Laidback and leafy, the Chilean capital of Santiago is the ideal gateway for opening up the wonderful world of South America to an eager, excited traveller.
After a long overnight flight from London, the CasaSur Charming Hotel, right in the heart of the trendy Barrio Italia neighbourhood, with its pristine white walls and cactus-lined sunny wooden terrace is a sight for sore eyes. A hearty welcome from the owner Eduardo instantly makes you feel at home in this little cul-de-sac, in the 1940s property he and his wife Catalina purchased and renovated, opening just over a year ago.
Food, furniture and frappes in Barrio Italia
It’s the perfect spot to explore the bright, whimsical streets of Barrio Italia, packed with cafes, bars, restaurants, design stores, bookstores, and antique furniture workshops that all give the area its modern but arty feel. It’s Saturday lunchtime, so the streets are heaving with would be diners leisurely making their way out of the sunshine and into the refuge of the many shady eateries. The smells wafting through the air mean you only need to follow your nose to find yourself a bang up lunch, ours lead us to La Iberica Spanish restaurant on the corner of Calle Italia and Santa Isabel. The giant sizzling paella in the window affirms our suspicions that we will be very happy here.
The shiny, golden soupy mass glistens and hisses as every passer by pauses to admire and photograph it, like it’s a celebrity in its own right. We watch the chef add the finishing touches to his masterpiece as the music gets louder and his colleague starts drumming on the stool next to him. Like we’re at a family feast, the delicious meal is dished up to patient people across the room, and in seconds, it’s gone.
A spot of afternoon tango in the park
Just a five minute walk away is Parque Bustamante, where the dancers of the Milonga Callejera are tangoing in front of the fountain to a delighted audience, some of whom have brought their own snacks and drinks. A couple of new dancers are shy and nervously stick to basic moves, while others have been waiting for this spotlight all day and are gliding across the concrete in their high heels, all lean angular legs and dizzying turns, cheek to sweaty cheek on this hot afternoon.
Drinks with a view and culinary craziness
After experiencing something as rustic as tango in the park, it’s time to get fancy on our Saturday night in Santiago, and the wealthy Vitacura neighbourhood is just the place. At pre-dinner drinks at Hotel Noi’s Tramonto rooftop bar we’re seated by the pool not just amongst Santiago’s most beautiful people, but stunning views of the Andes as the sun sets over the city.
Now it’s time for some storytelling and art – not at the theatre, but at the world famous Borago restaurant, named the best in Chile and the 8th best in Latin America. The expertly trained staff talk you through presentations not courses, and soon you’ll see why. Each course – and you can order either 9 or 18 of them, depending on how detailed you want your ‘presentations’ – is a historic and cultural representation of Chile, inspired by the country’s landscape and its people. Some presentations represent the country’s endless coastline, others hark back to the fare of local communities, such as fisherman and the indigenous.
Our most memorable dishes are the conger eel soup, sipped out of a rock-like bowl from a fennel branch straw; crispy seaweed soup; mushroom ice cream, and the ice cream balls that are camouflaged against grey stones, that you pluck from their tree, whole into your mouth until they melt into chocolate.
The grand finale is the mint meringue infused with liquid nitrogen, making you blow smoke from your nose like a dragon. The entire meal is an unforgettable journey through the country, all from the comfort of our seats, accompanied by the best Chilean wines.
Time to explore
On day two, after feasting on freshly squeezed juices, warm homemade bread, free-range eggs and wholesome muesli and yoghurt on the deck at CasaSur, it’s time to lose ourselves (and walk off some of those 18 ‘presentations’ from the night before).
The maze like hill-top park of Cerro Santa Lucia offers Japanese gardens, tower-top city lookouts, fountains, winding paths, statues and castles.
Across the river, in the Tirso Molino and La Vega markets in the multicultural Recoleta neighbourhood, we jostle against cart pulling shoppers all frantically stocking up on anything from bright red tomatoes, giant corn cobs and fragrant coriander to brightly coloured clothes. While a dreadlocked busking band plays beat heavy Latin jazz to entertain punters downstairs, upstairs, cafe hustlers are thrusting plastic menus in hungry shoppers’ faces. We settle for a table on the balcony, where we are served giant plates of ceviche, seafood rice and humitas (steamed corn cake).
From Recoleta it’s a walk along the river to the brightly decorated Bellavista area, where street art isn’t a statement, but illumination for ordinary bars, restaurants and stores, with the artwork sometimes matching what’s on offer.
Bellavista is nestled under the San Cristobal hill, so after all that walking, it’s time to take a ride on the funicular up to visit the Virgin Mary that guards the city from atop the summit against a backdrop of choir music that plays from loudspeakers. The sun-drenched city sprawls beneath us from all angles, like a giant doormat at the foot of the Andes, which are so imposing that they dwarf the otherwise impressive skyscrapers.
As we stumble off the funicular, we can hear music and wonder if there is a carnival going on. We follow the sound to the tree-lined Pio Nino avenue where the local Sunday session is in full swing amidst the never ending array of garages-turned bars that the street is renowned for. The order of the day is litre bottles of cold beer drunk in plastic cups, to wash down the standard fare of chorillana, a dish of french fries, beef, onion and eggs. At first glance it looks like a greasy mess, but after watching every table down theirs, it starts to look surprisingly tasty.
From Santiago, our road trip through the Andes and into Argentina awaits….