I left Valparaiso quickly. I had no intention of repeating the long, meandering walk that had started my time there. So, at the base of my funicular car ride, I grabbed a taxi blaring Santana and happily watched while my driver cursed and swerved his way toward the bus station.
There was a bus immediately leaving for Santiago and I jumped on it with a kind of excitement that only comes when you have made no preparatory efforts for your travels and things just fall into place. Just 40 minutes after I had left my hostel, I was underway.
Santiago is a big city; the largest in Chile and the biggest place I had been since I had passed through Buenos Aires some 4 months before. I knew it was large enough that I could find all of the corporate comforts of home, including Starbucks, but I was hesitant to make those trips. Experience has taught me that giving into those temptations is to begin to end your trip prematurely, and I wasn’t ready for that.
I found my hostel with some effort, again wandering for too long before giving up and asking for directions. I managed to get a single, private room overlooking the small streets of the Bella Vista neighborhood. This particular neighborhood is the bohemian, hipster, cool kid hangout of Santiago. Every nook and cranny is filled with a restaurant, bar, art gallery or hostel. Each building was painted a unique and vibrant color, beckoning passersby to trust that their establishment is unique and special in some way. But the fact that every facade was trying to be special in the same way only proved that in reality, none of them were special; though many of them were very good. In the daytime the atmosphere was exceedingly relaxed. Later, I found out the reason.
The nightlife in Bella Vista starts at 10 pm and ends at never. With windows open to fight the heat, I cannot recall a time when I woke up and didn’t hear the drunken banter of dozens of couples walking by. Bella Vista was the place to be, unless you wanted to sleep.
Not terribly excited by the nightlife, I took advantage of the days strolling through the city’s streets, parks and hills. In doing so, I discovered Santiago’s perfection as a walking city. Wide park boulevards give you the option of walking for great distances downtown, without ever leaving the shade of a tree. Random hills are not obstacles but opportunities to explore castles and fortresses overwhelmed by dense hanging gardens.
Santiago is like a dusty, antique radio which you could easily value for aesthetic purposes alone, its stone architecture blending easily with glass skyscrapers. But, when you plug it in you discover that it still works; that underneath its classic—albeit grimy—facade is a well functioning machine. The buses were frequent and on-time. Underground, an exceptionally intuitive subway system carried passengers to the farthest reaches of the city. Downtown, every fifth street was completely cut off to traffic, allowing for a wide pedestrian boulevard filled with food vendors, street performers, bums and businessmen. Roomy bike lanes were clearly painted on both sides of every avenue and traffic cops monitored the busier, more confusing intersections. Santiago was efficient and modern without compromising originality, romantic charm or pure unadulterated lust.
On nearly every park bench, under trees, in restaurants, at bus stops and subway stations were couples smooching, making out, dry humping and grab-assing. These were not merely horny teenagers or unabashed lovers with nowhere to go, these were average citizens. I would see couples dining in restaurants I could not afford one minute and those same couples romping in the park an hour later. Where couples were not united, there were cat calls and jeers to nearly every woman on the street. The passion continued in other ways as well. In over 4 months, I had not seen a single fight but in Santiago I saw 3 different skirmishes. The food was spicier, the cars drove faster, the dogs were more aggressive. Perhaps I was simply noticing the pace of a big city, but Santiago felt more passionate, raw and emotional than any other city I had been to. It was a change I was not fully prepared for and I started looking for places that would offer a slight reprieve from the madness.
Of Santiago’s hills, Cerro Santa Lucia is probably the most famous. It is the highest point within the city and is crowned with a large statue of Santa Lucia, church and of course, a zoo. More importantly, it was close to my hostel. I went early and caught the first funicular ride up the hill, getting off halfway up to tour the zoo. As far as zoos go, it was pretty poor. Many of the cages were simply empty, the walkways were dirty, information signs rare and security fairly lax. At several of the ‘bird exhibits’, half of the specimens were sitting on nearby benches eating french fries and hot dog buns. But, its saving grace were the displays of domestic animals. The guanacos, nandas and hares that I had seen so often on my road trip were present in droves. And, because these were domestic animals, there were no crowds to fight with. For a Chilean, looking at a guanaco would be the American equivalent of checking out a deer. Ironically, the zoo did have a deer exhibit. It was packed.
I continued up the hill to the statue and the supposedly spectacular view. I was particular excited for the view because Santiago is set in one of the most recognizable and unique environments in the world. Shoved tight against the Andes, on a clear day you can see snowy peaks in nearly every direction. But, in the summer when pollution lingers, the view suffers. When I reached the top and looked out, all I could see was a dull, greyish brown band near the horizon. I was disappointed, but not surprised. Luckily there were a few souvenir stands with vibrant postcards that depicted what the view could look like on a perfect day. It looked pretty good. I headed back to the funicular station and climbed into a waiting car.
As I descended, I looked out over the city and imagined all that was beyond. The Atacama Desert, Ecuador and Peru to the north, the Pacific ocean and Easter island to the west, Argentina just over the Andes to the east. So many places to explore, I could carry on for years and never visit the same place twice. But as the car came down, I realized that I was too. I was tired. Tired of moving, tired of living in a three way struggle between survival, work and vacation. Tired of the bruises and raw skin that came from carrying far too much luggage.
The car stopped and the passengers piled out. Back to their cars and buses which would take them to homes, families and friends. I envied them, so close to the important things. I have come a long way and could go farther, but there is only one destination on my mind now. It’s time to come home.