A nation that spans frozen fjords and dusty deserts, Chile claims the top spot in our Best in Travel list this year, making it the number-one country to visit in 2018. In the midst of these epic landscapes is the capital, Santiago – its skyscrapers rising tall against a backdrop of snowy sierras. Long bypassed by visitors to Chile, this city is currently undergoing a renaissance, with a lively arts scene, revived urban spaces and an evolving food culture. Here are eight stops to make on your own pilgrimage…
WORDS: MARK JOHANSON
PHOTOGRAPHS: PHILIP LEE HARVEY
Ride a cable car for epic views
Anyone seeking to get their bearings in Santiago should start by boarding the Cerro San Cristóbal cable car. Gliding over the city’s botanical gardens, the skyscrapers of Santiago’s business district fade into the haze. On the hill above stands a 22-metre statue of the Virgin Mary, her arms outstretched, as if beckoning the car to the summit. At her feet, visitors gaze out at ranges of distant Andean peaks that mark the border with Argentina. As fortune would have it, the food carts in Mary’s shadow offer some of the tastiest empanadas in town, and Chile’s beloved mote con huesillo (husked wheat and peach juice) never tastes sweeter than when slurped from this sunny perch.
Pedal by the banks of the Río Mapocho
Amid fields of wild grasses in the Parque Bicentenario is a sculpture of five cyclists gazing into the sky through telescopes. On the ground, real-life cyclists pedal through the park by the banks of the Río Mapocho – the brown river that meanders from the Andes to the Río Maipo, and on to the Pacific. Santiago’s urban riverside is being transformed by a 42km bike lane that runs through the city. To ride the path’s length is to understand the geography of Santiago: passing the glitzy business district of Las Condes, the graffitied streets of downtown and the gardens of the Parque Fluvial Padre Renato Poblete en route to the foothills of the Coastal Range. Chatting couples share the path with commuters in suits, all pedalling together for fleeting moments before heading their separate ways.
Learn a traditional cowboy dance
Katherine Soto Santibañez has danced ‘cueca’ ever since she was a little girl, so perhaps it was only natural that she would become a tutor at Santiago’s legendary Casa de la Cueca, a temple to Chile’s national dance. In a room cluttered with Chilean flags and photographs, Katherine helps two dozen students learn the basic steps, with partners flirting via elaborate footwork as they lock eyes. Soon, the room thumps to a cacophony of crashing feet and twirling dancers. Katherine says the dance re-enacts the courting rituals of a rooster and hen, while the all-important pañuelo (handkerchief) acts as an extension of a dancer’s arm. “You can hook someone and pull them close or shoo them away, all without touching,” she says. People of all ages and backgrounds are represented here. Cueca has undergone something of a revival in Chile, as a younger urban generation searches for their rural roots.
Discover art on the underground
Beneath the streets of Santiago are two dozen statues, paintings and murals that surface dwellers won’t see. These much-lauded pieces are part of the Metro Arte programme, which has been installing artworks in underground stations since the 1990s. Rolling in to the Baquedano Station at the interchange of Lines 1 and 5, commuters see a man walking over the train tracks. He’s balancing finely on a log and it seems he could come crashing down at any second. Parque Bustamante, one station away, sees cartoon eyeballs peeking out over commuters, while the Universidad de Chile station has an epic mural showing the history of the nation, starting with encounters between European explorers and indigenous Mapuche people.