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Santiago (Valparaiso) Overview
My most vivid memory of Santiago is waking in the morning, looking out my hotel window and seeing the towering Andes for the first time. Mountain vistas just beyond the city's tall buildings are one of the special pleasures of this beautiful South American capital.
A thriving city of over six million people, Santiago recently recovered from a difficult period in its long history. In contrast to some nations in Latin America, Chile had a long tradition of peaceful democratic rule and was prosperous, thanks to its rich deposits of nitrates and copper. But on September 11, 1973 a bloody military coup appointed Augusto Pinochet as head of the government. Pinochet's was a reign of terror, with opponents tortured or put to death. Thousands of Chileans were expelled or fled the country to escape the regime. While the wealthy prospered, unemployment and poverty soared during his 17-year reign. Pinochet was finally ousted in 1988, and order and democracy have returned. The many new buildings being erected show that Santiago is flourishing under a stable and progressive government.
This is a sprawling city with a narrow river wandering through it, but with a good look at a map, it is easy to get your bearings. Centro is the downtown area and the oldest part of Santiago. The artistic enclave of Bellas Artes and some unexpected neighborhoods within might make you think you had stumbled into Paris or Rio; streets are busy and filled with dozens of buses. History is found here in the Spanish Colonial buildings in the leafy Plaza de Armas and the stately Civic Quarter; the grandest European-style buildings, including the Municipal Theatre, the National Library and the Palace of Fine Arts, were built after Chile gained its independence in 1818. The funky Bellavista quarter and the big Metropolitan Park are just to the north of downtown, across the River Mapocho.
Modern Santiago is growing to the east. That's where you will find Providencia, an area with wide streets and lovely homes; a popular place to stay because it is walkable and features many shops and restaurants. Further east, Vitacura is home to gourmet dining and to the Boulevard Alonso de Cordova, where the city's most exclusive designer shops are found. Posh new condominiums and lavish shopping malls are beyond in the Las Condes district.
With historic squares, broad avenues, modern buildings, green parks, tempting shops, wonderful restaurants and diverse neighborhoods to be explored, Santiago begs for a pre- or post-cruise stay.
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Other South America Cruise Ports:
Buenos Aires • Lima • Manaus • Montevideo • Puerto Montt • Punta Arenas • Rio de Janeiro • Santiago (Valparaiso) • Santos (Sao Paulo) • Stanley • Ushuaia
Though it originated in neighboring Peru, Pisco sours have been adopted as the national drink in Chile, and are served almost everywhere. The ingredients are Pisco brandy (made with the skin of white grapes), lemon juice, sugar and ice. Sometimes egg whites are added for extra froth.
Chile is one of only two countries in the world where lapis lazuli, a brilliant blue semi-precious stone, is found in abundance, and lapis jewelry is plentiful in all price ranges. Alpaca woolen stoles and sweaters are another local specialty, along with wooden crafts made by the native Mapuche Indians. A wide selection can be found at Los Dominicos in Las Condes; this picturesque craftsman's village has over 150 shops and stalls, many with working artisans on hand. Bellavista, Santiago's bohemian district, has many shops selling jewelry, as well as a daily flea market. For the best quality in jewelry and crafts, check out Pura (Av Kennedy 5413 Tercer in Las Condes).
Spanish. Most people working in hotels and tourist shops speak English, and restaurants that cater to visitors often have English translations on the menu.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Chile's currency unit is the peso. One U.S. dollar is worth just over 500 pesos, so a calculator comes in handy for figuring costs. See www.oanda.com for current rates and an invaluable "cheat sheet" to print out and take with you. ATM's are the most convenient way to get funds; they are found in the airport, at banks, in shopping centers and in many large hotels. Bank hours usually are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock in Valparaiso, a coastal city about 90 minutes from Santiago; many public buses operate between the two cities (see Getting Around).
Valparaiso has long attracted artists and poets and has been declared a UNESCO Heritage Site (it was once the capital of Chile, before Santiago). Before the Panama Canal was built, ships stopped here before rounding Cape Horn, making it one of the busiest ports in South America. It has seen better days -- paint is flaking on many buildings and some of the downtown shops are vacant -- but the port remains busy and the town is picturesque, with multi-hued houses clinging every which way to the 40-something steep hills that form a kind of amphitheater around the harbor. Fifteen somewhat creaky Victorian-era funicular elevators called "ascensors" can be boarded throughout the city for panoramic views.
