The country of Chile runs 2,700 miles down the Pacific coast of South America, from the arid reaches of the Atacama Desert in the north to the bitterly cold waters of the Drake Passage in the south. Almost smack-dab in the middle, you find the capital city of Santiago.
Maybe I’ve been gone for too long, but from the moment I left the airport, I got the feeling that I was home. I don’t know if it was the avocados, the wine, or the laid-back coastal vibe, but Chile — Santiago especially — felt like this crazy upside-down version of California. The landscape was familiar, the climate was too, and parts of Santiago could blend seamlessly into Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Trapped between two mountain ranges, the smog in Santiago is some of the worst in the world and in the summer, when temperatures are in the high 90’s, it can be stifling. But now it’s springtime and the city is pleasant. Santiago’s modern metro system, compact center, and green parks, as well as plentiful sidewalk cafés and courteous drivers, make it easy to see the city on foot.
During our three days in Santiago we climbed two of the hills that overlook the city and took a walking tour of the city’s downtown. We also managed to enjoy some good Santiago eats. People sometimes say Chile can’t compete with Peru when it comes to food, but like most things, it’s all relative. Regardless of how the country as a whole fairs, Santiago is a world-class city and has the food to prove it.
Of course, after five months of volunteering in Peru, our budget didn’t exactly allow for haute cuisine every night. We stuck to more working class places and still had a blast. When it comes to cheap food in Santiago there is a war. A war between hotdogs and lomitos (a marinated pork sandwich). Both are served with signature Santiago condiments like avocado and home-made mayonnaise. In the end, the hotdog probably holds the hearts of more of the city’s residents, but just barely.
Another traditional Santiago treat we knew we wanted to try was a terremoto (earthquake). This drink starts with white wine (technically pipeño) and then adds pineapple ice cream. There’s a lot of stories about why it’s called a terremoto, but they all boil down to the relatively high alcohol content of the drink. While some people might use it to get smashed out of their minds, I thought it was actually a great way to cool down on a hot Santiago afternoon. Also, thanks to a large population European immigrants, the ice cream or gelato in a terremoto is usually fantastic.
And I can’t forget about one of the most interesting concoctions we’ve encountered in our travels so far, the mote. Served in most of the parks and vista points around Santiago, mote is a refreshing glass of strangeness. Essentially it is a drink but you could also call it oatmeal or even soup. The base of this beverage is syrupy peach juice but that’s only the beginning. What makes mote unique is that the cup is filled about half way up with cooked wheat grains and always served with a rehydrated peach. It is strange to look at, strange to think about, and strangely delicious.
Santiago is a happening place full of good food and exciting culture, but it’s also a restless city. A city still coping with a history of dictatorship and full of people with opposing ideas. We arrived a few days before September 11th, the day when Chileans remember the thousands of people killed, disappeared, or tortured under the military dictatorship that ruled the country until 1989. The atmosphere in the city was both reverent and tense. Our guide during a walking tour of the city hurried us past a statue of former Chilean President Salvador Allende, who was the last elected president before the coup in 1973. Our guide said the police were still uneasy about people gathering around the man they helped overthrow. As we walked around the city, scars from recent riots were everywhere. Students who claim to follow in Allende’s socialist tradition are calling on the government to reform education and make it more accessible to everyone. They have gone so far as completely taking over and living in one of the city’s main universities.
When we got to the city, I didn’t know how people would handle the years of repression and fear under the dictatorship, I didn’t know if I should even bring it up. But the funny thing was that people stopped me on the street to talk about it. People would literally ask me in English if I knew about what happened and then tell me about how proud they were of Chilean democracy. I’ve done a lot of traveling and visited places where people enjoy less freedom than I do. But to be in a place that seemed so much like home and realize it was ruled by a brutal dictatorship less than 25-years ago was profound. To hear our tour guide, who was my age, talk about his parents being arrested and to realize that almost everyone over the age of 40 has memories of a life I can barely imagine was hard to process. I left Santiago with a new appreciation of my freedom and with a new understanding of just how fragile the things we take for granted really are.