The high life
Coming from London, I always find it exciting to be in the presence of mountains.
I know for some people, they’re simply part of everyday life, but for me, there’s something thrillingly unfamiliar about them. They’re a sign I’ve landed somewhere with the potential to be completely unlike home.
Mountains were very much in evidence as we made our descent into Santiago. As the cloud began to clear, the uneven white crust of the Andes suddenly rose up beneath us and I stretched my neck to see as much as my tiny window would allow. Mercifully, the pilot then took a sudden sharp turn, tilting the aircraft and offering me the perfect view of the scenery below.
Santiago sits in a basin, circled by mountains, with the mighty Andes to the east and the smaller Chilean Coastal Range to the west. It’s an impressively dramatic setting, albeit one perhaps a little at odds with the city’s noticeably laid-back temperament.
It’s a surprisingly tranquil place, and for newcomers to South America, Santiago offers a gentle introduction to a continent with a riotous reputation. That’s not to say it’s dull. There’s simply something unflashy and self-assured about it. Unlike so many other capital cities, Santiago gives you the space and freedom to go out and find your own fun, without ever forcing itself upon you. And nothing epitomises this laissez faire attitude better than my hotel, the Le Reve Boutique, which was situated in the pretty Providencia district, home to a stylish crowd and countless bohemian cafes and bars.
Like Santiago itself, the Le Reve leaves you to do things your way. For example, there’s no restaurant — instead, guests are invited to take their breakfast on any of the plush sofas in its long, snug lounge area, or in its sunny courtyard under the shade of a tree. The honesty bar in the evening only adds to its relaxed, homely appeal, while the kitchen is left open over night, for peckish guests to help themselves.
After an extremely relaxed breakfast, my first full day in Santiago unfurled with a satisfying ease. It’s not a difficult place to get to grips with – the main attractions are all within walking distance of each other, and the underground train system, reminiscent of the Paris Metro, is inexpensive and simple to use.
I headed first to Barrio Bella Artes, another district of Santiago with an enviable compliment of stylish cafes. After an extremely welcome ice cream at the charming Emporio La Rosa, I stumbled upon Cerro Santa Lucia, a landscaped hilltop park, which announces itself with an extravagant baroque stairway and fountain. Its summit seemed to be extremely popular with young couples, but it was a beautiful spot with great views, so I could hardly fault their thinking.
Lunchtime arrived, and, given my location, I was looking forward to the classic South American pairing of steak and red wine – yet another option presented itself. The previous evening I’d enjoyed an inspired meal in a vegan restaurant in Providencia. This time, I wandered into Mercado Central, the city’s vibrant fish market. After slaloming my way past countless stalls, each stacked with freshly caught specimens, I selected El Galeon from the plethora of nearby seafood restaurants, and dined on a sumptuous bouillabaisse of congrio fish, accompanied by a crisp white. Never let anyone tell you Santiago is a city of carnivores.
Refreshed and replete, I ventured out into the afternoon sun, across the Mapocho River into Barrio Bellavista. Resisting the call of its boutiques, cafes and art galleries, I made my way to the funicular station, and within minutes I’d been lifted to the summit of Santiago’s focal point, Cerro San Cristobal, a forested peak that dominates the urban landscape.
San Cristobal is Santiago’s largest green space, and the lofty statue of the Virgin Mary at its summit is visible from almost every corner of the city. It’s certainly a long way up, with suitably spectacular views, and as I gazed out over the city’s sprawling mass towards the distant mountains, I was struck once more by Santiago’s stunning setting.
And it occurred to me I was ending my short trip to the city exactly as I began it — enthralled by the beauty of mountains, and their ability to make it all so utterly unlike home.