Leaving the ordered vineyards of Mendoza behind, the landscape gives way to a dry valley, with a river bed bordered on one side by a disused train track that must have taken a mammoth effort to construct, leading us up to the high altitude border with Chile. Removed from the bus with all bags in tow, we’re shuffled single file into the customs building.
Standing there in some kind of suspect line up with our hand luggage on the table in front of us, we feel like naughty little school children waiting to the singled out by the headmaster for a right bollocking. The big luggage is travelling along a conveyor belt with random bottles of cheap Argentinian cooking oil, shampoo and washing powder, as a Labrador does the rounds sniffing up and down the table. Halting at Sarah, the look on her face showing shit scared, the dog goes in for a good hoovering. Customs pounce on the offending bag only to find our stash of boiled eggs and other legal snacks. Unfazed, the guards leave her alone, though her canine mate is soon back for more, having to be dragged away by his handler.
We once considered the journey around Montenegro’s bay of Kotor to to be one of the most spectacular we’ve done. This has now been joined by the Mendoza to Santiago trip through the Andes Mountains. Peaking at the 12,500 ft (3,810 m) high border crossing at Usapallata Pass, the curvature of the road that winds below us in a serious of 17 tight hairpin bends, with a noticeable lack shoulder or guardrails, we hold on for a steep and breathtaking ride. No wonder a tunnel for trucks and buses to bypass this arduous voyage is currently under construction. We’re thankful we’re not driving Porkchop down this one!
Arriving late into the bus terminal with no pesos, hungry and tired, you can guess the result, argument time! No working cash machines in close proximity means it was up to Matt to hunt one out. Once found, with the lack of nutrition plus possibly plain dumbness, he forgets the pin to Sarah’s card. Hanger escalates.
Finally fed and on the subway, it’s an easy trip to the Italia neighbourhood. Arriving to the beaming face of Eric from the Democratic Republic of Congo on reception, we’re soon shattered to hear the booking for a private double had been handed out already, with us being shunted into a dorm. Our man Eric sorts it and we’re given a private twin bunk room. Set in what seems to be a an old office building of art deco style, the chic Hostel Santiago Urbano Providencia wraps us up in the most comfortable beds in a long time.
Morning has us enjoying the complimentary breakfast of South American standards, with good coffee the highlight. Discovering there’s a free walking tour of Santiago, Tours for Tips ‘Offbeat Santiago’, starting at the Museo de Bella Artes, we head along for the ride. The half day tour has our Wally guide (easily identifiable from their red and white striped shirts) leading us through four of Santiago’s markets. El Mercado Central with it’s seafood stalls and slightly touristy restaurants, before hopping over to the Rio Mapocho to ‘the wrong side of the tracks’. Tirso de Molina, with it’s unique roof, La Vega Chica and La Vega Central follow soon after.
It’s here in La Vega Central, among the plethora of narrow alleys full of fruit, veg, meat, rice and everything else you could possibly need, that we manage to lose the group. With our guide hardly pausing for photo opportunities before rushing to the next destination the reason, we’re left lost and scratching our heads.
Hopping on the subway up to the Cementerio General, South Americas second largest cemetery and the tours next destination, we walk around the many grand and crumbling mausoleums before eventually bumping back into the group.
Our guide then leads up to the grave of the famous animita Romualdito. When somebody dies violently in a public place, an animita, or shrine, is setup and the living come to pray for help from the spirits who are believed to remain behind. Once a pray has been answered by the spirit (passing an exam, recovering from illness etc) the person must return and install a permanent plaque of thanks. In this case the legend of Romualdito has become obscured, however there is still an entire wall at the Central Railway Station and an entire grave site covered in plaques.
Moving down and sitting on the steps of Salvador Allende’s mausoleum, the group is treated to a Chilean history lesson on Allende’s ousting in a CIA sponsored coup and the installment of dictator Augusto Pinochet, told with passion by our Chilean guide. The cemetery covers 210 acres and is well worth a visit, don’t miss the aptly nicknamed ‘Apple Store’ mausoleum no far from Allende’s!
To conclude we’re ushered into El Quita Penas rear room for a sample of the terrifyingly named ‘Teremotto’. Translated as Earthquake, its made from local sweet wine and pineapple ice cream and is usually served by the litre, it’s bound to shake the foundations. Given only a small sample the distinct lack of alcoholic taste could make this very dangerous indeed.
Back in the Central Market, a recommendation from our guide sees us taking a seat at Tio Willy’s to sample the congrio con agregado (crab soup loaded with delicious cheese) and conger eel soup. The crab arrives and only half way through we’re already full with the eel soup still to come. Whichever place you chose you must opt for the congrio con agregado, pair it with a local white wine and it’s simply heaven.
With the owner present and the game between Uruguay and Chile on that evening, the light hearted banter between him (Uruguay) and a colleague (Chile) makes the experience all the better. The owner actually manages to wrap Matt up in a Uruguay scarf…shame Chile goes on to win that night.
The streets around the markets are teeming with Chilean paraphernalia with being in Chile we found rude not to join the club.
With calorific overload we spend the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets of Santiago passing many colonial buildings along the way. Thoroughly enjoying our time in the capital of Chile, the atmosphere due to the Copa America is electric.
Back to the hostel via the Pepperland Pub for a taste of more Chilean craft beer, the place is buzzing with the younger clientele, before a serious need for a hops fix sees us try the Brutal Hops from Rothhammer, which sorts it out nicely. With the whistle whetted the next logical step is to grab some pre-game takeaways around the corner at the Botelleria Agrado. Sticking with local beer we fill the basket with a Pale Ale, Stout and ESB from Kross brewers.
Night falls and it’s the semi-final of the Copa America with Chile hosting carry over champions Uruguay in town. Not being able to secure tickets for the match, the only thing left to do was to find a local bar and cheer with the locals. The area around Italia has many a nice place, and with Pepperland full we ended up at Unico Pizza Bar. With the action unfolding on the big screen we somehow manage to obtain front row seats. The crowd are going wild, some even to the extent of oddly dressing up.
The game is intense along with the nerves of half the restaurant as Cavani is sent off in the 62nd minute. before Mauricio Isla scored the only goal in the 82nd minute. With Uruguayan Jorge Fucile sent off soon after, Chile win the game. Happy we’d bought hats for the night we’re obviously a lot more passionate than the lady owner who’s knitting at the bar?!
The final score of 1-0 has the place erupting so the next step is to walk down the road to the Plaza Italia for the proceeding celebrations. With the crowd going ballistic there’s a heavy army presence as the Chileans are known for their destructive habits, win or lose. No sooner had Sarah posed with them, they started up the water cannons to promptly clear the streets.
With our flying visit of 24 hours complete it’s time to switch it up for the randomness of Valparaiso.
For more great pics of Chile check out our Flickr Page. Thanks for reading.
TIPS for Santiago
- Booking.com can provide you with incorrect information. At times it will seem that the price for a twin is super cheap. Generally it’s incorrect though our advice is to make a booking for the ‘cheaper’ private then deal with reception on check in. We’d did this twice with reception having to take up the argument with Booking.com
- Tours for Tips is based on the generosity of the participants, as a general rule we tipped the equivalent of USD10 each for the five hour tour.
- Eat in one of the restaurant in the markets. Whilst a little expensive you’ll be treated to regional delights, just chose a place which the locals love.
- Do spend more time than we did here. We fell in love with Chile and its people in 24 hours, though time was not on our side. With many cool cafes, bars, good food and sights you could do worse than a few days at the least.