A Travellerspoint blog

Bella Vistas in the Urban Jungle

sunny 75 °F

After a good night's sleep, we wake up at 8 and slowly get ready for the day. We head downstairs to the breakfast area—which is a bright sun room that looks out onto the courtyard—for a buffet-style breakfast of waffles, toast, fresh fruit, avocado, meats and cheeses.

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The day is beautiful. Sunny and cloudless, not too hot or too cold, much like summer on the California coast. Luckily, Santiago has had a break from sweltering 85 degree days since we arrived, so sightseeing and walking through the city won't be the sweaty, dehydrated mess it certainly could have been. We walk toward the city center (which is a few miles away), taking a detour to explore the artsy, upscale Bellavista neighborhood. Sidewalk cafes, quaint tree-lined streets and nice restaurants—from Irish-themed to barbecue—give this area a friendly, stylish feel.

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We check out a nondescript shop in the upstairs of a building, where an expansive collection of lapis lazuli jewelry and figurines are for sale at a much more affordable price than the prices in the more tourist-driven shops. Lapis lazuli is one of Chile's precious stones and is only found in the Andes region and in Afghanistan. I selected a lapis lazuli necklace charm in the shape of a four-leaf clover, which a sweet, smiling woman wraps in a soft velvety keepsake bag.

Later, on our walk through Bellavista we come across two men walking a small brown-and-white alpaca on a leash. The alpaca wears a little hat and a string of colorful tassels hanging down from either side of his neck. I start squealing about the cute alpaca and, right on cue, one of the men asks if we'd like our picture taken with the alpaca for 2000 pesos. I know that this is really just a tourist trap, but I can't help myself. We fork over the cash and pose, our arms around the sweet little alpaca's neck as if we are old friends. He's so docile that he just calmly lets us pet him and looks right at the camera.

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We stop for lunch at a Bellavista restaurant called Backstage Life, which is located in a trendy plaza of outdoor dining and shops. We grab a table on the outdoor patio, and I order a penne arrabbiata while Matt has a salmon filet with two shrimp skewers, vegetables and mushroom rice. To finish our meal, we get an espresso for Matt and a frothy cappuccino for me, which we sip in the shade and watch all different types of people pass through the sunny plaza.

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After lunch we continue to walk west until we reach the city center, cutting through several city parks where couples lay entwined the grass and children splash each other at the fountains. The architecture here is different than the surrounding neighborhoods. The neo-classical style of the older buildings is an interesting juxtaposition against the glass and steel of the new conglomerates and skyscrapers. People rush along the sidewalks, narrowly avoiding body-checking us as they walk absently by. Stray dogs sleep in the shade outside of buildings, and bicyclists weave in and out of the pedestrian traffic.

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We decide to explore the “Mercado Central,” the central market of the city where locals buy fresh fish and meat. The mercado is separated into two main areas: an expansive fish market, and a large room with various eateries and merchandise booths. We walk first through the fish market, where an immeasurable amount of fresh seafood lays out on ice to entice the passersby. Huge whole fish (some pancake flat, some impressively long, some with large teeth), eels, octopuses, and varieties of mussels and oysters give off a distinctive briny sea smell; behind the counters, men expertly remove fish heads and collect innards into plastic baggies for sale, presumably for making a fish stock.

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For me, perhaps the strangest sight in the market is a type of seafood that I've only seen on TV: live southern barnacles. These “picorocos” are removed from the water in their calcite shells, which when fused together with other barnacles look like what I can only describe as a rock or coral branch with holes in it. You can see the barnacles inside those holes and, when they move, actually look like bird beaks opening, closing, extending out from the holes, pulling back in. Or like large pinchers. I've heard that these picorocos taste somewhat like mussels or oysters, but can be sandy and not necessarily enjoyable to eat for the untrained tastebuds. I remember seeing a Travel Channel host take a bite of cooked picorocos and grimace painfully, foregoing the rest of the dish.

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The larger section of the mercado has high, wrought iron ceilings with intricate design details. People are crowded into almost every available table to feast on the fresh catch of the day or the other meats being sold by local butchers (tongues, livers, kidneys, pigs feet, and a few animal parts that we couldn't distinguish but were almost certainly some kind of organ).

Save for one older, portly fish seller who, in pretty good English, asks where we are from and tells me that I am a very beautiful woman, no one else in the market seems to speak any English. Several try to sell me their fish while I'm looking at their displays of shellfish and octopus tentacles, probably telling me that their catch was just brought in from the sea this morning and is the freshest in the market. I answer with an uncertain “Inglés?” and they shake their heads and smile apologetically in response.

When we emerge from the dark, damp fish market we walk several blocks away to the Plaza de Armas, the main square of Santiago where artists have displayed their paintings at booths and families relax on blankets in the grass. The buildings at the perimeter of the square include the central post office, a cathedral, a natural history museum, and a few others—all of which date back to approximately the late 1700s, early 1800s. People mill about the square, listening to a woman singing into a microphone and watching a street performer do his best to captivate the circle of onlookers.

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From the plaza, we continue on to Cerro Santa Lucia, a hill in the city center that has ornate stone staircases, fountains, a 17th century fort, and a mausoleum. The walkways wind through the trees to the very top of the hill, where we are treated to a 360-degree view of dense, sprawling Santiago and the mountains bordering the city. The Andes are still not fully visible through the haze, at least not enough to show up in pictures, but they emerge enough that we can see snow on the highest peaks. The sun is so warm, the breeze so refreshing and the views so inspiring that we stay at the summit for awhile and just enjoy watching the city below us.

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By the time we climb back down Cerro Santa Lucia to the street, it is nearly 5 and we are more than ready to head back to Providencia. The walk from downtown is very long and tiring. Our feet hurt, our muscles ache, and we are at the point where we just want to get back to Meridiano and relax. We first stop for an early dinner at a French restaurant in Providencia called Normandie, where I have a roast beef sandwich on a baguette and Matt has beef bourguignon (a rich beef stew with mushrooms and carrots). We sit at a table in front of the window and watch a stray Jack Russell terrier run around on the sidewalk and examine the tables for scraps after patrons leave.

When we make it back to the hotel, we climb into bed and watch TV in a sleepy daze. Because it is the austral summer here, the sky doesn't darken until 9, and we can hear people laughing and children playing outside long after night has fallen.

This bustling, quirky, fast-paced, intimidating, vibrant, sprawling city is alive on this Saturday night.

Posted by GoWander 11.10.2012 17:16 Archived in Chile

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