Santiago de Chile, a unique city

Santiago de Chile and the Argentinean city of Buenos Aires are the two most European cities of South America, not only racially, but also architecturally. However unlike Buenos Aires, its economy is flourishing and the people, though friendly, are proud of their standard of living. It is not only one of the world’s most modern cities, but is the capital of Chile, that long and narrow country whose name is so often mispronounced. The vast majority of outsiders will pronounce the name as ‘Chilly’. The Chileans will correct you, making it clear that the word is ‘Chile’ the le pronounced similarly to the French adjective ‘le.’

There are so many things that make this city so unique; one of the most prominent features is the number of buses, some 16,000 of them all painted yellow and travelling in batches of up to six or more. This combined with the modern underground system, the trains silently rushing through the tunnels on rubber wheels, makes it very easy to travel through Santiago without having to wait for transport. It is not uncommon to see buses racing each other to get to the people waiting at the bus stops before their competitors.

Flowing through the city is the Mapuchie River, bringing from the Andes a large quantity of silt, which gives this river a brown, muddy colour. It is not a wide river and therefore has no spectacular bridges crossing it, as have so many other cities.

This city of five and a half million inhabitants lies halfway between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, and it is the earthquakes to which it is subjected that have made Santiago such a modern and attractive city. Another factor is that the city is divided into several municipalities, each presided over by a Mayor, and a reason given for this is the competition between these office holders that has made the city so architecturally interesting.

As in most Spanish cities it is comprised of several squares, the chief among them being Constitution Square, commonly known as Arms Square, as it was where the Spanish kept their arms in the 16th Century. It is from the centre of this square that all distances in Chile are measured. There stands the main cathedral of the city built in 1748, and the corner of the square to its left is known as Limon as this is where the Peruvian immigrants, both legal and illegal, sometimes up to 12,000 of them, frequently meet. A number of the other buildings around this square were damaged or destroyed by the earthquake of 1998.

In a smaller square stands the statue of Simon Bolivar who liberated Chile in 1818. The people had already declared their independence ten years before, and now did not favour Spain. This animosity changed the face of parts of the city, as many Chileans then travelled to Europe and on their return decided to change the layout of their sections of the city from the square blocks designed by the Spanish, to the symmetrical outlay similar to that of Paris and other European cities. As a result an area known as Concho y Toro is very similar to Paris.

There is also an area known as Café con leche, (coffee with milk) Here among the taverns and nightspots large numbers of prostitutes roam. It is not a destitute looking area, and in fact in appearance it much like any area with small commercial buildings, restaurants and bars.

In contrast to this is the area known as Swenska, which was originally the Swedish part of the city. Here are the upper class restaurants and nightclubs, and yet, in appearance, it is not very different from Coffee con Leche.

Another square worthy of note is Constitution Square where stands what is known as the. Monetta Palace (The Money Palace.). This very impressive looking structure was built in 1805. Between 1856 1958 it was the home of the Presidents. Then came along one who decided to reside in his own home and the Coin Palace became the Presidential Office. It was in this palace that in 1973 President Allende died. The official version was that he committed suicide, but it was widely known that the forces of President Pinochet, who then took over the presidency, who killed him.

Today many credit Pinochet with the prosperity that the city and the country now enjoy. But with the present controversy regarding his actions there are no statues of him. What can be seen from just about any part of the city is the colossal statue of the Virgin Mary, standing atop the steep hill that stretches across the northern side of the city. This statue reflects the fact that almost 100% of the people are Roman Catholic.

The image itself can be reached by either a cable car or by a funicular, each approaching the flat area directly below the image from a different direction. This enables the visitor to ascend one way and descend the other. Each day both methods of transport are kept busy as several hundreds of people stand in line, pay their 1800 pesos to get to the top where there is a magnificent view of both the statue and the city.

Santiago de Chile is a city where the food is good and the wine can be excellent. Within easy reach of the city are a number of wineries all open to visitors. It was surprising that with all the Chilean wine there is, it is only the sixth highest export of Chile.

In the evenings the entertainment varies widely, and there are clubs that offer a three-course meal, a bottle of wine and good entertainment for a very reasonable charge.

By day there are visits available to various wineries within easy reach, while the city itself has numerous historic sights and many restaurants and attractive but inexpensive sidewalk café’s.

It was my second visit there and yet there was so much that was new to me. For Cayman the only pity is that in leaving these Islands it is difficult to get there until the following day.