Many people say you can leave Santiago out of your travel itinerary. Chile's capital doesn't rank highly in the reputation stakes, but we are no strangers to getting acquainted with places with bad reputations (remember Mannheim?), so as it was conveniently located between our destinations of Mendoza and Valparaiso, we popped in, gave it a chance, and were pleasantly surprised...

We have to tip our hats to the fabulously informative and fun walking tours, “Tours4Tips”, which opened our eyes to the city's cultural attractions and Chile's past. There are two tours on offer – we did the Santiago Highlights tour first, and were so impressed that we went back the next day, ready to lap up more facts about the capital with the Offbeat Tour. The Tours4Tips team really shaped how we saw Santiago, and we now have a few facts up our sleeves that we didn't know before. Let us tell you why we're happy we didn't skip it...

INTI Murals – He's Great, Int' He? ;-)

Santiago boasts two fabulous murals by Chilean street artist, Inti Castro, whose work embodies indigenous Chilean culture and portrays the country's ongoing challenges. We'd already become a fan of Inti's in Valporaíso. Of the two “ekekos” (doll-like figures) in Andean clothes, here are a few interpretations relating to this one:
  • The blank-paged book is said to depict protests against the expensive education system
  • The bag of copper shows Chile's number one source of income
  • The mining pick relates to Chile's mining economy and 2010 accident that trapped 33 miners underground for 69 days
  • The coca leaves are an Andean method of dealing with the altitude
  • The skulls possibly show the importance the Chileans place on people who have died
We find the guy fascinating in action, but see what you think: https://vimeo.com/81620170

I feel the Earth Move

We didn't realize how earthquake-prone Santiago was. Click here to get an idea. It then becomes clear why the downtown district is such a mixed bag of old and new buildings – see the Church of Merced nestled in between all the modern high-rises there?

And the modern buildings behind the Plaza de Armas?

Speaking of Earthquakes...

When in Santiago, you have to try the drink, Terremotto (meaning earthquake) – a mix of sweet fermented wine, fernet, grenadine, and pineapple ice-cream. Not sure about the earth moving after that, but there are certainly some aftershocks in your digestive system.

La Moneda Palace

Formally the mint, the presidential palace of Chile fascinated us due to its significance in the 1974 military coup d'etat. It was here that socialist president, Salvador Allende, gave his final radio speech to the Chilean people, just moments before Pinochet's military forces seized the palace. You can even hear the missiles at the end of Allende's famous speech. Huge controversy surrounds Allende's death; his supporters believed he was assassinated, whereas the official verdict is suicide.

Museum of Memory and Human Rights

It's hard knowing what to do with yourself after visiting the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, which explains the violation of human rights under the Pinochet dictatorship between 1973 and 1990. Thousands of Chileans, who were opposed to the regime, suffered horrific torture at the hands of the armed forces, and there were a considerable number of “forced disappearances” - with many people still unaccounted for today. It's understandably incredibly emotional stuff, but we felt the museum portrayed the topic well and with compassion. It's a sombre way to spend a few hours, but it helped us better understand Chile's past and what the people have been through, and, in part, are still going through.

Marvellous Markets

Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market is still a winner for us, but Santiago's Mercado Central was still a pretty atmospheric place to see the bustling fish market in action, the wide array of fish and seafood on offer, and try the catch of the day ;-) And here's an interesting little fact for you - the building itself was apparently shipped from Glasgow.

To get your greens, stop by La Vega Central market – the largest market in Chile. You can distinctly make out the Chilean and Peruvian stalls; Chilean produce is more basic (tomatoes, berries, onions, potatoes) and Peruvian is more varied (chillies, cooking bananas, corn in all colours and sizes, ginger).

What's with all the Stray Dogs?

You cannot go far in Santiago, or the whole of Chile for that matter, without acquiring a dog. There are around 1 million stray dogs in Santiago, many of which are a result of owners letting them run loose when they go to work. Apparently Santiago's not the worst place in the world to be a stray dog though; people feed them and there are even dog shelters in the park.

El Cementario General

Chile's oldest and largest cemetery is a fascinating place; with cars, bikes, road signs, and funeral time announcements at the entrance, it's a city in itself. Can you imagine it being the size of 117 football pitches? “Nichos” are the smallest and cheapest graves, and some act as tombs containing multiple family members. At the other end of the scale, there are grand mausoleums and family tombs of all heritages, alongside Aztec crypts and pyramids. There are even tombs built for a specific occupation – for police force members, doctors, or even clowns! Non-Catholic graves are marked by crosses on their side. In the heartbreaking children's area, we were told of the grave of a 5-day old boy whose parents put invites on the other children's graves to “attend” their son's birthday. It's perhaps an unusual place to visit, but it becomes apparent how much importance the Chileans place on loved ones who have passed.

Parque Forestal

We loved hanging out in the enormous Parque Forestal where kids and grown-ups alike just love the street performers.

Bellavista 

The party atmosphere in this neighbourhood warranted more than one visit, and a trip to Galindo's for some Chilean classics.

Cerro Santa Lucia 

We skipped the crowds and the heat at Cerro San Cristóbal and opted for the shorter walk up Cerro Santa Lucia. At this little downtown oasis, you have views over the city, you can glimpse the Andes in the distance, and it's also a great spot to try the refreshing peach barley drink “Mote con huesillo”.

And finally, a different kind of coffee - One with Legs

The Galeria Alessandri was full of coffee shops of a different sort when we visited on our walking tour. It appears that Chilean men don't like their coffee with milk and sugar, but rather with legs (café con piernas) – hmm, is your mind boggling yet? ;-) They're a far cry from Starbucks. Here the coffee is served by women in mini-skirts and heels, hence the “legs” part of the equation. From the outside, some of the cafés look pretty normal, and some have frosted windows from the waist up, allowing you a glimpse of those leggy young lasses from outside. There are apparently also some seedier establishments that have a “happy minute” in which during 1 minute of the day, the women strip naked to serve coffee – resulting in some highly caffeinated men hanging around in the hope that they haven't missed it. 

For a bit of history on this cultural phenomenon, "coffee with legs" was a 1980s marketing technique to promote the arrival of Italian-style coffee (a vast improvement on Chilean instant coffee) to businessmen in search of an escape from the office and home. By the number of cafés we glimpsed, it seems they're still going strong. 

Keen to check out this typical Chilean experience, we ventured into one of these establishments with some new-found travel buddies. Perhaps the blackened out windows and neon sign should have been a major indication that the women would be somewhat more scantily-clad than we had hoped for. We were clearly out of our league and not the punters they were expecting, so we quietly slipped out again to find somewhere with a little less on display, if you get my drift ;-) While the clientèle of our somewhat more conservative café were mainly male, the atmosphere was a lot less seedier and we (at least I!) were happier that the women were considerably more covered up. It seems Chilean men just go for a good brew, a chat with one of their favourites, and a bit of eye candy ;-) I just went for the coffee. R tells me he did too – of course he did ;-)