The main tourist attraction is La Sebastiana, the hilltop home of Chile's late Nobel-prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda. The house is a maze of quirky rooms, each with a prize city view. The grandest square is Sotomayor, the gateway to the town pier, and is lined with statues and fine official buildings including the Chilean navy headquarters. The tourist information office here offers free maps with walking tours.
From Valparaiso: Turbus, a reliable company with well-maintained buses, has departures every 20 minutes for under $7 one way.
Editor's note: The text is in Spanish, but once you click Venta de Pasayes and enter your cities and date of travel, you will get current schedules and fares. Buses leave from the Valparaiso bus terminal at Av. Pedro Montt 2800, near O'Higgins Square, and in Santiago at Alameda 3750. Cruise lines offer day tours for those who do not stay over in Santiago. Tours usually include Vina del Mar, a lovely seaside resort near Valparaiso.
In Santiago: The central part of Santiago can by covered on foot, but you'll want to see a variety of neighborhoods. The quickest way to get around is by Metro, the city's modern, clean and safe subway system. The cost is just 370 peso, about 60 cents, per ride. Taxis are plentiful and reasonable with typical rides running $5 or $6 between neighborhoods. They are available at hotels, can be hailed on the street or called by phone. Taxis have meters, but to avoid being driven out of the way, it can be wise to set a price before you get in. There are plenty of rental car agencies available at the Santiago airport and in town. Expect to pay around $50 per day for the smallest no-frill cars.
Watch Out For
Your belongings: Though generally safe, Santiago, like most big cities, has areas where thefts occur. Be careful when visiting the Plaza de Armas and Bellavista areas, and avoid walking around these neighborhoods at night.
The Andes and Coastal ranges meet to completely ring this beautiful city like a crown, jeweled most of the year with sparkling white snow, but you'll have to look closely to see them; as the economy prospers and more people own cars, smog can be a problem. Carry eye drops to alleviate irritated eyes.
Plaza de Armas: This square of palms and fountains was laid out by Pedro de Valdivia, the Spanish conquistador who founded the city in 1541. It is the historic heart of the city, lined with handsome Spanish Colonial-style buildings, including the City Hall, Natural History Museum, the Post Office, and the Metropolitan Cathedral, the city's grandest church. Step inside the cathedral to see the gilt arches and the high marble altar set with lapis lazuli. Erected in 1745, this is actually the fifth church on this site. The first one was burnt down by Mapuche Indians just a few months after it was built, and the others were destroyed by earthquakes in 1552, 1647 and 1730. It is one of many buildings in the city rebuilt in Colonial style following earthquakes. The ornate twin bell towers were added in the late 1800's. The square itself is a lively scene, populated with artists, living statues, vendors, chess players and, of course, tourists (Plaza de Armas Metro stop).
Just one block southwest of the Plaza de Armas on Bandera is the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, Santiago's most outstanding museum. Here you'll find an unmatched collection of carvings in wood and stone, ceramics, and pottery and textiles from the early inhabitants of South and Central America and Mexico, especially the Andes tribes. There are some 3,000 items on display. Open Tuesday - Sunday, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Constitution Square: The city's most formal square, about six blocks from the Plaza de Armas, is home to statues of heroes and to the Palacio de la Moneda, the presidential palace. Tours can be arranged at the reception desk. The changing of the guard takes place every other day at 10 a.m. The plaza is the roof of an underground bunker built by Augusto Pinochet when he took over the government in an infamous military coup in 1973. Today it is a parking lot (La Moneda Metro stop).
Santa Lucia: At the edge of downtown is the lushly landscaped Cerro Santa Lucia, a triangle-shaped hilltop named by Valdivia. According to some accounts, it was the spot where he founded Santiago in the name of the crown of Spain. The bare hillside was transformed in 1872 as part of an effort to turn Santiago into a European-style city, providing gardens, squares and terraces where fashionable residents could stroll and enjoy panoramic views. It was restored in the 1990's and an elevator to the summit was added.
The Castle Hidalgo at the summit is an exhibition center for native art, and outdoor plays and concerts are held here in the summer. Enter at Avenida Alameda and St. Lucia, or take the elevator on St. Lucia Street at Agustinas. The paths are open daily from 9 a.m. - 8 p.m. from September to March, and 9 a.m. - 7 p.m. from April to August. Free. Near the tourism office at the Alameda entrance is a display of Chilean crafts and a bustling crafts and flea market is in action across the street (Santa Lucia Metro stop).
