Santiago - A farewell to Arm(a)s

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March 8th 2016
Published: April 8th 2016
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We used Santiago as our hub while we were in Chile, dropping in and out of there several times as we explored the upper half of the country and Easter Island. We first landed there from Auckland, New Zealand, on 16.2.16. We had booked a loft apartment over the internet and had heard nothing in terms of confirmation, despite a follow-up e-mail, so we had some reservations about how successful that booking had been. We were, however, off-line for some time during our mammoth time shift, so we hoped that all would be well by the time we arrived, whenever that would be. The driver of our shuttle bus from the airport spoke no English at all and we gradually dropped off all the other occupants of the bus, leaving us the last men standing - or sitting as the case may be. We were dropped off outside the Park Plaza Hotel to be greeted by an ancient but sprightly Australian lady who was still travelling the globe despite being in her eighties, having left her equally old but somewhat handicapped husband upstairs in bed. They were on their way to Easter Island on a cruise back to Sydney and she was just setting off to explore Santiago on her own! And here's me feeling my age ...

We were also greeted at the door by a big brute of a stray dog. As with a lot of strays in Chile he seemed to have been adopted by the hotel (or had he adopted them?) and he had his own piece of carpet on the doorstep and his own yellow tripod warning sign that read something along the lines of 'slippy floor'. This was reasonably accurate as the dog had a problem with his rear end and the staff were constantly mopping up around him. Despite his size, he greeted all guests to the hotel with a waggy tail and a gentle sniff, unless he was asleep on his mat in which case we all just stepped carefully over him.

We were pleasantly relieved to find the hotel was expecting us. Our 'loft' room (807) was in the adjacent building to reception and was so named because it had stairs! Imagine! Many of you will know we live in a bungalow and I've always said it's just not right that you don't go upstairs to bed. Bedrooms should be upstairs. Well, this was a treat - or was it?

We had a local supermarket nearby and we replaced all those edibles we hadn't been allowed to carry with us into Chile (just about everything, as I was erring on the side of caution). The supermarket had a dog park; no, not somewhere your dogs could run around and stretch their legs but, literally, an area where you could 'park' your dog while you did your weekly shop. It was near the flowers. And the vegetables. And the delicious-smelling chickens on the deli counter ..... Nevertheless, they all sat there, quite well behaved, and waited for their owners to collect them. A shelf-stacker persuaded me to buy some (quite dreadful) biscuits after he overheard my English and telling me in animated Spanish that these were highly recommended. I overheard a Liverpool accent telling his girlfriend that if something didn't work they were stuffed (or words to that effect!). I wished later that I'd made conversation with them because being Stuffed in Santiago didn't sound like a good thing, but the moment wasn't right. We bought a pizza and a chicken. Brutus the Hotel Dog (I decided every dog should have a name and he was quite a size!) didn't think much of the pizza but really enjoyed the chicken, which we shared with him. We retired for an early night, hoping our body clocks would sort themselves out soon as we were REALLY tired. Santiago is a noisy city and it is no different at night, though the car horns were replaced with the barking dogs and sleep was hard to come by.

The next day we forced ourselves to go out after getting up late and having a very lazy morning. We had no energy whatsoever but took a walk down to the Plaza de Armas, the central square in Santiago, which was just a block away. There was a very poor tourist information office there but they did give us information about the city Hop On Hop Off bus which we decided to do the following day. The square was very busy and very nice with tons of places to sit and watch Santiago go by. We felt, though, that it was a 'city on the edge' with an undercurrent we couldn't put our finger on. We were obvious tourist foreigners and, while we didn't feel at all threatened, we were aware that we stood out as 'different' and were being noticed. People didn't interact with us, despite my attempts at passing the time of day with shopkeepers and dog-walkers and the like. I had a bench in the street outside our hotel, where I would sit for a cigarette, at busy and quiet times of the day and night. I noticed that the other bench-sitters preferred to sit on already occupied benches, even if there were vacant ones nearby. I thought they might like some conversation but, no, they just didn't want to sit on their own. Even if they were sitting beside another compatriot, they studiously ignored each other whilst sitting just inches apart. Eventually, I persuaded Brutus to join me near my bench and he acted as an ice-breaker and conversation topic (the Chileans really like dogs) and he got the benefit of treats as his part of the deal. As a result, I had some (non)-conversations with the painters working in the hotel next door and a couple of office-types who worked nearby, and it was better than nothing but hardly enlightening. Thanks anyway, Brutus! I noticed that many of the city dwellers were very stylish indeed and I was particularly impressed with the quality and cut of the men's suits (and I don't normally notice that sort of thing!). There were lots of shoeshiners working the street corners and they were consistently busy.

We fully intended to get up bright and early the following day to do the HOHO bus trip but, guess what, we just didn't have the energy. What was going on?! Complete lethargy. The weather was sunny and hot, ideal for sight-seeing, and we had the time but not the inclination. Even going up the stairs to the bathroom in our 'loft' apartment was just too much effort and I got heartily sick of forever going up and down those stairs for things that were normally within easy reach on one level. Maybe bungalows have got something going for them after all? We berated ourselves for not doing more. It seemed such a waste but we knew, at the back of our minds, that we were returning to Santiago, and we had that failsafe visit to rely on. Maybe we would feel more energetic by then? Let's hope so.

