Santiago, Chile – 10 First Impressions

I like to think that I’m a little bit of a unique traveler in that I don’t do much research on a destination before I arrive. I don’t want to hear about the destination from other people’s views, I want to see it, taste it, experience it for myself and make my own opinions. Now, this isn’t for everyone. Lots of people love to read all about it before they arrive so that they know what they want to see and do. Me, I just like to arrive and see what I feel like. Since I’m writing a blog and you are reading it, I’m glad you are the type of person who likes to hear about other’s experiences. If we were all like me, I wouldn’t have anyone out there reading, instead I’d be sending everyone to Chile to experience it themselves!

We all know that first impressions are important, for better or worse, so here are 10 of my first impressions of Chile.

1. Mountains. Mountains. Mountains. For about the last 45 minutes of the flight approaching Santiago, you are soaring high above beautiful mountains. You land amongst the mountains and the city of Santiago is surrounded by mountains. The mountains run the length of the country, but also split the width of the country. They also are responsible for dividing the climate between coastal and humid to inland dry and desert-like. No question, the towering mountains are everywhere and they are spectacular.

2. Homeless. As I approached the historic centre of Santiago by taxi, the first thing that caught my eye in the green space dividing the main street was a person (man or woman, I’m not sure), sitting on a large tree stump with their pants around their ankles. I shouldn’t have stared, but it was really unusual and I just couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. That hot Friday afternoon when I arrived, the green space was laden with homeless people sleeping, peeing, defecating and puking. Not really the best first impression of the city, but none-the-less, I was there to experience the real Santiago, not just the tourist version.

3. Dirty. Despite seeing people out collecting garbage from the streets, the historical centre was a dirty area. Dust from the dry climate combined with lack of education for littering, left the streets strewn with garbage. The beautiful purple jacaranda trees were also starting to lose their petals, which left the streets carpeted with bright purple flowers.

Jacaranda tree, Santiago, Chile
Jacaranda tree, Santiago, Chile

4. Dry. I have never visited an area with such dry heat. I’ve always visited Caribbean areas that have high humidity, so I’ve always associated 30+ degree weather with sweating profusely. I was pleasantly surprised to be able to walk down the street in the afternoon sun and not need a shower 20 minutes later. The dry heat was a pleasant surprise and the sunshine on my face was most welcome.

5. Easy to navigate on foot. If you rent a hotel or apartment near the historic district, it is no problem at all to find your way around the central area of the city on foot. In fact, I did so without a map. However, if you have a map you’ll likely find all of the tourist spots much quicker and not miss out. Myself, I just wandered around the streets and then sauntered back to my apart-hotel.

6. No begging. No bothering. Despite what seemed like a lot of homeless people in the central historic area, I was never once asked for money or bothered at all. Even when I walked through the Central Market and down the main streets with stores, vendors and restaurants, I was not hollered at or begged to spend money on anything. Vendors simply existed there and if you wanted to purchase something you could approach them, otherwise, they continued about their day.

7. Tranquilo. A word aptly used to describe the overall atmosphere of the city, tranquil. No one was in a hurry, very few cars were beeping and over the weekend that I was there, there was next to no traffic. People walk slowly and take in their surroundings and conversations with friends. There were no fights or brawls. Simply tranquil.

8. Safe. Being in a new city is always a little bit intimidating for a solo female traveler such as myself. In any city it is best to always be on guard and follow general safety measures such as not wearing fancy jewellery, not carrying your passport or all of your money and making sure that you are aware of your surroundings. Personally, I felt very comfortable in Santiago because of it’s laid back attitude and slow pace. For a big city, it seemed to have a country attitude.

9. Street Art. After having visited Athens in October and going on a Street Art tour, I am much more cognizant of Street Art in other cities. Ranging from proper graffiti (with a purpose), to graffiti for the sake of defacing a building to murals and colourful drawings, Santiago does not disappoint with the street art. Although there is not much in the historic district, within about 10 blocks (near the Loreto Hotel) the streets come alive with bursts of colour and imaginative designs.

