Friday, 27 August 2010

Changing Santiago

December 2003, Cerro San Cristobal.

Anyone who knew me or met me more than about 18 months ago might be a little surprised by the fact that, not only do I rent a flat, but I have also bought one to renovate in Santiago. For years, I loathed Santiago with a maniacal passion and made this clear to anyone who would listen (people learned to back away slowly when my rants were just getting started).

Why did I hate it so much? Let me take you back to December 2003. I'd just spent 3 of the most fun weeks of my life in Argentina, my first stop after Ecuador. Argentina in December is probably the most fun you can have anywhere in the world. Seriously. Schools and universities break up for Summer at the end of the first week, the weather's fantastic, Christmas is around the corner and January and February holidays are coming up. The atmosphere and energy are almost tangible. It's an energy I've never experienced anywhere else. If you don't believe me, go out on Aristides Villanueva in Mendoza for the first or second weekend in December and you'll see what I mean.

So after partying and generally having a great time every single day of the week in BsAs and Mendoza, I rocked up in Chile on a Monday afternoon. And I hated it after my first 13 seconds. In Argentina, everyone queues up in an orderly fashion to put bags on and off the bus. There's no pushing, no shoving. Getting off the bus in Santiago, I was elbowed in the face by an 85 year woman and pushed over twice whilst trying to pick up my rucksack by other Chileans who had clearly been trained in the art of social niceties by a pack of rabid chimpanzees (this was, and sometimes still is, my view of how Chileans act in public).

And it didn't really get much better, to be honest. Santiago was, in 2003, possibly the world's most tedious city. There was nothing to do. Bars and restaurants were either not open on week nights or they were completely empty (in Argentina, they were full every single night until early morning). Everything was grey. There was no atmosphere. I was unsurprised to learn that Santiaguinos have one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

And Santiago Centro was sketchy as hell. In the Plaza de Armas, you could literally see the thieves eyeing up their next victims. A friend had his camera stolen from a pew in the cathedral when he looked away for 2 seconds. Cerro Santa Lucia was also really dodgy at that time and I was warned away from it by everyone I met (a German guy in my hostel got mugged and pretty badly beaten up there, which rather reinforced the warnings).

And it wasn't like I was there on my own and didn't know what to do- I had two Chilean friends who were showing me around (and who became increasingly desperate to show me something fun and interesting to do- they failed, quite miserably, until we went to Renaca after Christmas).

I also spent Winter 2004 living in Santiago, in a freezing house on Salvador con Bilbao. That was a truly miserable experience and I spent the entire time desperate to get back to my home in Buenos Aires, a city I adored with as much passion as I detested Santiago (I had come to Chile to see whether a relationship would work- it did for 4 years).

After moving to Valparaiso in January 2007, my hatred of Santiago continued. But it started to change towards the end of the year when my mum came to visit and we spent a couple of days there. We made the obligatory trip up Cerro San Cristobal via bubble lift and came down the other side in the funicular. That was my first time in Bellavista since 2004 and the neighbourhood had really changed. Patio Bellavista had just opened and that development made me realise that there was hope for the city.

Not only that, but the Costanera Norte, which opened in mid-2006 (I think) had a huge effect on the livability of the city. Anyone who arrived after it opened will have no idea of the traffic misery that people used to have to deal with. To get to and from Vina del Mar, for example, pretty much everyone had to go down Alameda. Alameda! I remember getting stuck in 2 hour + traffic jams on Sunday evenings upon arrival on the outskirts of Santiago on a regular basis. Airport trips, which now take 35 minutes in rush hour and 15 minutes at other times could easily take up to 90 minutes. It was hell. The CN took thousands and thousands of cars away from the city centre and improved the lives of millions of people- not just car owners, but pedestrians, cyclists and public transport commuters as well.

And in the past couple of years, Santiago has improved so, so much in terms of decent restaurants, bars and cultural life. The cultural centre under La Moneda is an incredibly beautiful space and Barrio Lastarria and Bellas Artes have exploded in recent times. There are foreign owned businesses catering to expats and the general security in tourist areas is way better than it used to be. Cerro Santa Lucia is now completely safe to walk around and the Plaza de Armas has constant police patrols. And the fact that a lot of banks and offices have moved up to Las Condes and El Golf has reduced the amount of people in Santiago Centro dramatically, making it a much more pleasant area to wander around.

Although I know I could never live permanently in Santiago (the smog is as bad as ever and I prefer living in the country), I do really enjoy the time I spend there now. It's fun to do all the tourist stuff I never did before. That is something I can honestly say I thought would never be true.


  1. hey matt,
    good to read and have heared your experience about the changes. for the very first time i came to santiago in nov 2007 (for 4 weeks) and i loved Santiago then so it was clearly after most of the positive changes occured. But even in the three years since then I can still see Santiago developing a lot (Sanhatten) There are new amazing Restaurants opening on a biweekly basis.
    About the smog for readers that might think to come to Santiago but are as scared as I was.. :) I used to live in the El Golf area and the smog was not as bad as I had imagined and certainly not as bad as in downtown but since april i live at the north east end of las condes - san carlos de apoqindo(20 min by car to el golf - 40 min by bus and metro) and can say that the smog is hardly noticable here - even though i know you doubt it - you will have to come and see yourself..

  2. Yeah, it was around 2007 that things started to really change. It took me a while to start noticing.

    And the may not be as bad up where you live, but if you check the indices, it's still close to or above what are considered emergency levels in most developed nations...

  3. do you have a link to those indices? i once had a link to a government site but this was no longer updated. it would be interesting to see and regularly check

  4. I've never found Santiago quite as bad as you did (then again, I also first came in 2005 rather than 2003, and the Costanera Norte was brand new and already functioning), but I definitely think it's improving at a rapid rate. Even in the past few years of living here full-time, I've seen a huge increase in the range of products offered in supermarkets or the types of cuisine prepared in restaurants.

    The smog, sadly, is still bad. Even if I don't feel its effects most days, I know that it's not healthy.

  5. Really interesting post. I've heard stories of pre-Costanera Norte days, but never really pictured it until this post. I came here in 2007, just when the good times started, I guess, but it's interesting to hear about what it was like before that.