Santiago is a bustling cosmopolitan city of over five million people and has become the economic, cultural and political hub of not only Chile but of Latin America as well. Chileans proudly view Santiago as South America’s greatest capital city; a claim that most visitors feel is justified. However, like many capital cities, it has known some good and not so good times. During the 19th century, its inhabitants fought and died for their independence from Spain. After Colonial rule ended, they then faced the enormous task of rejuvenating a very undeveloped and neglected city. This is when the majority of Santiago’s great architectural masterpieces were built that make modern Santiago a delight to explore.
The city lies in a large valley, sandwiched between the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. This part of Chile was inhabited for centuries by the Pichunes, an Indian tribe that endeavored to maintain peaceful relations with their powerful Inca neighbors further north. The fertile, rich plains provided an ideal base for the Pichunes to build a settlement; they farmed the land for centuries enjoying a peaceful and prosperous existence.
Enter the Conquistadors! In the 16th century, Spanish explorers gradually conquered most of South America, including Chile. History records that one Pedro de Valdivia arrived in the area we today know as Santiago and quickly claimed the land for the Spanish Crown. He founded a small settlement, Santiago de me Nueva Extremadura in February 1541. Named after the Spanish Saint James and his place of birth, the village benefited from ideal conditions for agriculture and a benign Mediterranean climate. Unfortunately for de Valdivia, his Incan neighbors to the north were not impressed with this development and tried to make their lives as difficult as possible by refusing to trade with the Spanish settlers. Despite these obstacles, he succeeded in building a series of streets and houses and consolidated his hold over Santiago.
The Inca’s were not the only problems that De Valdivia had to contend with. The indigenous Indian tribes, the Pichunes, attempted to take the settlement from the Spanish only six months after he had founded Santiago in his own name. Using an organized resistance, the Indian warriors destroyed most of the settlement and fought hard for over 20-months to drive the Spanish out. They failed ultimately when reinforcements arrived from the north; the tribe accepted defeat and relocated further south of Santiago.
A period of relative peace and stability followed the uprising, although the threat of an Indian attack always loomed over the Spanish. However, it was not until the end of the 18th century that the capital really got into its stride and a proper infrastructure was constructed, during this era, Santiago’s presidential palace, La Moneda, was built. Trade with neighboring colonial countries started to flourish and a wealthy class of landowners emerged who quickly ingratiated themselves with the cities ruling class.
Although Santiago’s wealth grew rapidly in the early 19th century, many in the capital were not sharing in this prosperity and tensions grew between its inhabitants and their Spanish rulers. After many years of conflict, Chile was declared an independent republic on February 12, 1818. The transition occurred with relative ease and during the era of the First Republic, although in reality, it was basically a one-party dictatorship, the capital’s population increased substantially. The city’s cultural life, now free of Spanish control, also started to blossom and Santiago’s first University opened in 1843.
Throughout the 19th century, great economic and social change permeated through the capital, its population rocketed as rural poverty forced hundreds of thousands into Santiago in search of a better future. Housing was hastily erected, not always of the best quality in the West of the city. Despite these problems, Santiago enjoyed many decades of prosperity and development. For this, we should largely thank one man – Benjamín Vicuna Mackenna. After Mackenna was elected mayor in 1872 he focused all his energies on giving Santiago a legacy to be proud of. One of his many feats was transforming the land in the Santa Lucia district into the beautifully landscaped public park that still exists today. He also oversaw the completion of the impressive Teatro Municipal and the Camino de Cintura. In 1857, the first train arrived in Santiago although the system was not fully operational until 1884.
Santiago greeted the 20th century with optimism but also with a sense of social injustice for many of its citizens. Rapid economic growth had created an extremely divided society and not everyone had benefited from the prosperity. In the 1930s the country undertook rapid industrialization, hand in hand came the appearance of slums, which seemed to spring up overnight. In the 1960s a concerted effort was made by the government to replace the shantytowns with decent, cheap housing for its poorest citizens. The outbreak of World War II did not significantly affect the capital, being geographically isolated from the conflict. Growth continued and several important improvements to the city’s infrastructure occurred in the mid-20th century; the new international airport opened in 1968 and the Metro system was completed in 1978.
The defining event for Santiago in the 20th century was undoubtedly the Military coup that deposed the democratically elected leader, Salvador Allende, in 1973. Economic depression and growing dissatisfaction with Allende’s socialist regime helped to fuel a bloody revolution in the country, led by General Augusto Pinochet. Chaos descended on the city and thousands of political prisoners were rounded up in the national stadium. Those who escaped death were tortured by the brutal militaristic regime. After Allende committed suicide and the military took control, Pinochet was proclaimed president in 1974.