10. Hot dogs. Although I chose not to have one, hot dogs are a popular choice for lunch or a snack with hot dog stands spread throughout the historic centre. If you are not feeling like eating on the run, you can also choose a local restaurant on the street or in the market and chance are, they will have a hot dog with your choice of toppings or fully loaded that you can munch on while watching the futbol match of the evening.

Overall, I enjoyed Santiago. I felt safe and easily got my bearings. I had no safety issues and soaked up the dry heat whenever I could get outside in the sun. I was a bit disappointed that most shops and restaurants were closed on Sunday, but I managed to find what I needed.

Sadly, the homeless situation bothered me. Many large cities struggle with this problem and I certainly don’t know what the answer is, but I know that as I walked by men passed out on the streets in various positions, sometimes lying in their own vomit, that I felt horrible that there was nothing I could do to help these people in that particular moment.

Although it is not a destination that I will rush to return to, it is also not a destination that I dread returning to. I wouldn’t suggest spending more than one or two days in the city, but it is an excellent starting or ending point with lots of day tours that you can do to surrounding cities, mountains and vineyards.

How much do things cost in Chile

I’m going to be a good girl and try to keep track of my expenses while I’m traveling. This is not an exciting blog post, just simply for information purposes.

1. For tax purposes. When receipts are in other languages it is hard for my bookkeeper to determine what’s what.
2. For information for others traveling to these destinations.

November 14th

Reciprocity fee – $132 USD – credit card – Good for the term of your passport. Great if you’ve just gotten a brand new 10-year one. Not so good if you are replacing it that same year.

Taxi – minibus – booked after I picked up my luggage, but before leaving airport – $31 USD – credit card
* I checked with several other travellers who had gotten their own taxi outside the airport instead of a minibus / transfer through the company inside the airport. Some were able to negotiate down to about $25 USD, but most were $28 – $30 USD. It depends how good your negotiating skills are.

Ah Hotel – Historical Centre – Santiago – $132 for 2 nights – continental breakfast included

$50 US – changed at a ‘cambio station’ near Plaza del Armas – $29800 Chilean Pesos

Lunch – 1/4 chicken, french fries & pop – 4450 Chilean pesos – approx $7.50 USD
2 water, coke, 2 litre juice – $4.50 USD

Full Day tour – Vina del Mar & Valparaiso – 34 000 Chilean pesos – approx $57 USD – credit card

Lunch buffet with tour at Municipal Casino in Vina del Mar – $23 USD – credit card
Dinner – 4450 Pesos – approx $7.50 – cash
Tip at dinner – $350 pesos – cash
Tip for Felipe (guide) – $2000 pesos – cash

Taxi – 2 kms between hotels – 2450 pesos (gave him 3000 – an extra .50c or so)
Lunch at Da Nui on Portugal Ave – Pollitos y arroz, coke, jello w/ bananas – $4100 pesos + $400 pesos tip.

Dinner at a steak restaurant – Steak and veggies, coke, dessert – $34 USD including tip

I also gave a few coins to the baggage boys who loaded my luggage on to the bus in Santiago and unloaded it in Mendoza. This isn’t required, but it is simply easier. They make it very clear that they are expecting tips. There is no set rate, a few coins will do. They won’t allow you to put your own luggage in or remove it. And, if you refuse to tip them be prepared for a scene. To ensure your luggage isn’t damaged purposely or left behind, just chuck up the dollar or two.

Ah Hotel – Santiago, Chile

A couple of weeks before traveling to Santiago, Chile I booked myself a room at the Ah Hotel. It is an aparta-hotel, so it comes with a kitchenette. It is centrally located within only a couple of blocks of the historic city centre, on a main street with a bus stop directly in front of the entrance.

My taxi driver dropped me off and I pushed the buzzer for someone to come unlock the front door for me. They keep this door locked all of the time for security, so no matter what time of day or night you are arriving, you need to buzz in, or you can buzz yourself out. It was nice to know not just anyone could come and go, especially with the bus stop right there and what seemed like an abundance of homeless nearby.

The lady who greeted me did not speak much English, but that was ok as I had proudly just had a full Spanish conversation with my taxi driver. So, I was at least over my jitters about opening my mouth to try and speak Spanish. She found my reservation, checked me in and showed me to my room, up one flight of stairs. She also carried my suitcase up the stairs for me.