Bellas Artes: This small artistic neighborhood near the foot of Santa Lucia hill, located between the Alameda and Parque Forestal, is a favorite of artists and writers, home to pleasant bars, cafes and art galleries, an 18th-century church and several museums. The grand National Fine Arts (Bellas Artes) Museum, built in 1905, is two museums in one, showing Chilean and international painters, and incorporating the Museum of Contemporary Art. (Parque Forestal, Tuesday - Sunday, 10:30 a.m. - 6:30 p.m., free on Sunday ). The attractive new Museum of Visuales Arts (Artes Visuals) showcases the work of some 300 local artists as well as encompassing the Anthropology Museum displaying ceramics, textiles and other artifacts by the native peoples of Chile. (307 Lastarria, Tuesday - Saturday 11 a.m. - 7 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.) Interesting boutiques are found around the Plaza del Mulato Gil de Castro off Lastarria. (Bellas Artes Metro stop).
San Cristobal: Take the funicular railway or a gondola to the summit of San Cristobal Hill in Santiago's Metropolitan Park for an unforgettable view of the city and its mountains. At the top is a gleaming statue of the Virgen de la Immaculada. The park, a green retreat from city traffic, also includes a botanical garden and the city zoo. The funicular runs Monday 1 a.m. - 9 p.m., Tuesday - Sunday 10 a.m. - 8 p.m. Cable car operates weekdays 2:30 - 6:30 p.m. and weekends 10:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m. (Baquedano or Pedro de Valdivia Metro Stop).
Been There, Done That
Though it is seedy in spots, bohemian district Bellavista (Bellavista Metro stop) has colorful houses; a host of shops, sidewalk vendors and cafes; and a tempting flea market along Pio Nono street. It is also the location of La Chascona, one of the intriguing homes of Nobel poet Pablo Neruda. It was the romantic hideaway for Neruda and his third wife, Matilde, for years before they were married. Winding garden paths, stairs and bridges lead to the home with a bedroom in a tower and a secret passageway.
Barrio Paris-Londres and Barrio Brasil: Take a pleasant stroll through these unique enclaves built for the well-to-do Barrio Brasil, south of the Plaza de Armas (Cumming Metro stop). The enclaves were developed at the end of the 19th century for the aristocracy and is the epitome of Latin of all the city's neighborhoods, with iron grill work and gurgling fountains. Today, it houses a university and is filled with young people. Paris-Londres is lined with small mansions erected in the mid-1920's when European style was all the rage. The streets are even named Paris and London. Some of the three- and four-story homes are now restaurants or small hotels. (Santa Lucia Metro stop; walk south on Alameda and turn left onto Avenida Londres.)
Vina del Mar: For those who have seen Santiago or want a change of scenery, this posh seaside resort just down the coast from Valparaiso is known for its palm tree-lined boulevards, fine hotels and dining, miles of beach and the country's oldest casino. The "don't miss" sights include its famous floral clock (that actually works) and the archaeological treasures at the Fonck Museum, known for its Easter Island collection.
Chile is increasingly famous for its wines, and a tour of vineyards is a pleasant outing from the city. The Maipo River Valley, about an hour from Santiago, has the country's greatest winemaking tradition and is home to 17 wineries known for their fine reds. The elaborate estate of Concha y Toro is the country's largest winemaker. The nine wineries of the Casablanca Valley are also popular. Many companies offer day tours from Santiago, which run from $50 to $85 per person and usually include lunch. Contact Chip Travel, Turismo Cocha, or ask your hotel for a recommendation.
Pomaire: This crafts village famous for its earthenware pottery is about 43 miles from Santiago. Buses depart frequently from Terminal San Borja in downtown Santiago. Pomaire is also included on some winery tours.
Seafood is king in Santiago: Sample the delicious Chilean sea bass (known as corvina), the locally farmed salmon, or the Chilean specialty congrio, conger eel, which is actually a kind of fish. Patagonian lamb is also delicious. And soon you'll see that Chileans love bread; look for the "marraqueta," a flat roll served almost everywhere. Fine Chilean wines add to the dining pleasure.
On the Pier: Bote Salavidas (Muelle Prat, lunch from 12:30 p.m.), located on the harbor on the main pier, has great views through glass walls and is one of Valparaiso's best seafood restaurants. Three-course lunches are about $15.
