Colourful Culture in the Shadow of the Andes

Published: July 30th 2009
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 Video Playlist:

1: Chinchineros in Santiago 48 secs
2: Cueca Dancing in Valparaiso 54 secs
Bellavista graffitiBellavista graffitiBellavista graffiti

Santiago, Chile
We left Auckland shortly after 6pm on Saturday June 27th and after 11.5 hours on the plane, we touched down in Santiago just after 1pm on Saturday June 27th. Magic! Crossing the international date line would wreak havoc on our body clocks for the next week and a half though. During the flight, we were amused by the "map" of the plane's route which consisted of nothing but a blue square labelled "South Pacific Ocean" most of the time. At one point, we did see a recognisable land mass in the shape of Tahiti which popped up briefly on the map as a tiny white speck!

After landing in Santiago, we made our way to our hostel and decided to stay awake for another few hours in the belief that sleeping at night time in Santiago would help ease the jetlag. At around 8pm however, we could keep our eyes open no longer and conked out - only to wake up bright-eyed and fully alert at 2am. Shortly before 8am, just when we were about to get up for breakfast, the tiredness suddenly hit and we slept until 6pm that evening! Over the next couple of days, we walked around
Colourful cobbled streetsColourful cobbled streetsColourful cobbled streets

Cerro Concepcion, Valparaiso
the city like zombies while trying to adjust to the time zone!

We were staying in Cerro Santa Lucia, near the Museo de Bellas Artes. Just across the Mapocho river was Cerro Bellavista (the bohemian quarter) with its strikingly colourful graffiti-clad buildings. Chile has a rich culture of urban art stretching back to 1940 when it was a leading centre of radical propraganda painting. Today, this tradition is mixed with the anarchism of worldwide graffiti resulting in colourful artistic expressions in public spaces. All parts of Chile are covered in street art but Santiago and Valparai­so are the key centres. We really enjoyed the explosion of colours that met our eyes as we strolled through the streets.

At the northern end of Cerro Bellavista, we caught the funicular to the summit of the Cerro San Cristobal hill. From here, all of Santiago was spread out before us. Over 5 million people call this city home and it's vast. But, though it stretches out for miles in every direction, there's always one thing that dwarves it - the Andes. The Andes surround Santiago on all sides and they are MASSIVE. It really is amazing to see them towering over
Cueca DancingCueca DancingCueca Dancing

Chile's national dance
such a huge city, as if reminding us that Mother Nature always wins!

Back on the streets below, we made our way over to Plaza de Armas (Santiago's main square), where we saw a pair of chinchineros performing. Chinchineros are street performers that work throughout Chile. They strap a large drum called a “bombo” vertically on their backs and attach a strap to their foot that is connected to a set of horizontally placed cymbals (or "chin-chins"). When they play, they do a kind of tap-dance and spin around super-fast. Check out the video in our playlist to see them in action!

In the nearby Civic District, we saw the presidential palace (la Moneda) which was the site of the military coup in 1973 that led to Pinochet's 17-year dictatorship. Chile will celebrate its bicentenary in 2010 and the country is busily preparing to mark the event with a series of public works currently underway all over the country. One of these projects is a new square behind the southern façade of La Moneda called Plaza de la Ciudadanía ("Citizenry Square"), the centrepiece of which is a huge new underground cultural facility (Centro Cultural Palacio de La Moneda).
Bellavista barBellavista barBellavista bar

Santiago, Chile
Other features on the new sqaure include fountains, water mirrors and a statue of former-president Alessandri.

The food in Santiago was great. Many of the restaurants offer a "menu del dia" at lunchtime which consists of 3 courses and is a really cheap way of eating out. The menu del dia we tried consisted of consommé of egg, followed by bife de lomo (minute steak) with papas fritas and fruit salad for dessert - all for €5. In the evening, there are many tasty snacks to choose from. By far the most popular is the "completo" which is a hot dog with sauerkraut, tomato, avocado and mayonnaise. Also popular are "lomitos" (steak sandwiches with tomato, lettuce & egg) and "churascos" (toasted buns filled with a thin slice of steak, tomato, onion, avocado and mayonnaise). Barrio Lastarria with its cobbled streets and arty restaurants & cafes was a short walk from our hostel, so we found ourselves back there most nights.

Coming here, we were aware that Chile was the most developed of the South American countries but we were still surprised by just how modernized Santiago was. Some major international companies have their offices here (the financial district

surrounded by the Andes
is nicknamed "Sanhattan") and the working professionals are well-dressed, as at home. The metro is clean and efficient and the pedestrianised shopping streets are like any you'd find in Europe. We also felt quite safe walking the city streets. But, just so we wouldn't forget that we were in South America, there were street dogs on every corner - Santiago is full of them! But luckily, they keep themselves to themselves and don't bother the passers-by (unlike their vicious counterparts in Siem Reap!). The city has a Mediterranean climate and its winters are mild. While we were there, we had some lovely sunny days with temperatures between 15-22C. All in all, it was a good starting point for our travels in South America.