The room was plain. In fact I can’t even embellish the sentence as it was that dull. Honestly, it made no difference to me as I was only there for a couple of nights. The walls were white, it was sparsely furnished and only one piece of art crookedly hanging above the double bed.

The lady left me to settle in and I checked behind each of the three closed doors to see what I would find.

Door #1 a kitchen the size of a closet, but equipped with almost everything I would need for two days. There was a mini fridge, a cooktop, some silverware, a couple of pots, glasses and dishes. I checked closely for cockroaches, just waiting to let out a horrible scream, but I found none and the kitchen, although not spotless, was sufficiently clean.

Door #2 opened up to a decent size bathroom that looked like it had possibly been renovated in the last few years (unlike the remainder of the apartment). The paint was peeling a bit, but everything was clean, the toilet was new and it was bright.

Door #3 was a small closet with shelves and hangers for those who were staying longer and wanted to unpack.

Sounds good so far right?

Now, keep in mind that I am not a particularly squeamish person. I’m used to traveling and staying in basic accommodations with a variety of issues. I am far from a neat freak, clean freak or perfectionist which all of my friends and family can vouch for.

After getting past the first glance, I looked around and realized that the apartment was actually quite dirty. The floors were smattered in black patches. There were so many of them that I thought it might be part of the colour in the wood floor, but no … Not unless it has been dirty for so long that it has seeped into the wood. This is a distinct possibility. It looked like the floors had not been mopped for a year … maybe more. This was the kind of place that you don’t walk barefoot unless you want your feet to turn black.

It almost looks like soot or volcanic ash, and maybe it is, but if there is that much on the floor in a closed building, what do people’s lungs look like? Yikes!

Based on the dirt on the floor, I became immediately more aware of the dirt everywhere else. The curtains that were once white, were grey; darker at the bottom from the soot everywhere. The walls were the same with the baseboards collecting more dust than I’ve ever seen.

On further inspection, the kitchen had a few bits and pieces of food left around and the plates and glasses were not all that clean. This could be because they don’t provide dish liquid or cleaning cloths. So, if you plan to stay for awhile, you’ll need to buy your own … along with a mop apparently!

The bathroom was actually still decently clean with surprisingly good quality toilet paper. I know, random thing to notice! However, the towels were another story. Although you could tell they had been washed from the way they felt from being air dried and were folded neatly. Maybe they were washed in the river though? A couple of stains, some ground in dirt and even a couple of rips showed that these had been around for a very long time.

At 11pm on the first night there was a knock on my door with delivery of breakfast on a platter for the next morning. An individual-sized packet of Chilean style frosted flakes, a Quaker Oatmeal cookie, tea, coffee, sugar, milk and orange juice boxes and yogurt. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was just enough to get me going the next morning.

The first night when I went to crawl into bed, it was the first bed that I ever in my life have checked for bed bugs. Luckily, I didn’t find any. I didn’t sleep the greatest that night as I was still thinking about them, but I woke up the next morning un-eaten.

I would definitely give the hotel a great rating on location. It really does not get much better. However, if you like cleanliness, you should look elsewhere, this is not the spot for you. I paid about $50 – $55 per night CAD and I’m very excited to move on to my next hotel, included in my tour which should be a huge improvement. Having said that, it wasn’t so bad that I decided to move elsewhere. I survived it. It was a great location, internet worked perfectly, the bed was reasonably comfortable and the shower wasn’t bad. It just needs some TLC and some strong cleaning solution.

Very surprised to see that it won a trip advisor award in 2013. Did I just have a bad room? Did it just not get cleaned fully before I arrived? Who knows … Or sometimes trip advisor isn’t the be-all-end-all.

Halifax to Santiago – the usual Shari glitches

November 14, 2014
NOTE: Many more past posts coming up about my six weeks in Europe (Sept / Oct 2014), but I’m going to try to keep up a little better on this trip as it is at a more leisurely pace. So … here’s a post about TODAY!

