A Travellerspoint blog

Between the Montana and the Mar

sunny 68 °F

5,117 miles.

That's how far away from home we are, and it certainly feels like it!

Look on a map of the Americas and you will see that a flight to Santiago, Chile is certainly not an easy one; it is halfway down the noodle-like country and, therefore, is quite a ways south into South America.

For us, this excursion from Ohio to central Chile is long and tedious. The 24 hours of travel time drag on forever, each new airport blending into the next and seeming farther away from home than the last. During a six-hour layover in Houston, we read and people watch at our gate as four or five different flights come and go.

One neat thing about the journey was flying into Panama at night. As we approach the airport in Panama City, the plane circles out over the ocean and we catch a glimpse of about 15 boats—small freighters, cruise ships—anchored out in a cluster and illuminated by the soft golden lights on their decks. From the air, they look small and serene as they twinkle in the inky blackness of the ocean. It brings back happy memories of mooring out at Put-in-Bay during the summers, and I can't help but tear up a bit at the thought.

Finally, we arrive at the Santiago airport just as the sun is starting to rise behind the Andes. Stepping out of immigration and customs—which had confiscated my bag of Kroger almonds and Ocean Spray dried cranberries—with our massive luggage in tow, we are met by a swarm of hired drivers with name cards and taxi drivers trying to grab our attention. They all hold their cards up in unison as we walk past. We had arranged for a driver to pick us up via our hotel, but for some reason, he is not there and, after numerous attempts to call the hotel on nearby pay phones (which did not work, for some reason), we hop into one of the other taxis for a surprisingly long ride through town.

Founded in the mid-1500s by Spanish conquistadors, the huge metropolis of Santiago is a forest of dense skyscrapers, historic buildings and highways nestled at the foot of the impressively high Andes Mountains. As our taxi driver weaves in and out of traffic, through tunnels and fast, curving highways, he points out in a flurry of Spanish words various landmarks. I pick out a few words and can barely follow what he's saying. “Montana” he says, pointing toward the jagged Andes peaks. We look in awe from the back seat at how the Andes reach an indescribable altitude into the sky. Today, a thick morning haze lets us see just ghostly silhouettes of the mountain range.

More than 6 million people—nearly half of the Chilean population—lives here. Unfortunately, because of the population and the geography (which somehow traps a lot of the smog against the mountains), Santiago is notoriously one of the most polluted cities in the world, and a thick smog often engulfs the skyline and the neighboring peaks.

We eventually end up off the highway and in a labyrinth of tree-lined streets with shops, banks and restaurants. This is the neighborhood of Providencia, which is known for its elegant, spacious homes that once housed some of the area's more affluent residents.

Our driver drops us off in front of Meridiano Sur Petit Hotel, a three-story, white stucco boutique hotel surrounded by a wrought-iron gate, flowering trees and a courtyard with outdoor seating and umbrella'ed tables. It's situated on a narrow residential street with unique little eateries and barking dogs. Inside at the reception desk we meet Angelo, who I had corresponded with while researching hotels. Because it is only 8:00 in the morning, our room is not yet ready for us to check in so we relax for a few minutes in the downstairs lobby, which has a European feel to it but is also decorated with Andean touches, set against clean white walls and dark hardwood floors.

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Angelo says that we can store our luggage in a small room behind the front desk until our room is ready for check-in, which we eagerly agree to. He shows us on a map of Santiago where the good restaurants are within Providencia, as well as some of the popular destinations in the central city.

We walk down down Av. Providencia, the main street of the neighborhood, in search of a restaurant that is open this early in the morning, but most are closed. However, we can tell that many of these restaurants are pretty nice; one nicely-dressed employee waters the outside hanging plants before the restaurant opens for the day, and at another restaurant, a man in a crisp white shirt and black dress pants unfolds white linen table clothes on the outdoor tables.

We realize, as we are caught in a large, dense mass of people rushing through a crosswalk, running into each other like two opposing currents, that it is a workday here in Santiago—and rush hour, at that. People are power-walking every which way, carrying briefcases and wearing brightly colored stiletto heels. I comment to Matt that it feels like crossing Princes Street in Edinburgh, where the schools of locals and tourists alike rush across the streets in big amoeba-like masses, but really, these crowded streets in Santiago feel much different. In Edinburgh, I felt like a natural part of that amoeba, yet here, I feel like we are swept away in it, like we don't belong there and everyone knows it.

It doesn't help, I suppose, that we stop every so often to check our location on the small map we brought, or that light-complexioned Matt has his DSLR camera slung around his neck (I may have been able to pass as ambiguously Chilean, or something south of the equator), or that it seems that tourists in general are few and far between. Or, most importantly, that neither of us speaks a lick of Spanish. And the other Chileans really don't speak a lick of English. The taxi driver, the young customs officer who confiscated my fruit and nuts, even the flight attendants from Panama to Santiago—all I found myself simplifying my sentences with, attempting the only Spanish words I know (“banos,” “carne,” and, of course, “si” and “gracias”), and at times acting out what I was trying to say.

In this way, we feel starkly out of place and out of our element—yet this is what gives our excursion a sense of adventure. We wanted to see a new culture, try new things, and experience what it's like to just not know.

