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Santiago is one of my favourite cities, but even if you put a gun to my head and threatened to pull the trigger, I don’t think I could tell you why.
There’s nothing that particularly stands out when I think of Santiago and my time there, nothing that gave it that extra pizzazz, the WOW factor that some cities seem to have in abundance. Take Rio de Janeiro, for example, which is so colourful, chaotic and vibrant, full of things to see, that it’s ever so easy to find yourself totally and utterly enamoured with it.
Santiago, though, is a lot slower-paced than Rio. There’s a lot less busyness, a lot less hyperactivity and generally more space to just breathe and take in your surroundings without having colourful feathers and samba dancing shoved in your face at every corner.
And no, I’m not making judgmental and stereotypical comments based on the images you see of Brazil in the media – I was there just before the 2016 Olympics kicked off so there actually were colourful feathers and exotic dancers on a lot of corners. I loved Rio for it’s extravagance, its beachy vibe and its colour.
Santiago? I couldn’t tell you why I love it so much. I just do.
Now, I’m certainly not claiming to be an expert on a city I spent barely 2 weeks in – especially as it absolutely grinds my gears when people go on a weekend trip and suddenly claim to have the ULTIMATE itinerary down pat. And if I’m going to be completely honest with you, a lot of my time in Santiago was spent in my rented apartment, hiding from the rain (LOL at me for not realising it was winter when I planned my trip), watching Season 1 of Jane the Virgin and eating sour skittles, but what I did see of the city, I absolutely loved.
Still, there are a few little bits and pieces I’d recommend to anybody visiting the city, be it a quick weekend getaway or a full on relocation for work. In fact, you could even cram all three into one jam-packed day: start with the Museum, move on to La Chascona and head up to Cerro San Cristóbal to catch the sunset.
Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos
English: Museum of Memory and Human Rights
Visiting this museum was one of the most sobering experiences of my entire life, second only to Auschwitz.
Now, despite having studied Spanish culture and language as part of my degree, I had never been taught, nor had I read up on Pinochet’s regime or any Chilean history for that matter. So I went in completely blind.
The museum itself is a dedication to the commemoration of victims of human rights violations during Pinochet’s civic-military regime between 1973 and 1990; victims of an era in time that I am ashamed to admit I had no idea even existed; victims of absolutely horrendous crimes that occurred in an age when we as a species should have learnt to be better.
It is full to the brim with propaganda from that era, newspaper clippings reporting the atrocities that occurred, torture devices used by Pinochet’s regime, items belonging to some of the victims, and drawings made by children of the victims, some of whom were victims themselves.
According to reports, 150 children under the age of 18 were executed for political reasons or killed during protests, 39 simply disappeared with no trace and 1,244 children were imprisoned and tortured. Many children were kidnapped along with their parents, but returned home without them, likely having witnessed their extreme torture and subsequent murders.
It’s absolutely horrific to think about.
There are also testimonies – both written and in visual – of survivors of the regime, survivors of the kidnappings, survivors of the torture. There are letters filled with love and hope written by the victims to their families – some of whom never made it home. There are videos to watch, excerpts to read; all in all, a lot of items to reflect upon.
Undoubtedly the most harrowing part of the museum is the candlelight memorial. A small, room filled with candles, it faces out onto a wall full of photographs of those who were killed or “disappeared” during and after the regime, and who to this day are still unaccounted for. Seeing the smiling faces of these victims, who, when their photos were taken had no idea of their fate, really brings it all home.
The museum is a difficult experience – I walked out with tears running down my face – but it’s necessary if you want to learn more, if you want to educate yourself about the Chilean people and their history, and if you want to truly understand what they have gone through to get where they are now.
Admission is free, but you can elect to pay a few thousand pesos for an audio-guide and is open every day except Mondays. I highly recommend that anybody planning a trip to Santiago add this to your itinerary!
Otherwise known as Pablo Neruda’s house
Without a doubt one of the most notable and important figures to come out of Chile, Pablo Neruda has a special place in the hearts of the population.
Built especially as a love nest for Neruda and his mistress-turned-wife, La Chascona is one of three of the Nobel Prize winner’s houses open to the public, the others being in Valparaíso and Isla Negra. La Chascona gives you the chance to learn all about his life (the good and the bad), his death, his career, and most enjoyably gives you the opportunity to enjoy his eclectic collection of furniture and trinkets from all over the world!
The museum works on an audio-guide only basis, so there’s no wandering around on your own. However, you choose as and when you wish to start the next track, so technically you are kind of still guiding yourself.
Neruda’s works have been translated into every major language in the world as well as many of the lesser known ones, and to this day he remains of utmost importance and relevance to the literary world. So it has to be said: a visit to this museum is a must for any lover of literature.
General admission is $6000 CLP and includes an audio-guide available in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and German.
Cerro San Cristóbal
A hill with a nice view
Everybody likes a good ole panoramic view of a city, right?
South America has absolutely tons to choose from! Some of them aren’t that great (this is you, Medellín and your over-hyped funicular!) and some absolutely take your breath away (oh hey there Rio, how are you doing?). Cerro San Cristóbal has a blooming marvellous view. It’s not quite Rio, but it’s nice. Definitely above average as far as views go!
If you are semi or full on superhuman, you can choose to walk up. Don’t ask me how or how long it takes because my legs can barely take me up a flight of stairs let alone 300m up a steep hill, so I took the easy option: funicular! A return ticket on the funicular is about $2000 CLP but really depends on what day and time you go, as they do that annoying thing where they charge you more on a Saturday or after school.
You have the option to get off about halfway up the hill and visit the zoo, which I contemplated as I’ve heard great things about the conservation work the zoo does, but my visit was after 4pm and so it would have been pointless to go there for half an hour.
There’s a cute little chapel atop the hill, which isn’t unique for a South American hill with a view, but what is unique is the fact that Pope John Paul II performed mass there in April 1987. So of course, there is a statue to commemorate him.
On the subject of statues, what’s a hill in South American without a biblical statue?! Enter the 22-metre high tribute to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Eat your heart out Christ the Redeemer!
And for the atheists among us, or those with just don’t really have much interest in the Pope and Mother Mary, there are of course the views! Kind of the main reason to climb the hill actually. You get the modern-day city view in three directions, an incredible countryside in the other and, of course, the snow-capped Andes in the background.
This is an updated post. Original post date: August 2016.
Have you been to Santiago? Did you visit any of the 3 places in this post?