While plotting my tour of southern Argentina and Chile, the last stop I planned for was a trip to Santiago. Whereas I started my trip in the capitol city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, it seemed like Santiago, the capitol of Chile, would be my icing on the cake. But then, throughout these past months, I met several other travelers who had already been to Santiago and said that they really didn’t like it. To them, it was just a big, dirty city. So, as my final weeks in Chile were approaching, I found myself less and less excited about visiting Santiago. Should I even plan to stay a week, I wondered?

Luckily, I did go to Santiago and I’m happy to report that this city exceeded my expectations in every way. I’m really glad to have paused and wandered its vibrant streets and parks for awhile.

Let’s start our tour of Santiago with a little geography. Chile is a really, really long country. Remember the epic road trip my friend and I drove from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins along the Carreterra Austral? The end of the road is just south of Coyhaique (see map to the right). In the span of just over a week, I drove (then took a bus) from the southern end of the Carreterra Austral to Santiago, the capitol, located in the center of Chile. The distance on this map does not look that far, but it is the equivalent of traveling from the Canadian/ US Border to the US/ Mexican border. And there’s so much more of Chile both north and south of that middle section! Chile is that big. So, in the process of this hop north, I left the snows of Patagonia behind and arrived in the warm, dry fall climate of central Chile.

With over 7 million people, Santiago is the capitol and largest city in Chile, and it is the 6th largest city by population in South America. It’s nestled in the Central Valley with the River Mapocho, surrounded by an enormous amount of fruit orchards, wine vineyards and the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and Coast Mountain Ranges. Access to the mountains and the Pacific Ocean are just an hour away from the city limits, with several “cerros” or mountain peaks walkable right in the city.

The Gran Torre Santiago is the tallest building in South America at 984 feet high.

Walking around the streets of Santiago, I really enjoyed the variety of architecture where they’ve obviously worked to preserve the old while also building anew. Historic government buildings, museums and urban galleria shopping malls display historic neoclassical and art deco styles, alongside modern glass skyscrapers and cultural centers. In the historic center, many streets are closed off to traffic so the “paseos” or passageways are alive with shoppers, joggers, and pedestrians. Most city streets also include “ciclovias” or bicycle routes to promote easy commuting, and I easily mastered the Metro subway system on the day I arrived.

In Santiago, parks and plazas are found in every direction with huge trees providing lots of shade to sit under. Here, locals and tourists enjoy the fountains, chess tournaments and street musicians. The largest park, Parque Metropolitano sports a Funicular (an old-fashioned mountain elevator) and a Teleférico (a gondola) to transport visitors up and around the steep mountainous park.

Santiago also has a variety of fish and vegetable markets, with lots of outdoor restaurants, cafes and bars all over the city. I’m really enjoying the fresh fish in Chile!

Did you notice the cat? Chileans really love their cats. Thousands of cats have a good life in the homes, restaurants and markets all around the city!

Quirky artisan markets also abound, and in many neighborhoods, the sides of buildings are bursting with colorful murals displaying the love of the arts engrained within this culture.

There really is a lot to enjoy in Santiago. Especially the people!

In the days before coming to Santiago, I spent a week in the adventure capitol of Pucón, Chile. There, I spent my days hiking, enjoying lakeside beaches and going to the “termas” or hot springs. On my visit to the hot springs, I struck up a conversation with Yetzabel. We immediately figured out that we shared adventurous kindred spirits and I ended up spending an extra day there just to enjoy a hike with her.

When I came on to Santiago, her hometown, she invited me for a fun day around the city. She showed me some beautiful city parks, we explored artisan and antique shops, and we ate some fabulous Chilean food together. But the highlight for me was when she took me to their country property, outside of the city. There, she showed me some almond trees ready for harvest. Immediately, I jumped at the chance to harvest fresh almonds from her trees! We ended up spending the next hour plucking the almond nuts from their outer shells, and cracking open the inner shell with some pliers to get the prize inside. She generously gave me a large bag of fresh almonds, too. What a delightful experience with a new friend!

Enjoying a day harvesting almonds with Yetzabel, my new friend from Santiago.

Unfortunately, like many other cities around the world, when the wind doesn’t blow, air particulates and pollutants get stuck in the “bowl” and a thick smog hangs in the air. On those days, it is hard to see the mountains. It’s a big bummer, because other than that, Santiago really is a beautiful and vibrant city. I’m glad I took the time for a visit!