Updated: Aug 31
The Northern Hemisphere was starting to heat up (and catch on fire) so a trip to the Southern Hemisphere was in order.
I met a Chilean couple in the cool, hip lounge of my cool, hip NYC Pod. They mentioned that safety could be an issue in Santiago and specifically noted that Colombian drug gangs were becoming a real issue. Not exactly an update I wanted to hear two days before a flight to Santiago. Well on the day of the flight, ten people were shot in Denver while "celebrating" the Nuggets' first NBA Championship. And I realized a visit to Santiago might be a move in a safer direction.
As it turns out safety was an issue during our stay. A number of times locals mentioned that we were in a bad neighborhood, which in one case was within sight of our hotel (which was in a safe neighborhood). Occasionally when we were out and about, we would ask a local about our safety and they would give the hand signal that says "iffy" (flat hand rocked side to side).
The Hotel Ismael is centrally located in the Lastarria neighborhood, and like most of the hotels serves an included and extensive breakfast that served a juice I never had before, raspberry.
The hotel graciously offered an airport pickup for $50. In a few places in this world, Morocco and Zimbabwe immediately come to mind, this offer should be accepted with thanks. In most though it should be politely declined.
A website called Rome2Rio.com estimated a taxi should run no more than $21. I confirmed the egregiousness by inputting an airport (SCL) to Hotel Ismael trip into the Uber app well beforehand. Why go to all this bother? Well as Robert DeNiro's secret agent character stated in the movie Ronin, "I never walk into a place I don't know how to walk out of.”
In the end, I went with Uber and there is no better way to start off a Santiago sojourn than by saving $32. I could have saved even more by taking two buses from the airport to the hotel, but after six days of staying in a Pod in NYC and a ten-hour flight, I didn’t want to push my luck.
Whether in Pittsburgh, Horseshoe Bend, Seoul, or Hong Kong I love a good funicular - the rickety the better. Therefore I took the Funicular de Santiago up to the top of Cerro San Cristóbal to take in some spectacular views of the city and examine the statue of the Virgin Mary.
The statue of the Virgin Mary is impressive, built in 1908, it stands 72 feet tall allowing it to be seen anywhere in Santiago, day or night. Unfortunately, views of it are marred by an adjacent antenna. In a way though this is quite appropriate, as one can pay homage to the world's two great religions: Catholicism and Telecommunications. The base of the statue contains a small room that contains . . . you guessed it . . . a smaller statue of the Virgin Mary. It's all so very Catholic.
It was getting on towards Cerveza O'Clock, but the entire cerro is seco, so I settled for a Coca Cola Sabor Original O'Clock.
While walking back down the cerro, I also inexplicably had a Mote con huesillo which is a sweet nectar-like liquid made with dried peaches (huesillo) cooked in sugar, water, and cinnamon, and then once cooled, mixed with freshly cooked husked wheat berries (mote). I think it's an acquired taste.
If you are funicularphobic and still want some good views of Santiago, then maybe the second best cerro in Santiago is an option. Cerro San Lucia, while only a quarter the height of Cerro San Cristóbal, still offers good city views including one of the tallest building in Latin America, the Gran Torre Santiago.
Every city in Latin America contains a Plaza de Armas, if you have been to one before you know the drill: its name derives from the fact that this would be a refuge in case of an attack upon the city, from which arms would be supplied to the defenders. It contains a church, a post office, a fountain, a carabinero, a palm tree, an annoying street performer, a pigeon, and a statue of the relevant conquistador.¹
Next stop was the El Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos, or for you gringos, the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. Henry Kissinger once said "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves."² And this museum explores the subsequent 17 years under the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The information contained in the Museo is almost entirely in Spanish with only a smattering of Inglés subtitles (and almost as many in sign language). Now I get the desire not to submit to the English-language overlord, though they are trying to tell a story of global importance. And that is difficult to do by excluding non-Spanish speakers. An English language app is provided that is as superficial as it is glitchy.
Even so, I did find some of it vaguely familiar. In 1988 after 57% of voters voted in a plebiscite against Augusto Pinochet remaining as dictator, his Interior Minister claimed that 43% "was actually a win." Also, it seems unbelievable that 43% of Chileans would actually vote for a dictator, who executed 1,200 to 3,200 people, interned as many as 80,000, and tortured tens of thousands. Though upon further review, it's actually quite believable.