We dropped back in Santiago on 2.3.16 where we stayed overnight at the airport hotel, the Diego de Almagro, before flying out to Easter Island. On our return from there, we again booked in to the Hotel Park Plaza. The first room we were offered was not as good as the room on our original stay there so, knowing what standards they were capable of, we arranged a change to something much better, room 203 in the main building. It had been dark when we arrived but I did notice that Brutus was not there to greet us. There seemed to be fewer dogs around generally, and I wondered if he had been caught up in some sort of stray dog collection though, from what I had understood from Paul on Easter Island, this was not a thing that was done. Ho hum. We made a point of getting out and about that following morning. It was a Sunday and the streets were very quiet. Our hotel was opposite the Instituto Chileno Britanico de Cultura and it was strange seeing the Union Jack and red post boxes depicted on the signage. It had a very 60s look and feel to it but I felt quite pleased that we Brits were still doing our educational thing abroad and it seemed a busy place, with students coming and going.

The following day Santiago was buzzing once more. We did some admin and reception printed out our paperwork for the next leg of our trip before we set off to catch the red city bus tour. Suddenly, Santiago seemed vibrant and friendly. I had a laugh with a cigarette vendor who turned his stall inside out looking for my brand. I had wanted three packs and he only had two so once we got over the initial confusion of me asking for three and him offering me two (I thought I'd really lost the plot and was now even getting my numbers in Spanish confused or that he was considering my health and wellbeing) we had a little 'number lesson' in Spanish and English. I bought some postcards from another stallholder who seemed to have the monopoly on postcards in Santiago, and some ear-rings from another street vendor who insisted on putting them in a bag for me, causing us to create a bottleneck on the pavement, even though I didn't really want a bag; I think he just wanted to chat. There was a massive police presence today; they were walking the streets in pairs, with dogs (who had a special neckerchief to indicate they were police dogs) and on horses, all around the main square. I couldn't decide if their presence was indicative of a bubbling-under situation or whether the locals really found it reassuring to see them there and we were the ones reading too much into an unfamiliar scenario. We sat there while we waited for the bus and listened to an opera singer performing to anyone who wanted to listen and there were mime artists outside the museum. It all looked very relaxed and pleasant but somehow, underneath it all, we thought there was just something ...

There were very few people on the bus tour - I think there were very few tourists in Santiago. Unfortunately, the camera battery was quite overwhelmed with the number of photos we were taking and once again died on us. There were many huge squares in the central area, vast open spaces which quite took me by surprise. The Chile flag fluttered proudly on every flagpole and there were many statues of people who featured in the country's history. Once we entered the suburbs the tree-lined avenues provided shade to the affluent areas and there was clearly a significant well-to-do population - one suburb was known locally as 'San'-hatten. We were told that many businesses had relocated their offices near or even into the residential areas to reduce travel-to-work time and improve quality of life for employees. The best way to tell the difference between a residential and an office block was to check for balconies. Most residential blocks provided balconies of some sort, for access to outside space for the inhabitants. There was a lot of building taking place; new roads and high-rises mainly. The Providencia area had 15 museums and 100+ hotels and we heard that Santiago provided 50% of the nation's economy. Coppermining and fishing were major industries. We thoroughly enjoyed the tour and it offered us a different perspective on the city.

On our last day we had a few hours to kill between checking out and travelling to the airport. As we checked out a traveller from Huddersfield was checking in. Those Huddersfield people certainly get around! He had just cycled through Cuba and had come to Chile to do more of the same and he knew some Spanish! The (male) hotel receptionists had been professional but distant with me (I thought there might be some gender etiquette going on there) but suddenly a conversation sprang up with five of us trying to get words in edgeways and Mr Huddersfield acting as go-between! I hadn't enquired about Brutus, not wanting to hear the response I anticipated but the moment seemed right so I did in the end. 'Ah' the receptionist said, sadly, 'he is in the dog bed.' That would be the big dog bed in the sky, right? NO!!! 'The dog bed' was the animal hospital because poor Brutus had colon cancer and the hotel staff had arranged veterinary treatment for him! He was currently recovering from the procedure! Wow, did Brutus not pick THE best hotel step in Santiago as his own? Well done him and well done the hotel staff for adopting him. I was glad I asked.

The hotel was at the end of a street facing the Santa Lucia gardens so we decided to spend some time there before going to the airport. What a find! This oasis of green offered a breathing space to those who lived and worked nearby. It still had part of the old castle ramparts and a church and was full of birds, water fountains, plants and other greenery. Its elevation offered outstanding views of the city and the Andes and it was well used by courting couples, young families, street buskers, tourists, just about everyone from every background yet it felt almost empty and peaceful. We really enjoyed it.

In fact, we really enjoyed Santiago every which-way. It served us well as our transport hub, we liked the city's excitement, noise, hustle and bustle and it was different enough to challenge us and keep us on our toes. I really, really must learn more Spanish though!

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