I never leave Canada without some kind of small (or large glitch) and once again, this trip has proved no different.

I set off from Halifax, Nova Scotia at 8:30pm on November 13th, our plane was late arriving, but we boarded and arrived in Toronto on time. I had an hour and a half layover in Toronto which was just enough time to change from terminal D to E (a lot of walking) and respond to a couple of work emails before boarding. I was pleasantly surprised that my gate had an open lounge concept set up with loads of free charging stations, tablets for your use and free wifi. I really appreciate it when airports have free reliable internet, but so many of them are one or the other.

We were scheduled to board at 11:45pm, but the first call for boarding came shortly after 11pm along with an announcement for passengers from several countries to have proof of payment of your reciprocity fee. Huh? Being a little tired, I thought maybe I had heard wrong. I knew I had to pay a reciprocity fee, but I was sure that I only had a printed copy for Argentina and I was going to Chile … wasn’t I?

I went and asked one of the Air Canada staff who looked quickly at my Argentinian reciprocity receipt and said that’s what I needed, but I said ‘but I’m going to Chile first and Argentina later.’ I wasn’t in a panic, but we were boarding, so if I had to pay the Chilean fee upfront, I needed to do so online with that free wifi quickly.

The man had to go ask. He came back and told me that they were only announcing it because the plane was continuing on to Buenos Aires, so passengers to Argentina had to have proof of theirs being pre-paid. For Chile, I would pay at the airport. Now why they couldn’t have announced it that way, I’m not sure … but …

Crisis averted.

I had picked my inside aisle seat in a row with no other passengers in anticipation that I might get to lay down vertically for the 10 hour flight. To my dismay, since I had chosen that seat, a man had chosen the other aisle and he had already laid claim to the centre seat with all of his stuff as well. GRRRR … Sleeping sitting up it was!

I managed to sleep through most of the night, waking up when there was turbulence or meals were being served, but overall I got enough sleep. In fact, I couldn’t believe it when I woke up the last time and it was only 1.5 hours until touch down. Wow! That went really fast.

Dinner was some kind of horrible chicken in a white cream sauce with very little flavour and then I had pancakes with fruit and what tasted like cream cheese frosting. I usually don’t mind plane food, but honestly, both of these were the pits.

Sadly I couldn’t see the beautiful mountains on the way into Santiago because I had chosen a chance at vertical sleep over the window seat that I originally had. I should have known better. From what I could see from staring around my neighbours, the mountains were spectacular.

Overall, a relatively uneventful trip. Despite the fact that I still hate flying, there was very little turbulence and when there was, it was minimal. And then, the pilot landed that jumbo jet like it only weighed 10lbs. It was the most graceful landing ever, barely even noticeable.

I was less than half-way back on the plane, so it wasn’t much of a wait to deplane. I followed all of the signs and even pointed someone else in the right direction to go pay the reciprocity fee, which the sign said was on ‘level 1’. I got to level one and the greeter spoke to me in Spanish. She asked where I was from, I said Canada and she pointed me off to the right. I got in a line with about 50 other people and thought … hmmmm … this line is very short. Could I really be this lucky?

UMMMMMM … NO.

My turn came and the lady told me I had to go pay my reciprocity fee. Damn it. I thought that was what I was waiting in line for … Meanwhile, the line of 50 that were in front of me had turned easily to 200 behind me. And, off I went to another line up to pay my reciprocity fee ($132 USD for Canadians – which was payable in US dollars or by credit card). It’s really nice that the reciprocity fee is good for the life of the passport, sadly, after this Latin America / Caribbean / Central America trip over the next 3 – 4 months, my passport will be out of pages and I’ll be renewing. That means if I head back to Chile, I’ll pay the fee again. But, if you have a new passport when you go to Chile for the first time, it’ll be valid for the length of your new 10-year Canadian passport. So, I hope some of you other Canadians benefit from it!

Then, I returned to the immigration line up behind 300 or so people and patiently waited my turn. UG! Not that it really mattered. I didn’t have a transfer or tour waiting, so I was in no particular hurry … I just wanted to get to the sunshine! (A high of 31 degrees here today. AHHHHH SUNSHINE!)