Local Lunch: Central Market is a lunch tradition in Santiago, as popular with locals as with tourists. The market, a vast bustling emporium with a soaring roof has been a fixture since 1872. It is filled with vendors selling every kind of fish you ever dreamed of -- and some you never imagined. Hawkers will try to lure you into one of the many cafes in the market, but the place to go is Donde Augusto, where you may be dining beneath a photo of Bill Clinton or another familiar celebrity. Set meals, including a Pisco sour, soup, generous main course and dessert, begin around $30. The strolling musicians come free.
Editor's Note: The market opens at 6 a.m. daily, except Sunday. Restaurants serve Monday - Thursday until 4 p.m., Friday to 8 p.m., and Saturday to 6 p.m.
Fine Dining: Young chef Giancarlo Mazzarelli has established himself at Puerto Fuy (Nueva Constanera 3969, Vitacura) as one of Latin America's stars with his original dishes and artistic presentations in a chic setting. His Chilean sea bass may be the best you'll ever taste. Expect to spend $40 - $50 for dinner. Lunch Monday - Thursday, 1 p.m. - 3:30 p.m.; dinner 8 p.m. - 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, dinner only 8 p.m. - midnight. The much acclaimed continental fare at Europeo is a nice alternative.
Latin Flavor: Astrid & Gaston (Antonio Bellet 201, Providencia), another innovative gourmet choice, has a colorful ambience, an open kitchen and a selection of delicious dishes from Peru as well as local specialties. Monday - Saturday, lunch, 1 p.m. - 3:30 p.m., dinner, 8 p.m. - midnight.
Best Overall Tours: Cruise lines offer a variety of excursions to combine the sights of Santiago with other nearby attractions. Santiago & Vina Del Mar offers the best of the big city plus a jaunt to a lovely seaside resort town near the port of Valparaiso. Concha y Toro Winery is also included on many city tours. Or, triple up and visit a winery, plus see the fancy footwork of Chilean cowboys performing a festive national dance en route to Santiago.
Editor's note: Many Santiago tours end at the airport, convenient for those who are leaving from the capital city.
For Ski Bunnies: Journey high into the Andes Mountains for sensational vistas from Chile's best-known ski resort, a great sight in any season. Portillo & Central Andes.
For Literature Buffs: Visit the two unique homes of Chile's most famous writer, the Nobel-winning poet Pablo Neruda, La Serena, high in the hills of Valparaiso, and Isla Negra on a cliff overlooking the sea. The Pablo Neruda, Isla Negra and Valparaiso.
Closest to the Port: If you plan to spend a night in Valparaiso, Puerto de Alcala is a basic small hotel. It's nothing fancy, but the location is convenient and their rooms are clean and comfortable. Rates begin at $65.
Worth the Splurge: Grand Hyatt Santiago (doubles from $288) is a striking, recently renovated high rise in the swank Las Condes area with a 24-story atrium. They offer the largest rooms in the city (each with a picture window and mountain view), gardens, a pool, spa, three good restaurants and impeccable service. Only one caveat: the subway is a 15-minute walk away.
Family Haven: Santiago Park Plaza (doubles from $175) is a European-style hotel with a good, convenient address in Providencia. Good news for families: the hotel's Park Suite Apartments are around the corner, where quarters begin around $100 and come with full kitchenettes. Another good choice: Four Points Sheraton, with a rooftop pool.
Boutique Beauty: Hotel Orly (doubles from $135) is a renovated mansion in Santiago's Providencia neighborhood with a cozy French feel. The mansion features 25 rooms and a glass-roofed breakfast patio. The location is perfect for walking, and the subway is across the street.
Garden Spot: Hotel Acacias de Vitacura, in the neighborhood of Vitacura (El Amanita 1781, doubles from $123), is set amidst towering old trees and a garden, and has terraces, a pool, a jogging trail and a small gym. Fine dining and shops are nearby.
Staying in Touch
Santiago is a wired city. Internet cafes are found throughout and all hotels have Internet access -- some Metro stations even have Wi-Fi areas. One centrally located Internet cafe is Sonnet, off Alameda at Londres 43. In Valparaiso, World Next Door Cafe, Blanca 592, is a short walk from the main pier.
For More Information
On the Web: www.visit-chile.org
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--by Eleanor Berman, Cruise Critic Contributor
--Photos appear courtesy of Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor