Not-so-touristy things to do on a quick escape to Santiago de Chile

By Tracey Chandler

If you fancy taking a quick trip to Santiago de Chile, only two hours from Buenos Aires by plane, and you only have a few days to spare, there are a number of places you should visit and things you should do which arenot quite so touristy as visiting the Fine Arts Museum in front of Parque Forestal, for example.

Chile is still overshadowed by a dark and oppressive past. Enjoying a few drinks in the Londres/Paris neighbourhood, visiting either of the two cerros(small hill tops) in the city centre, or taking a tour on the double-decker tourist bus as though you were visiting the UK, is all well and good. You’ll have a nice time and have some great snaps to add to your photo album on your return, but you won’t have connected with the real Chile on a grass roots level.

Chileans love to drink (and in large quantities too), they can’t help but discuss politics at length and in detail (which is understandable considering the difficult situation the country remains enslaved in thanks to Pinochet’s most crippling legacy… namely, the 1980 Constitution), and an underlying violent pulse seems to hang over the city, which only the conscious visitor will detect if looking carefully enough at the life which surrounds them.

If you only have a few days in Santiago, one of the most intense moments to visit would be during September in time for the commemoration of the military coup of 1973 on the 11th of September. If not, the celebrations ofChile’s Independence (which for many Chileans really doesn’t mark any kind of Independence at all, considering the fact that the country still suffers from a poor economy caused by foreign investment, endless privatisation and a lack of quality public education and health for all) on the 18th of September is another date worth being around for.

To make a real connection with Chile, with the Chilean people and with the reality of Chilean life in the 21st century, whenever you manage to visit, the following activities/places to visit should be at the top of your to-do-list…

La Vega Market

Visit La Vega to shop for food, eat (breakfast or lunch is best) or simply to visit and wander around. La Vega is a pretty good symbol of “real life” inSantiago. For many, La Vega represents their livelihood, but it’s also a social place to meet up with friends and just share a little time with others. Many people from older generations can be seen at La Vega eating alone. It’s a central hub for the entire community, attracting those from the middle class down.

Fruit, veg, meat, nuts, pulses, you name it, is on sale at La Vega and at excellent prices too. There’s no need to head to the supermarket inSantiago, particularly as La Vega is open all day, every day. If you don’t need to do a daily/weekly shop, La Vega is also one of the best places to eat inSantiago and one of the cheapest. Anything from ceviche at lunchtime to fried eggs for breakfast is served up at the many covered stands. Portions are plentiful and taste abounds.

La Vega is also the right kind of place to visit just to get a real sense of city life in Santiago, away from all the foreign brand stores which line the streets in the Santa Lucia neighbourhood in the centre of the city.

La Piojera and El Terremoto

El Terremoto is a very strong alcoholic cocktail of pineapple ice-cream, red wine and either Fernet or Gancia. One is enough is make you merry, two is good to send you into the land of the happily drunk, three might be enough to leave you with memory gaps the next day and anything beyond that will send you into a state of complete drunkedness, so take care. This potent cocktail will sneak up on you suddenly, so don’t drink them too fast (which is difficult, because they seem to go down like fruit juice they’re that tasty) and make sure that you are with people who will look after you.

La Piojera is a great place to try your first Terremoto. It’s  little more touristythan it once used to be, for sure, as it has earned a reputation for being a “real Chilean watering-hole” which naturally makes it a place of interest for many tourists and tour guides hoping to sell an alternative kind of tour to the general tours offered in Santiago. However, La Piojera is frequented 99% of the time by local Chileans and has lost none of its true Chilean charm.

La Piojera gets very busy… packed! It’s hard to get in and get out and you might wait a while when ordering your Terremoto (and you’ll have to shout a bit, waving your Chilean pesos in the air in order to catch the attention of the bar staff), but the effort will be well worth it in the end. La Piojera is one of the few places in Santiago where Chileans really do let their hair down and relax. Friday afternoons, directly after work, are best. You’re guaranteed high spirits, probably a small fight or two (due to too many Terremotos) and a very full house.

The General Cemetery

Chile is overshadowed by the long, brutal dictatorship that it lived through. Most Chileans believe that the dictatorship never really ended and that theso-called democracy in which they live today is just that… “so-called.” For this reason, it’s important to visit The General Cemetery in Santiago (the largest in Latin America) in order to understand the extent of the tragedy and the brutality suffered by Chileans.

Visit the grave of former socialist President, Salvador Allende.Take a little time to sit and contemplate the drastic changes that Chile suffered at the hands of Pinochet and his army after the military coup on La Moneda inSantiago on the 11th September 1973. To understand Chile, one must understand the torture and injustices that is has suffered, and continues to suffer, thanks to the 1980 Constitution and the problems its society has to deal with because of high foreign investment and crippling privatisation policies which separate rich from poor to devastating effects.

Yein Fonda, Ramadas and Parque O’Higgins

If you do choose to visit Parque O’Higgins, it should really be a visit which coincides with the celebrations of Chile’s Independence on the 18th, 19th and 20th of September. The Yein Fonda tent is erected every year as a place to serve drink (Terremotos are popular) and food (kebabs, empanadas and burgers, etc.) and as a place for Chileans to congregate in the name of their independence from Spanish colonial rule.

It’s important to note that the Yein Fonda tent in Parque O’Higgins (sharing a subway station of the same name) is not necessarily the first choice for a large proportion of the Chilean population to visit during the independence celebrations. For many Chileans, Parque O’Higgins is a an overly-hyped tradition, which has become overrated and overpriced over the years. However, as a foreigner, it’s an important place to visit as a way of seeing a bit more of the “real” Chile.

The Chilean population which chooses to celebrate the independence in Parque O’Higgins has only one objective in mind… to drink until the sun comes up. The park gets incredibly busy, the crowds can get unruly, police presence is heavy, disputes and heated-arguments seem to sprout out all over the place from nowhere and thieves lurk at every corner. But… this isChile… Parque O’Higgins is the dark underbelly of Chile left behind after years of torture and political reforms which generate and strengthen class divides.

This is not to say that all Chileans are violent drunks, of course not. In fact, far from it. But the fact that the only thing most have in mind, when given a few days off of work to celebrate a historical event, is to congregate in an overcrowded park to drink until they can drink no more reveals a lot about the pain and hurt Chile still feels. A few hours in Parque O’Higgins is just what the foreigner needs to see Chile for what it is behind the face of its foreign investors and highrise buildings in the city centre.

Naturally, take care when visiting Parque O’Higgins, avoiding carrying a bag or wearing jewellery and walk around as though you know exactly where you are going instead of looking as though you are visiting for the first time. Blend in, keep your wits about you, breathe in the face of Chile you encounter and avoid drinking more than one Terremoto.

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