Their iron-fisted rule endured for over 15 years and left a deep scar on the city, which some believed would never heal. The economic, cultural and artistic life of Santiago stagnated and many Chileans fled the country. Since the restoration of democracy to Chile in the 1990s, the country’s scars are healing, and its citizens have retained their optimistic and forward-thinking spirit.
Despite the occurrence of two earthquakes, one in 1985 and another as recently as February 2010, the mood in Santiago is decidedly upbeat. The Chilean capital is today a vast urban metropolis, one of South America’s greatest success stories. Crime rates are low; the general standard of living is one of the highest on the continent. Today the city strives to lead by example and be at the heart of a unified continent. Vibrant nightlife, an unrivaled art and cultural scene in South America and immense physical beauty all ensure that tourists to the region flock to this glorious city.
Gastronomy & Wine
Chile is an incredibly diverse country encompassing a massive variety of landscapes, so as you might imagine it offers a vast range of food and drink. The country is very self-sufficient with seafood being a real highlight due to over 4000 KM of coastline. It is, in essence, evolved from typical Spanish cuisine using traditional Chilean ingredients, with a mix of European influence for good measure. Their wine industry, however, is completely their own and offers a fantastic selection of reds, whites and sparkling to satisfy any palate.
Santiago has been at the forefront of the food revolution sweeping the nation in recent years. An influx of young talented Chefs, both from within Chile and aboard are changing the city’s restaurant scene for the better. New restaurants and bars have been appearing overnight, transforming once abandoned neighborhoods into thriving foodie haunts. Discerning locals head to the Vega Central district to eat in good value restaurants serving hearty Chilean fare. Fancy something more upmarket? Then discover one of the many high-class restaurants in the Bellavista district, where trendy new restaurants are opening every day.
The city’s regional cuisine is largely based around seafood, restaurants serve literally every type of seafood you could imagine-from shrimp, salmon, sea bass, squid, octopus, crab, and tuna. European immigration has naturally affected the cuisine, locals enjoy the ubiquitous empanada for lunch – it’s cheese or meat-filled pastry that is folded in half, creating a pocket of cheese, meat, chicken, seafood or vegetables. Soups and stews are also popular, the pastel de choclo, containing corn, mincemeat, and chicken, is like a Chilean Shepherd’s Pie. Wine lovers are spoilt, as several of Chile’s major wine regions are easily accessible from the capital.
Chile has an astonishing variety of diverse wine regions and styles, light aromatic whites and full, intense delicious reds are in abundance. Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Rapel equals the best in the world, Chile’s signature grape variety Carmenere works very well with their hearty stews and meat dishes. Tourist centers in Santiago will be happy to organize weekend excursions to regions like Casablanca, Rapel, and Maipo. A wine paradise awaits you!
Plaza de Armas
The essential first stop on any itinerary though Santiago is the historic center of the Plaza de Armas, reconstructed in 1999. The square houses, a music pavilion, greenery and has been witness to many of the capital’s historic events, including executions! The first national government of the country met at the Palacio de la real Audjencia located on the square in the 19th century. Today, visitors can enjoy the colonial parade every Sunday, colorful procession through the historic heart of the city.
One of the most beautiful cathedrals in South America, the Santiago Cathedral was built in the 18th century, designed by the architect Joaquim Toesca and finished by German Jesuits. It is the fifth Cathedral to be constructed on this site – Holy Ground indeed. The front facade houses an incredible mosaic of stain glass religious depictions; visitors are welcome to tour the Cathedral.
Visitors wishing to experience the city at its most lively and vibrant should quickly head to the central market to mingle with Chileans doing their daily shop. Those looking for lively ambiance, excellent food and a glass of wine usually leave more than satisfied from this buzzing, ornate marketplace. A market was originally held in the Plaza de Armas in the 19th century, the ruler of Chile, Bernardo O’Higgins ordered that a proper structure be constructed in 1817 and since 1872 the market has been held here. It offers an unrivaled selection of fresh fruit and vegetables; every variety imaginable is for sale!
It would be a crime to spend time in Santiago and not visit one of the many wine regions surrounding the capital. The Valle central contains prestigious sub-regions such as Rapel and Maipo. Flanked by the Andes Mountains to the east, you are guaranteed a spectacular wine tasting experience.