Our Couchsurfing host asked us, “why do people visit Santiago?” Almost interrupting himself he clarified that he believed his city is a great place to live, but that there isn’t much for tourists. Having been there over a dozen times myself I wondered if anyone actually makes Santiago a destination. Then I remembered that one of my friends actually visited Santiago and at the time I wondered: why? Is Santiago worth a couple of days?
Do people visit for the views? Probably not. Even though one of the world’s great mountains is unbelievably close, you probably won’t see it because the city’s smog often obscures the view. OK…then is it the city itself?
The city of Santiago is clean and functional, much like Omaha or Minneapolis. There is as little to dislike as there is to thrill. Considering that the city was founded almost 500 years ago, it lacks the antiquated charm of other colonial towns in South America. It has neither the distinctive European charm of Buenos Aires nor the grittiness of La Paz. Even worse, it’s bested on both sides by it’s easily accessible neighbors of Valparaiso, Chile and Mendoza, Argentina. Head west 90 minutes and you are in the literal San Fransisco of South America, Valparaiso, which rises from the Pacific in a kaleidoscopic collage of precariously placed buildings. Head a few hours to the east and you’re in the Napa Valley of South America, Mendoza, which treats it’s visitors to over sized glasses of wine paired with overflowing Argentine barbeque. Pity poor Santiago, the city serves better as a gateway to other places than a destination in it’s own right.
OK, so if not the city itself, it must be the food, right? Well, no. See this poster? Chilean food is much like Santiago, it’s good, you won’t find anything questionable, but it doesn’t have the Chinese flavors of Lima, the Italian invasion of Sao Paulo, or the beef of Buenos Aires. The pickiest eaters won’t starve in Santiago, but they won’t be excited either.
So what is Santiago? It is function following form. The statue above on San Cristobal Hill is one of Santiago’s top sights to see. But it is overshadowed by the radio tower directly behind it. This is Santiago in a nutshell, thinking about getting things done first, aesthetics second.
The reality is that Santiago is a pretty amazing place, but it is not a tourist destination. Visitors should leave directly from Santiago’s airport to Valparaiso/Viña del Mar or Mendoza. What makes Santiago amazing is what it is today, stable, clean and democratic. Just a few decades ago Santiago rose to international attention as the site of a violent military coup. The following years saw the city’s stadium used to torture and execute political dissidents. On top of that, it’s history includes being rocked by some of the world’s most powerful earthquakes.
The dull Santiago of today is actually a massive accomplishment, something that every resident should be proud of, but something that doesn’t make it a tourist destination.
YOUR TURN: Have you been to Santiago de Chile as a tourist? What did you think? What was your favorite thing in the city?