The not-knowing part, it turns out, is pretty easy. When we finally find a restaurant that is open and serving breakfast, we open the menu and see that everything is in Spanish. We're not surprised, exactly, but we are shocked by how much we don't know. I had taken French for five years, so a lot of words should be cognates with French or English. But nothing really looks recognizable. We do distinguish that one menu item contains pollo, but is it on a sandwich? Salad? Breakfast burrito? We literally have no idea.

We are eternally grateful that our server speaks very good English and happily lists off some of the things we may like—omelets, breakfast sandwiches, etc. Matt jumps at the ham and tomato omelet, and when I ask about sandwiches, the server goes down the menu and explains what each sandwich is. And he does the same when I say that I would like a coffee drink. Bless his heart.

I end up ordering a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, which seems to have been put in some sort of sandwich press so that all the edges are essentially welded together. Had the sandwich not been cut in half, it would have looked like a big bread ravioli. My coffee with whipped cream (real whipped cream, not Reddi-Wip), caramel and nuts is heaven on this somewhat chilly morning. Matt enjoys his espresso as well.

Though we are pretty tired from the flights, we decide to get to the outskirts of the city and try out the public transit system. Santiago actually has excellent infrastructure—a good highway network, public buses, and a subway system that links the various reaches of town. We decide to try the latter, and descend into the subway station just a couple blocks from our hotel.

The dark, crowded hallways of the subway station remind me a bit of Edinburgh's Waverley Station. In a sense, it is easier; this particular station only has two subways, one for each direction of the track. But figuring out the currency conversion and getting information when no one speaks English is a whole other monster. We do fine; we get the tickets for our intended stop from a cashier who silently slips them under a slit in the glass window. They are about 560 chilean pesos each--what this amounts to in U.S. dollars I have no idea.

The train is crowded and very efficient. We make it to the end of this particular train line in just about 10 or 15 minutes and emerge in Los Dominicos, a section of Santiago closer to the Andes. Our reason for coming here is that there is a daily market—Centro Artisanals Los Dominicos—where artisans and craftsmen sell their wares, from pottery and woodwork to paintings, Chilean rugs and alpaca products. The market is actually a series of small, historic-looking buildings turned into shops, with dirt pathways and streams weaving throughout. We duck from shop to shop, admiring the famous lapis lazuli jewelry and artworks, and talking to the craftsmen. One man carves astonishingly tiny figurines from matches. We look closer at the tiny carvings of wood and see everything from a sailor at the helm to Jesus on the cross. At another shop, a small older man is carving local Chilean scenes out of wood and painting them, making them into beautiful textured wall art.

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We browse the shops, stopping often to coo at the cats lying in doorways. We have lunch at the on-site restaurant, the Antulican, where we grab an outdoor table under an umbrella. I order a typical Chilean dish called corn pie, which is ground beef, onions, chicken, olives, and hard-boiled eggs covered in mashed corn and then baked. Matt has “the chorrillana,” which is meat, sausage, onions and a fried egg on top of French fries.

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We eat our food and watch the nearby bird menagerie, which is filled with lots of different types of birds that jump across the crick running through their cage or perch on their enclosed tree. A peacock alternates sitting on a tree branch to scream about his masculinity, and standing in front of the roosters with his plumb fanned out. He does a dance where he kicks his feet and wiggles his tail feathers, while literally vibrating his huge turquoise fan. He continues this dance almost throughout our entire meal, making 90-degree turns to show off his colors and size to the rest of the birds.

The subway ride back to Providencia is short, but it feels like an eternity. I have to fight to keep my eyes open and figure I must look drunk to everyone else around me, with my heavy, unfocused eyes. When we make it back to Meridiano, Angelo has already taken our bags to our room and takes us up to our second-floor lodging. The room is simple and comfortable; a king bed with white linens takes up most of the relatively small (by American standards) room, but we have our own bathroom and two bright windows that look out onto the beautiful flowering trees.

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We relax for a little bit, checking email before we both take a much-needed nap. At about 7, we force ourselves out of bed so we can grab some dinner, though I think we both would have been content to sleep straight through the evening into the next morning. We walk back out to Av. Providencia to check out some of the restaurants along the main drag. Even though it is 7:45, it is still light outside and people rush along the sidewalks. We check out a few menus but find that either the restaurants have pretty much all gluten products (which Matt can't have) or are full of smokers (who I can't be around). We return to the street that Meridiano is on and decide to have dinner at Ozaki, a “Peruvian-Japanese fusion.” The dining room is upstairs, with subtle wood walls and colorful abstract paintings. Again, we don't understand much of the menu, but I recognize “chow mein” in one dish and Matt sees “pollo” in another, so we order those without really knowing what the dishes are.

My dish ends up being chow mein noodles with a beef, pepper and onion stir fry, tossed in a brown sauce with an interesting South American flavor kick to it. Matt's dish is the same type of stir fry over fries, with a side of licorice rice. The licorice is in its raw form of what looks like large white corn kernels, but has an intense flavor of black licorice. Matt says it blends well with the rest of the stir fry dish.

We finish our meal with espressos, which we sip while the rest of the dining room fills up. Here, the dinner rush doesn't really start until much later than we are used to, so by 9:30 the room hums with conversations we don't understand.

The two-minute walk back to Meridiano is surreal. With dinner wine calming our nerves after a stressful few days, we walk through the darkened Santiago neighborhood and marvel that we are here in South America, in a place so unfamiliar to us that everything feels brand new.

Posted by GoWander 11.09.2012 19:58 Archived in Chile

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