We’d simply planned a rest between long haul flights during our South American winter break, but Santiago surprised us. We’d expected a Toronto-like metropolis, and were unprepared for the Chilean capital’s fresh and ebullient mood.
Our apartment-hotel, the Serrano Central, was an Internet find, well-designed, inexpensive and perfectly located near the university and even better, just steps from “Paris-London”—a small belle époque quarter with cobblestone streets named, naturally, Paris and London.
Sunny days by the rooftop pool were followed by evening strolls in our old neighbourhood, where we’d dine at casually chic cafés. There was a pop-up quality to our favourite spot, the Pimiento, which not only closed on weekends but completely vanished, leaving in its wake a mysteriously empty courtyard.
One morning we walked through green and shady Parque Forestal to the National Museum of Fine Arts. This 1910 beaux-arts beauty showcases both Chilean art from the 17th century to the present and traveling exhibits. Even the shop held treasures such as original handcrafted Chilean crafts, from whimsical buttons to dolls and jewelry. Twenty minutes later we discovered what would become our usual outdoor café, La Rosa, where we dined al fresco on fresh salads, ice cream and espresso.
But our most moving discovery, hands down, was the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, opened in 2010 by then-president Michelle Bachelet, herself a victim of torture during the period the museum focuses on – the Pinochet regime. The general and his cronies overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973, and this sobering, light-filled museum, with its walls of heartrending photographs of the young faces of the dead and missing, brings home painful realities.
As Pinochet grew increasingly unpopular, in 1988, the plebiscite he had promised loomed, and a nationwide vote was held. To the surprise of many, the “No” (to Pinochet) side won. Using the rainbow as a symbol of hope, rather than dwelling exclusively on pain and sorrow, the campaigners were successful. Democracy was restored.
Light-filled rooms detailing the return of democracy in this museum have a rainbow effect on visitors. Stories about Pinochet, however, do not disappear; we overheard one mother telling her kids about seeing secret police raiding her grandmother’s house, searching for banned books. Sobered and enlightened, we emerged into a vast courtyard, reflecting on what still seems like very recent history.
Across the road we found yet another vast green space, the Parque Quinta Normal with tree-shaded picnic spots, a boating lake and a natural history museum. Like many South American cities, Santiago sometimes seems to be modeled on the Europe of a century ago. The Confiteria Torres (1859) is the oldest spot in town, where linen-covered tables and dignified staff create the illusion of time having stopped.
Time also seems to have stopped at another Santiago attraction: the house designed and lived in by Nobel-prize winning poet Pablo Neruda. Beloved as a man for his wit, and as an artist for his poetry, Neruda often seems synonymous with what it means to be Chilean. “He is our flag,” said a guide to his house in the Bella Vista quarter.
“Ahoy! Ahoy!” announces our guide as we prepare to set sail through the poet’s hillside house. He called himself a “sailor on land,” after all, and when the house was built Neruda and his wife could see the Atlas Mountains from here. His comic touch remains in the salt-and-pepper shakers labeled “marijuana” and “morphine,” in the secret passage to the second floor; and in the painting by his friend Diego Rivera that hides the poet’s face in the abundant red hair of his mistress-then-wife. In the Poet’s Bar on the top floor, photographs of Neruda and Marcel Marceau are side-by-side: poet and clown.
Neruda’s death came shortly after the 1973 coup. His house was “savaged by soldiers,” our guide says. His books were burned and tossed into a nearby canal, where they blocked the flow of water. “Imagine the loss! It was cultural tragedy.” The tour ends, and we depart, walking down the hillside past an icon-like painting of Neruda’s benign face, painted on a wall. The restaurants of Bella Vista are just opening for the evening crowds.
On our last afternoon in town we were serenaded by a street musician—playing a mean jazz saxophone—for several hours before heading out to the Santa Lucia quarter. Named for the city’s picturesque hill, a geographical highlight sculpted with paths, parks and fountains, Santa Lucia has attracted everyone from Charles Darwin to the couple we met there from Utah a few days before.
The streets sprinkled around the hill are known for their bistros and Chilean designer shops. Stopping at Camiseria, we admired a selection of locally made linen shirts and dresses and chatted with the friendly owner. Next stop was a car-free square where a young soprano was singing opera arias, accompanied by a friend playing violin. A crowd had gathered, applauding this young talent, until a police officer intervened and the music ceased; our young singer argued with him spiritedly—but without success. It was like a scene from an opera.
We expressed our sympathies to our soprano, whereupon she presented us with her new CD, while her father, standing guard, told us that Chilean police were not corrupt unlike those in neighbouring countries and that, incidentally, the violinist was not her boyfriend. So our last night ended on something of a high note typical of the friendliness we’d found during our stay.
Surprising, artistic, homey Santiago became a highlight of our winter holiday, and we were sad to leave.