Bursting with cultural attractions, creative chefs, an all-night club scene and a glorious wine country nearby, the Chilean capital has become one of South America’s hottest cities
Author Justin Goldman Photography Yadid Levy
DAY ONE | “La Cordillera,” your taxi driver says, and your eyes follow the line from his finger, over the sprawl of Santiago to the snowcapped Andes, looming impossibly huge and close. You’re definitely not in Kansas anymore. A few minutes later, he drops you off in front of a Spanish colonial building nestled amid palm trees and bougainvillea. The Aubrey, a 15-room hotel that opened in 2010, comprises two 1920s-era mansions combining traditional and contemporary touches—a Mission-style terrace leads into a bright piano bar decorated with illustrations of the Beatles. You head up to your fourth-floor room, which has an oddly slanted ceiling and a fine view of Santiago’s biggest park, Parque Metropolitano. You’re pumped up to go exploring, but that was a loooong flight, and before you know it you’ve face-planted on the bed.
You wake from your nap with an appetite, so you head down Constitución, one of the two main strips of Santiago’s bohemian Bellavista neighborhood, in search of a bite. The storefronts here are slightly run down, but vibrant and colorful. You’re drawn by the nautical decor—a ship’s bow, a figurehead—of Azul Profundo. You slide in and order caldillo de congrio, the hearty eel soup that’s such a Chilean staple that Pablo Neruda wrote an ode to it. The poem is conveniently printed on your placemat, and you read it as you eat: “In the storm-tossed Chilean sea”—slurp—“lives the rosy conger”—slurp—“giant eel of snowy flesh.”
Inspired by lunch, you duck down a graffitied alleyway just off Constitución to find La Chascona, the house Neruda lived in with his third wife, Matilde Urrutia. (The poet named the house using a Quechua word meaning disheveled, in honor of Urrutia’s curly hair.) You climb through the gardens, listening to a young guitarist on the street below, and enter to find a surreal portrait by Diego Rivera depicting Urrutia with two heads. You browse Neruda’s maps, books and nautical knickknacks, finally coming across his Nobel Prize medal on the top floor. You don’t see one of those every day.
From here, it’s a couple of blocks to Parque Metropolitano, better known as Cerro San Cristóbal for the 2,830-foot peak at its center. There’s a funicular that goes to the top, but you’re feeling spry, so you hike the mile or so up the dirt trail. As you reach the first switchback, you suspect you’ve made a mistake; at the second, you know you have. Then you spot the 45-foot statue of the Virgin Mary at the peak, so you soldier on. At the top, you stand beside the statue, listening to a man drone Hail Marys in a perfect monotone, and take in the view of the Gran Torre Santiago, the tallest building in South America, which is dwarfed by the mountain range beyond. You won’t be climbing those anytime soon.
You wobble back down the hillside and hop a cab to the tony suburban neighborhood of Vitacura, home to the Museo de la Moda. Founded by the scion of a wealthy family in 1999, the museum houses a collection of fashion relics that include Madonna’s cone bra and the jacket that Michael J. Fox wore as Marty McFly and Marty McFly Jr. in Back to the Future II. There’s also a giant Rubik’s Cube and cars embedded nose first in the grass outside. It feels a little odd to travel thousands of miles to immerse yourself in various bits of Americana, but it’s no less satisfying.
Dinner is at nearby Boragó, a simple dining room that belies the culinary complexities of its menu. “People never really travel to Chile to eat,” says chef Rodolfo Guzmán, running you through some of the 700 dishes he prepares. “We’re trying to build that from scratch.” A wild-haired mad scientist of a chef (and alum of famed Spanish eatery Mugaritz), Guzmán uses seasonal ingredients proffered in mind-boggling presentations: quail eggs nestled in the branches of a bonsai tree; piure, a gelatinous urchin-like creature, served atop rocks from the seashore; bread sticks dotted with edible flowers; a dessert of menthol and lemon crystals that crackle on the plate like fireworks. At one point you find yourself sipping wine out of a cow horn, wondering if one of your drink pairings was ayahuasca.
Not sure if you’ve just had dinner or witnessed a piece of performance art, you cab it back toward the Aubrey, stopping off for a nightcap at Bar The Clinic. The official watering hole of The Clinic, a satirical Santiago newspaper, the bar’s walls and menu are adorned with lefty political slogans. You order Chile’s signature wine, Carménère, which your bartender climbs a ladder to fetch from the tall case of bottles behind the bar. A TV on the wall runs a loop of the paper’s cartoons, including one skewering the Chilean navy, with sketches of U.S. and Russian nuclear submarines beside a half-submerged Santiago city bus. Such national self-deprecation would have been unthinkable during Pinochet’s reign. The people around you are all smiles. Even now, after all these years, this is a city enjoying a fresh start.