|Today, Santiago is a city with 5 million
inhabitants which occupies the fertile land of the central valley of Chile
between the Andes and the coast, with the Mapocho River crossing the city
from East to West. The most remarkable thing about Santiago is perhaps its
diversity, its many different faces hiding a secret bridge to Europe. It
is a city which faces the new millennium in the midst of a process of
change, with a landscape that sometimes takes us back to the colonial city
it once was.
The international airport Arturo Merino Benítez has recently opened its first extension, and offers passengers a modern infrastructure and architecture. The best thing is to take a bus or a taxi to the city centre. Both options will lead you to Santiago along Ruta 68 and then along its main avenue Avenida Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins, also known as Alameda, which crosses Santiago from East to West. This avenue was opened by Pedro de Valdivia, on the 12th of February 1541, as the city's main axis or vertebra. From the beginning of the avenue, via Ruta 68, which connects the capital with Valparaíso and Viña del Mar, there are several sectors, until you reach the Estación Central, two beautiful buildings linked by an enormous metal cupola, made in the Schneider factory, in Creuzot, the same French factory famous for the huge metal railway bridges. The station opened in 1900, and was inaugurated with celebrations that are now part of the history of Santiago.
This area is a busy and active area, with many fairs and small shops in a sector of the city which dates back to the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Opposite the station is the Avenida Matucana, with all those old houses which lead the way to one of the oldest parks in Chile, opened in 1842, and which now holds the Museo de Historia Natural and the Ferroviario(Railway) Museum.
Eastwards along the avenue is the neighbourhood where the aristocracy used to live, erected mainly thanks to the wealth obtained from the salt mines in the North of the country. Today, one can enjoy the sight of enormous palaces, most of them now University buildings. The area spans across the following avenues: Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins, España, Norte-Sur and Blanco Encalada, opposite the Club Hipico, a must if one really wants to get an idea of the splendour of the beginning of the 20th century. The architecture in this area is mainly French style. Windows, balconies and cornices, memory of a recent past. To the East, crossing the Alameda, one gets to the Barrio Brasil, with its interesting innovative architecture designed by young professionals, where the old houses have been turned into lofts. This area is also full of pubs and restaurants.
Slightly further East appears the city centre, where the main ministerial buildings and the Presidential Palace La Moneda are. During the weekdays, the city centre is a very busy place, with many shoppers, workers and university students going from one place to another. The Universidad de Chile and the elegant Club la Unión are to be found right on Avenida Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins. Going along Calle Ahumada, northwards, one eventually comes to the administrative centre of Santiago. In less than twenty blocks, one has the chance to see the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Correo Central (former Central Post Office), the Museum of Natural History and the Town Hall of Santiago, surrounded by the recently refurbished Plaza de Armas. Nearby are also the former National Congress, the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art and the Palacio de Justicia. (Courts of Justice). Ahumada becomes Calle Puente after crossing the Plaza de Armas, and leads us to the Mapocho River. There we find Mapocho station and the Mercado Central (Central Market), an interesting place both architecturally and gastronomically, particularly when it comes to fresh fish and seafood. The North of Santiago is also a busy place, full of people going from one place to another. From Mapocho station northwards, is the Parque Forestal, where the Museum of Fine Arts is. Further East, along the Alameda, one passes by the Cerro (meaning "hill") Santa Lucía and comes to the Plaza Italia. From here we have many different options. If we choose to go North, across the beginning of the Parque Forestal, and through the Bellavista area, full of restaurants, pubs and discotheques as well as several art galleries, we will finally get to the Cerro San Cristóbal, where we can visit the Zoo, the Art Gallery, and the swimming pools Antilén and Tupahue. If, however you prefer to continue along the Alameda, which turns into the Avenida Providencia, Eastwards, you will come to the modern sector of the city, where shops, bars, restaurants, hotels and shopping centres are patiently awaiting your custom. On the East side of Cerro Santa Lucía is the Lastarria area, the intellectual and bohemian centre of this area, with cinemas, art galleries and restaurants.
Avenida Providencia is the commercial face of Santiago, full of shops, pubs and restaurants, particularly where it meets Avenida Specie. Perfect to sit out on one of the many terraces and enjoy and ice-cold beer, or whatever you happen to fancy. Providencia turns into Avenida Apoquindo, after crossing the San Carlos canal. A few blocks towards the North, on a parallel street, is the Avenida Kennedy, a fast road which passes buy Los Leones Golf Club, crosses Avenida Américo Vespucio, to finally enter the heart of Las Condes, a neighbourhood of modern and spacious houses, and where one can find two of the largest indoor shopping malls in Santiago: Parque Arauco mall and Alto Las Condes mall, both of them on the south side of Avenida Kennedy. From here it is almost possible to touch the Andes and its ski centres. Simply continue eastwards for a few kilometres, and you'll be there.
Santiago is an essential part of any Latin American tour, full of contrasts, with both modern and traditional corners and streets. It is also the perfect starting point for short trips to, for instance, the Cajón de Maipo or the central coast beaches.