Searching for Soul in Santiago

… And without much luck. Sorry, I’m just gonna come right out and say it: Santiago may have its perks and hidden gems, but I found my visit there last week boring.

Maybe it is city-fatigue. “How different can cities be?” Alan asserted. “In the end they’re all modeled on the same template.” I’m a little hesitant — scared even — to buy that: it’s easy to lose your sense of wanderlust with that sort of thinking.

Still, whatever the reason, Santiago was lacking in… something. Spark. Soul. It was a monotone dampener to the start of my last spring break ever.

Food was lacklustre, prices comparatively higher, heat a tad too stifling, the attractions short on wonder. Maybe it’s cos we were already blown away by the Andes-and-city fusion in La Paz. But to give Santiago some credit, the Andean mountains as a backdrop to a functional metropolis is still a sight to behold — especially for new eyes.

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The view from Cerro San Cristobal

Tired from an 11-hour journey, our first day in Santiago was pretty chill. The six of us decided to venture up Cerro San Cristobal — the second-highest point in the city and a hill super-close to our AirBnb place — to ride the teleferico (cable car) and funicular. Both were under maintenance. Bummer.

After some mangled negotiations with two cabbies in Spanish, we finally found ourselves confronted with an imposing yet majestic Virgin Mary.

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Underneath the Virgin is a chapel where Pope John Paul II prayed for the city in 1987

I thought the place would be mostly filled with tourists, but tokens of prayerful gratitude and lit candles said otherwise.

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We took only a billion more pictures of the view before heading down (which in itself was a time-consuming process of waiting for random taxis to arrive, since both usual + cheap modes of transport were no longer functioning).

We finally got down and eventually re-navigated ourselves to the famed Astrid y Gaston restaurant (our initial driver took us to the wrong place) — all of us were psyched to have some good food, especially after the goodness-induced high we experienced at Talula’s Table just two days ago (story to come, don’t worry).

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Who wouldn’t be excited? Gastón Acurio’s flagship restaurant in Lima makes The World’s 50 Best list, and I’ve friends raving over their phenomenal experience there. Since I missed out on Astrid y Gaston the last time I was in Lima, I thought having the tasting menu at its Chilean branch would be my second-best option.

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Sadly I was wrong 🙁 The food, especially towards the end, didn’t so much run the gamut as they did swing from one extreme to another: in-desperate-need-of-water salty — and water came with a hefty price tag — to sickeningly sweet. Plus we had an awful waiter who barely gave us attention until the check needed to be paid where, from that point onwards, he would hover over us and reach for the as-yet-unpaid check every 30 seconds. Annoying.

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One of the (very) few good things from the Tasting Menu

To round off a disappointing day, we realized that the condo we were staying in was situated right in front of the Barrio Bellavista pub/club area. Even on the 17th floor, the raucous, drunken laughs and chatter had no problem infiltrating our room and invading our sleep. Because while these alcohol-dishing bars are closed in the day…

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… at night they morph into boisterous gathering clubs that don’t wind down till 4 or 6am. You have been warned!

To top it off, I was nursing the start of a terrible throat infection. All in, an awful beginning to Spring Break ’13.

Thankfully, Day 2 was much improved.

We started off the day with a fairly decent brunch (albeit served at an excruciatingly slow pace) at Leerte and a stalkery dog that followed us for a good 30 minutes (Aaron Koh: “This dog never smell Chinese before ah?”). By midday we found ourselves at its Plaza de Armas, face-to-face with the  Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago, an 18th century building that survived numerous earthquakes.

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I have written a lot about church-exhaustion too, but walking into this cathedral and taking a seat in one of its pews, soaking in the strange combination of honest, fervent prayer and intrusive tourism… It was comforting.

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Post-holy contemplation, we turned 180 degrees and entered Cafe Caribe, a cafe con piernas (cafe with legs). It’s not hard to figure out why it’s called that — two of the first things you notice are its baristas’ bare legs.

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Photo by Jane Cheng; note the ridiculous short skirt

We all were first struck by the innovative-ness of the cafe — no seats, just long bar-esque tables to stand around while the baristas walked on elevated “islands” serving mocha and cappuccinos. And then Jane or Michelle remarked: “Wow, it’s all men in here.”

Not just men — old men. Think of your most stereotypical lecherous-looking man. Multiply that by 15, and you have Cafe Caribe’s clientele: sipping away at their coffee cups just often enough to make it look like they weren’t there to stare at the girls. As it is, Cafe Caribe is as tame as it gets. In some wilder cafes con piernas, the baristas wear skimpy bikinis.

We paid a quick visit to La Moneda, the seat of Chile’s presidential power. It’s supposedly one of the most accessible governmental offices you can ever step into — if you call ahead. However, we didn’t really plan ahead so this was about as close as we got:

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Following this, we spent an interminable time at a randomly situated shopping mall buying groceries — did I mention water is expensive in Chile? that things in general are expensive in this country?? — froyo + sorting out Jane’s phone problems.

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Honey Stars 4x the size of my face — every kid’s dream come true 🙂

Eventually we found ourselves in the Mercado Central, which I envisioned to be a curiosity-filled haven of weird Chilean fish and fruits, like the one in Cusco. Instead it looked like the tourist trap version of every wet market on earth — dead fish on melting ice banks, with the occasional octopus draped too casually over the sides…

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It didn’t help that we got treated really badly by the waiters at the seafood place we sat down at: one presumed we couldn’t read, rolled his eyes at us, another literally slipped the bread we were eating on one one plate off onto the table. Not to mention the ceviche was awful.

If I sound super cranky about Santiago, that probably wouldn’t be too far off from the truth. Again, I am sure some people are in love with the city — and no doubt it has its merits — but after being charmed by Cusco, lured in by La Paz, and mesmerized by Miami, Santiago felt staid.

I think we could have minimized the disappointments with better research — in contrast to our previous holidays, we really didn’t start until two days before our flight. Some people are good with the spontaneous, on-the-go itineraries — and I think Alan and I know how to wing it when we ought to — but Santiago is a place that requires planning to ensure you make the most out of it, or at least to know how to avoid the meh bits.

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Andean mountains in the background, the 71%-polluted Mapocho river in the foreground

Thankfully, the rest of my trip was far more exciting. Santiago was a good lesson in travel planning, though. Stay tuned for stories on quaint seaside city Valparaiso and rustic desert Atacama!

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