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168 Hours in Santiago de Chile (When You’re Lazy Tourists and Have Kids)

We are terrible tourists. That’s probably an exaggeration, but I do find those “36 hours in…” articles in The New York Times more exhausting than inspiring.  So maybe not terrible tourists, but probably lazy ones. We try to find a few things that appeal to all of us, see them and then spend time napping, hanging out, wandering around, and eating.

The kids and I spent a morning hiking up the Cerro de Sta. Lucia, a large hill and park in the city with green spaces, fountains, ornate building facades, and a whole lot of stone steps. We climbed halfway up on a sidewalk that skirted a steep drop before the kids thought they might be done. Admittedly, the views were pretty nice even from there and the climb was steep for short legs, but they were also particularly whiny that day. Promises of castles and towers were enough to convince them to keep walking. Stone steps, worn completely smooth in some places, led off to the right and we followed them up and around as they stopped or turned or forked. We didn’t pay much too much attention to where we were going as long as we were headed up. At the very top there was a clear and breathtaking view of the entire city and the mountains beyond. I don’t have many pictures from this trip since making sure the girl didn’t fall off the edge or into the fountains or moat took all of my concentration.  She only fell halfway down one flight of fairly gentle stone steps. A victory!

What you couldn’t see from so high up were the narrow side streets lined with cafes, trees, and stores. Some were pedestrian streets and others just lightly trafficked by cars. Places like this always make me a bit melancholy for times when traveling meant plopping down at one of these cafes for a coffee and a rest without answering 5,326 questions about the waiter’s every word or without treating the other patrons to a full-length dance performance by our children.

On our way to the Plaza de Armas, which was largely under construction but still beautiful, we passed through a restaurant gallery. It was a long passageway lined with hot dog stands on one side and sit down restaurants (still serving a lot of hot dogs) on the other side. Even at the 10 in the morning people were leaning against the stands’ counters eating hotdogs mostly hidden under the layers of toppings; a thick layer of avocado and a quarter inch deep squiggle of mayonnaise being the two most visible.

We also passed through here on our way to the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, a place that is totally worth the effort of visiting, even for very lazy tourists. The museum has recently changed locations to a refurbished building housing new exhibits of ancient artifacts. Inside, the walls and floors are a mixture of white and warm, deep grey, which creates a calming background to the three floors of pre-Columbian art that is organized by cultural areas.  Through a revolving door in a corner of the second floor is the textile room. Think about the awesomeness of that. I mean, I have sweatpants from five years ago that are disintegrating. These textiles were found well-preserved in very dry and dark caves and are now preserved in a dark, climate-controlled room behind plates of glass. Motion sensor lights turn on to spotlight a shirt made of feathers or a fragment of intricately woven fabric. There are drawers that slide out with the push of a button to give a closer look at things like dying techniques.

The Parque Forestal, a long, largely unbroken span of green space in the city, was the perfect place for some touristing with minimal effort.  The Museo de Bellas Artes  is located there. We never made it inside, but even from the outside the building was beautiful. We couldn’t argue with missing the art museum when there were two full-equipped playgrounds to explore. Montevideo’s playgrounds–with their wooden and metal slides and flagstone paving stones under the swings–are entirely charming, but a little variety in the way of soft landings and complex climbing structures was exciting.

On the other side of the Parque Forestal is the Cerro de San Cristobal, which has an incline railway you can ride to the top. After seeing the line that snaked on for what must have been over an hour wait we decided to go on foot as high as we could. That turned out to be zoo level. I won’t bore you with my navel gazing about the pros and cons of zoos, though the the animals in this one appeared to be extremely well cared for and the zoo has a mission of protection and education. The kids had a great time running up and down the terraced paths, which made it possible to be almost eye level with a giraffe, and looking at every animal they could fit into the hour before the zoo closed.

Animals also showed up in unexpected places, like the Centro Artesanal los Domínicos, a sprawling market of wooden stalls at the foot of the Andes selling a wide variety of handmade goods.  The crafts ranged from nice to kistch and we ended up buying nothing, but the space itself was nice with a couple of cafes, a stream, wandering cats, a large cage of birds, and two pet stores. While there we tried sopaipillas dulces, a fried flour dough served with a sweet syrup of chancaca. It’s a Chilean version of the various fried doughs that exist in many, many parts of the world.

Last on our lists of sites was the Museo Interactive Mirador, an interactive educational museum with a large outdoor playground and cafe. There are museums like this around the world and our kids would happily visit them all.  This one was done well with activities suited to lots of ages. The girl enjoyed making things move and light up while the boy was more curious about the why and the how (though he was too overwhelmed with excitement to really absorb the information).

And that, my friends, is just about it.  We ate some delicious Indian food and some mediocre Indian food (but still Indian food!). We had some sushi. We ate ice cream. We shopped at a grocery store that had so many things we’ve been missing (like better yogurt). We never got around to trying mote con huesillo, a traditional drink made of peach nectar mixed with cooked husked wheat.

Valparaiso burned while we were there and signs went up everywhere encouraging people to donate goods or money. A Chilean woman I met in Montevideo explained that all Chileans felt impacted by the fires. It overshadowed the also recent earthquake in northern Chile.