After visiting El Museo de la Memoria, I wondered, "¿Where would Tony Bourdain go for dinner?" And quickly determined it would be a nearby restaurant called El Hoyo, or for you gringos, "The Hole." We duplicated his feast of arrollado (pork bits wrapped in pork skin and then boiled), pernil (simmered pork leg), all washed down by a terremoto (or for you gringos, an earthquake: white wine and pineapple ice cream). Trust me, it didn't taste as good as it sounds.
They say that the history of a country is contained in its food. And if it is, then this place is the Real Deal. Maybe too real as it was getting late and El Hoyo is located in a neigborhood where two gringos perhaps should not be after dark.
The Culture Trip reported that one of the "The 7 Best Pisco Bars in Santiago, Chile" was located just around the corner from our lodgings, so Chipe Libre - Republica Independiente del Pisco needed to be attended. This place was in the sweet spot between The Signature Room (see below) and El Hoyo (see above) and by that I mean outstanding food and better cocktails, all at a very reasonable price with superb service.
Luis my piscotender, came all the way from Venezuela to provide me with a pisco primer (with samples) and then the inevitable pisco sour. I have shaken more than a few whiskey sours in my time and this sour was the pièce de résistance. The secreto? He used a blender. He also provided an exquisito mixed pil pil with sopaipillas and more importantly a list of neighborhoods we should avoid and restaurants we shouldn't. He also made a pisco version of the Flackhattan called a Capitán Chipeño (pisco, sweet vermouth, bitters, macerated plum with two olives) which I have humbly renamed the Capitán . . . América.
The pisco sour is the national drink of Chile and Peru. I had more than a few in Peru a few years ago at which time I heard about the whole Peru vs. Chile, "My pisco sour is better than your pisco sour" imbroglio. If you are visiting Cusco (or Santiago) and I were you, I would not take sides in this international tête-à-tête (though Peru includes egg whites in theirs, which . . . cannot be a bad thing).
What is a sandwich? Some say it "is a food typically consisting of vegetables, sliced cheese or meat, placed on or between slices of bread." Others say it is '"at least 35% cooked meat and no more than 50% bread" for closed sandwiches, and "at least 50% cooked meat" for open sandwiches.' I say it is a country's culture in one bite. A friend of Tony Bourdain says "If you've eaten a Lomito [sandwich] at the Fuente Alamana, the people will say in Chile, 'he is one of ours."' Well . . . I'm one of ours. Does it get any better than a pork sandwich smothered in avocado, mayonnaise, and tomatoes, all washed down by a chopp of icy cold beer? After having one, I can assure you . . . it does not.
And just when you think a good cup of coffee can't get any better: Chile was a Nescafé kind of place until the introduction of good coffee some years ago. In order to "encourage" Santiagoans to drink the non-Nescafé stuff, some coffee shops have attractive women in short skirts serving it. It is called Café con piernas ("coffee with legs"). Cafe Haiti nearby the Plaza de Armas did a fine job serving me a caffè americano, though the rather intemperate weather affected the servers' attire.
Two hotel rooftop deck restaurants were also dined at. The Singular for some excellent ceviche and the Hotel Magnolia for some excellent congrio frito (fried conger eel), both of which are a Santiago specialty.
At the end of the trip, when the Santiago gastronomy experience was reviewed, I realized that my selections hewed a little more "street" while somebody else's a little more "rooftop."
Some Santiago Intel:
-the subway system (the Metro), is as extensive as it is convenient. At any station, go to the station agent kiosk, ask for a BIP (pronounced "bip") card (it costs $1,500 CLP) and then show the agent a piece of paper on which you have previously written how much money you want to be added to it (see current fare schedule to determine this amount) and then pay with cash, as the Metro de Santiago can take you to the tallest building in Latin America, but it doesn't take American Express (or Visa, or MasterCard).
-if you pay for your dinner with crédito, the server will bring the crédito machine to you. That way you can pay by crédito, but not let it out of your possession so it can be copied for future crédito fraud (and then have you wonder "How did someone get my crédito number?"). Most times a 10% propina ("tip") will have already been added.
Endnotes: I wanted to provide some very specific details that while vaguely interesting did not contribute to the overall narrative. Perhaps just wait until the end to read.
¹ For Santiago de Chile the relevant conquistador is Pedro Gutiérrez de Valdivia or Valdiva. After serving with the Spanish army in Italy and Flanders, he was sent to South America where he served as lieutenant under Francisco Pizarro in Peru. In 1540 he led an expedition of 150 Spaniards into Chile, where he defeated a large force of indigenous warriors and founded Santiago in 1541.
² While the U.S. played a role in the 1973 coup, its significance is still being debated.