From Santiago, we headed 120km northwest to Valparaíso, Chile's second-largest city. Valparaíso is perched on steep hillsides above the Pacific Ocean and was the leading merchant port in the second half of the 19th century, when it served as a major stopover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. During its golden age, it became a magnet for European immigrants who built fine houses and mansions on the city's numerous
Calfulafquen restaurant, ValparaisoCalfulafquen restaurant, ValparaisoCalfulafquen restaurant, Valparaiso

Just off Paseo 21 de Mayo and a stone's throw from our guesthouse
hills. The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 dealt it a critical blow however and Valparaíso fell into decline.

In 2003, Valparaíso was declared a UNESCO world heritage site due to its unique architecture and unusual system of ascensors, which are one of the world’s most endangered historical treasures. There are 15 ascensors still in operation in Valparaiso today, though at any one time only a few are generally working. The ascensors were built between 1886 and 1916 and are small wooden cabins on rails that ascend Valpo's hills at various degrees of incline. A large pulley wheel at the top links the upward-bound cabin to the downward-bound cabin with cables, so that the two cabins counterweight each other.

The city consists of two distinct parts: the 45 hills or "cerros", and the streets that run along the coastline. Most residents live up in the hills and use the ascensors to carry them down to the commercial area along the waterfront. The two areas couldn't be more different; up in the cerros there are cobbled streets, colourful houses and vibrant graffiti. Whilst down along the port, speeding cars and colectivos flood the streets and and the pavements
Plaza de ArmasPlaza de ArmasPlaza de Armas

Santiago's main square
are lined with grocery stores, banks and tourism offices.

On our first day in the city we visited Feria de Verduras, a huge outdoor farmer's market on Avenida Argentina. Every Saturday, the locals come down from the hills to buy their weekly fruit and vegetables here, as the prices are next to nothing. Flea markets are also popular in Valpo and all kinds of junk can be found spread out on the pavements on a piece of cloth - mobile phones, batteries and second-hand shoes were among the items on display when we were there. Afterwards, we headed over to Plaza Victoria where we managed to catch some Cueca dancing in celebration of Valparaiso's 6th year as a UNESCO world heritage site. The Cueca is Chile's national dance and is associated with gaucho folklore. Dancers generally dress in traditional Chilean clothing when performing it; the men wear a Chilean cowboy hat, poncho, riding boots and spurs while the women wear a floral dress with an apron. When dancing, the dancers move in semicircles around each other and wave handkerchiefs above their heads. It's a very elegant dance and a fabulous spectacle to watch!

Sunday 5th July was Lorna's
Ascensor ConcepcionAscensor ConcepcionAscensor Concepcion

Valparaiso's oldest funicular built in 1883
birthday(!) and we woke up to a beautiful sunny day. So, we decided to explore the two most famous neighbourhoods in Valparaíso - Cerro Concepcion and Cerro Alegre. To get there, we took the El Peral ascensor built in 1902 and inclined at 48 degrees! At El Peral’s upper exit, Paseo Yugoslavo lead us to the Palacio Baburizza, a former mansion now housing the fine arts museum. From there, we followed Urriola street into the heart of the historical district and spent a few hours strolling around some of Valparaiso's most famous streets - Templeman, Almirante Montt and the Atkinson Promenade. Ascensor Concepcion, the city's oldest funicular built in 1883, brought us back down to the commercial area below where we walked to the Customs House and then took another ascensor (the Artillería) up to Paseo 21 de Mayo. At the top, there are fabulous views out over the port and the brightly coloured houses on the hillsides, so we grabbed a window seat in a small restaurant and watched the sunset over the city. The perfect way to end our trip to Chile!

Additional photos below
Photos: 40, Displayed: 28


Palacio de la MonedaPalacio de la Moneda
Palacio de la Moneda

The presidential palace in Santiago - this was the site of the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power
Statue of President Arturo AlessandriStatue of President Arturo Alessandri
Statue of President Arturo Alessandri

at Plaza de la Ciudadanía behind Palacio de la Moneda
Barrio LastarriaBarrio Lastarria
Barrio Lastarria

Cobbled streets and arty restaurants in Santiago
Cerro AlegreCerro Alegre
Cerro Alegre

Valparaiso's historical district
Lorna in ValpoLorna in Valpo
Lorna in Valpo

5th July 2009
Follow the clownFollow the clown
Follow the clown

Cerro Concepcion, Valparaiso
Templeman streetTempleman street
Templeman street

in Cerro Concepcion

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