We came home via the SeaCat, but in first class this time because that’s all that was available. Lest you be concerned this made us full of ourselves, you should know that we boarded the boat via the port’s storage shed by way of a parking lot and that SeaCat first class is higher in altitude, but not actual class (not even the plastic glass filled with something like champagne they served will sway me on this point).

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Getting to Santiago de Chile

The Buquebus Ferry from Uruguay to Buenos Aires is like a cruise ship. When the sun catches its perfectly shiny outside as it glides across the river the whole thing seems to glow.  Even its name, Francisco, in honor of the Pope, sounds regal. They require you wear white booties (like those of crime scene investigators) onboard so your philistine shoes do not damage the boat’s pristine floors. Inside it has plush chairs, deep carpeting, sweeping staircases, a well-stocked snack bar, and a duty-free shop the size of a small grocery store. The boat is so large and so weighted with people, cars, luggage, and duty-free Toblerone chocolate that you barely feel it moving.

This was not the boat we took.

No. On the day when meteorologists were predicting 60 mph winds, we took the SeaCat, which is a glorified pontoon boat where luggage is lashed to the deck and covered with tarps. I admit that watching it bounce and skip into the port caused me a low level of panic. Watching passengers around us ready their bright white, plastic barf bags for the journey did nothing to calm me. And when they slammed the doors shut and told everyone to sit tight because while the journey might not look or feel safe it definitely was, I may have turned to Nathan and told him I wanted to get off.  I didn’t get off, mostly because I couldn’t.

The televisions proudly told us that the boat traveled at a speed of 30 knots.  It did not tell us how much air space there can be between your bottom cheeks and the seat when the boat hits waves at that speed.  Several is the answer.  It also did not tell you how loudly people may shriek, in both fear and joy, when this happens. Really loudly and shrilly with the notable exception of the gentleman who just groaned as if he were dying. Our children responded in their usual ways. The boy said he wasn’t pleased, but it certainly didn’t stop him from eating or talking.  The girl spent her time singing and pointing out to our neighbors that we were on a boat! On the water!We made it to Buenos Aires and spent an evening with an Aunt and an Uncle before heading on to Santiago de Chile.

I’m not usually one to get worked up about seeing something just for the sake of seeing it, but have you seen the Andes from 30,000 feet? I felt a little like the girl, wanting to nudge people around me and say, Look! Big mountains! With snow!  Judging by the way the Chilean woman next to me (who I’m just going to wildly speculate had seen the mountain range before and possibly even from high altitudes) kept leaning over to take pictures and videos until the flight attendant told her she really, really had to shut it down for landing, I don’t think I’m exaggerating their awesome beauty. Really, my feelings didn’t change much once we were on the ground. Walking around in the city we’d look up and catch sight of the mountains–sometimes snow-capped, sometimes frosty with fog, sometimes glowing pink in the sunset, and sometimes just massive and brown–and gasp. There is something very humbling about being in a city of 5 million people, of being surrounded by crowds, traffic, skyscrapers, restaurants, and all the fine trappings of modern civilization, and having all of it dwarfed in magnitude and beauty by some ancient rock and dirt. Check yourselves humans.

Montevideo, both in area and population, could fit into Santiago’s  hip pocket, so it’s entirely unfair to compare them.  However, I’m not going to let that stop me. Chile is very different than Uruguay.  That should be obvious, right? They are different countries with different histories, different climates, different cultures, etc. I shouldn’t even need to say it, but both Nathan and I were caught off guard. I think having only traveled between Uruguay and Argentina in the past 9 months it was easy for us to lose sight of the bigger picture.  Argentines and Uruguayans will spend any amount of time telling you about how different they are from each other.  And they are. The accents are different enough that you can distinguish them.  Argentines use a kettle for their mate while Uruguayans tend to use a thermos. Argentines eat lomitos and Urguayans eat chivitos. I’m joking a little of course, because there are real differences between the two countries, but things are also similar enough that both cities feel familiar.

Chile was a different story altogether.  In the airport I heard people talking and briefly wondered what language they were speaking.  We were so accustomed to the lilt of Uruguayan Spanish that the harder and completely distinct sounds of Chilean speech sounded entirely strange.

The Spaniards didn’t manage to kill off all the indigenous people in Chile like they did in Uruguay, so there was a much broader mix of people. In fact, there were people (and foods) from all over the world.

We ate Japanese food (without any cream cheese added!), Indian food, spicy food (oh, spicy food!), Chilean-style ice cream and so many avocados (hot dogs are even served with a thick layer of avocado). According to a PSA we saw, Chile is second only to Suriname in its sugar consumption, which may explain why when we ordered juice we were served uncarbonated orange Fanta.

Ice cream

The streets were cleaner in Santiago. Less trash blew around and there was so little dog poop on the sidewalks that I almost forgot to look down while I walked.

Santiago also felt somewhat less child friendly.  Of course, this is an observation based on limited time and experiences. One of those experiences did include a woman insisting that the girl give up her seat on the subway. I can’t imagine that happening in Montevideo where people practically leap out of their seats to make room for kids. To be fair, Uruguayans are particularly accommodating to and appreciative of kids. It’s rare to make it through an entire outing  in Montevideo without our kids being patted on the head, chatted with, pressed for a kiss, or offered candy by people young and old alike–and that’s even when they are being totally obnoxious. Maybe, though, it’s just a difference of living in a place versus being a tourist for a brief time.

And we were tourists Santiago. More on how we touristed in a bit.