceremony, but one local joke suggests the only thing that did not move during the tremor was Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirschner’s face.

One of the city’s most unique features, however, are the more than dozen ascensores (or funiculars) that transport people from the flat area - El Plan - around the port into the more than 40 hills that comprise the city. Many of these date back to the late 1800s, but the ascensores can prove quite bone-jarring for those who have never ridden one before. The best advice is to hold on tight and enjoy the view.

Cerro Alegre, which literally means Happy Hill, is accessible from El Plan via Ascensor Concepción, Ascensor Espíritu Santo or Ascensor El Peral. Murals along Calle Templeman capture snapshots of daily life, while dogs and even the occasional cat in heat can be found basking in the sun along the steep cobblestone streets.

Stately homes with colorful facades, window boxes with bougainvillea, jasmine and other aromatic plants, tile and even tin rooftops dominate this vertical landscape.


Neruda officially opened his Valparaíso home - La Sebastiana on Calle Ferrari - in 1961. One of its most celebrated features is the balcony from which the poet would watch the city’s annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display. La Sebastiana offers guided tours Tuesday through Sunday, but it is closed to visitors on Monday.

One doesn’t have to stand on La Sebastiana’s famed balcony to enjoy Valpa’s unique geography. There are numerous overlooks scattered throughout the city, but one can also enjoy a long lunch at a café or restaurant.

Café Turri’s terrace is the perfect place to survey the Chilean naval ships moored in the harbor, the bustling port below or even watch the fog bank encroach ever closer to the shoreline while enjoying machas a la Parmesana or grilled fish with a glass of locally produced white wine. Life simply cannot get any better!


Owning up to a painful history

Santiago’s museums are certainly a reason why the city has emerged as one of this year’s top travel destinations, but the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (el Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos) is a sober acknowledgment of Chile’s painful recent history.

The Chilean government has documented 3,185 people who were either executed or disappeared and another 28,459 who were tortured during the Pinochet era, which ended in 1990.

One of the museum’s most powerful tributes is the two-story "wall of the disappeared" that pays tribute to those who lost their lives during the regime. Political prisoners’ letters and passports, unclassified Central Intelligence Agency documents, death certificates, news reports, videos that show the coup itself and a device used to torture political prisoners are among the artifacts on display.

A photograph of men whom the regime had brought to Estadio Chile immediately after the coup is particularly haunting. Poet Victor Jara was among those brought to the stadium after Pinochet toppled the Allende government. Soldiers brutally tortured Jara before they finally shot him to death on Sept. 15, 1973. The words to the last poem he wrote before his death are now inscribed outside one of the museum’s entrances.


VIDEOS:
Ascensor en Valparaíso: www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrhfNtOGDzU
View from Medio Mundo in Algarrobo: www.youtube.com/watch?v=3413594Cl0E

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.

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