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Founded as an obscure colonial outpost devoid of the protracted often bloody clashes typical of its neighbors, Santiago has evolved into one of South Africa’s most impressive metropolises and has established itself as Chile’s dynamic liaison with the outside world. Once barely able to sustain its founders, the city has experienced an explosive growth rate over the last few decades, and is now home to over 5 million Chileans, a third of the nation’s populace. This expansion has sent the capital sprawling across the Maipo Valley, threatening to infiltrate the farmlands and vineyards that tenuously skirt Santiago’s suburban strip of development.
Alameda, Santiago’s main street, runs southwest to northeast; it is called O’Higgins to the west and Providencia to the east. When visible, the Andes are a good directional reference to the east and southeast. The city itself has clusters of interesting districts, interspersed amongst bland residential areas and bleak, sooty commercial strips.
Policemen (clad visibly in green) are stationed prominently throughout the city, making the streets very safe in daylight and relatively safe at night. Of course, as in any major city, it pays to exercise caution and guard possessions closely. Stay out of the parks (especially Cerro Santa Lucia and San Cristobal) after closing time, as muggings have occurred there.
Walking the city can be quite tiring, especially without direction or proper cartographic guidance. Each major neighborhood near the center warrants a day or half-day’s exploration, time permitting.
In the heart of the city, an impressive subway system, large plazas, stalwart cathedrals, and renovated colonials faces give downtown an unmistakably European feel. And while the cobblestone pedestrian walkways of el centro teem with business people, adjacent neighborhoods beat to the syncopated pulse of student and artistic tastes. In niches around the city, Chilean tradition meets international variety in the culinary, theatrical, musical, and nocturnal offerings that greet the curious visitor.
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Seafood, fast food, and ice cream offerings proliferate in Santiago Centro. Very few restaurants open beyond 9-10pm here. Packs of ravenous college students attest to Barrio Brasil’s good, cheap, accessible eats. More refined ethnic and seafood restaurants also infiltrate the neighborhood. The thoroughfare of Ricardo Cumming, north of Alameda, hosts clusters of quality eateries, all the way north to Santo Domingo. For a little extra money, you can treat yourself to a memorable meal in Bellavista. This bohemian barrio features many specialty restaurants that prepare dishes with an artistic flair commensurate with the multicultural surroundings. The best culinary strip resides on Constitucion. The Suecia strip just north of the Los Leones metro station delivers chow at tourist prices, drawing more of an expatriate crowd to its bar scene. Various lunch spots and eateries are scattered around and along the main drag, the dynamic Ave. Providencia. Although Ñuñoa lies far from the city center, it rewards with reasonably priced restaurants and excellent ambience. Virtually all of the neighborhoods cluster around Av. Irarrazaval, especially in Plaza Ñuñoa.
Although a stroll through Santiago won’t deliver up an abundance of cafe, as a bustling metropolis the city harbors a fair share of establishments complete with typical cafe atmospheres and chain-smoking en masse. Barrio Brazil is the best place to go for artsy cafes, although some may be hard to find.
On the other end of the cafe spectrum, Santiago Centro’s pedestrian walkways are littered with establishments like Café Caribe and Café Haiti. These cafes draw an ogling, suit-clad corporate clientele with young female waitstaff decked out in slinky evening wear. Known widely as “Cafés con piernas” (coffee with legs), these establishments may seem scandalous or indecent, but the high-quality coffee tends to lure even those with objections to the objectification. No alcohol is served, and security guards stand ready to ensure everything is under control.
Bellavista has the highest concentration of theaters in the city, many offering avant-garde productions. While most theaters tend to be pricier on weekends, they offer student discounts certain days. Teatro Municipal is Chile’s official artistic center and features concerts, ballets, and operas by prestigious national and international groups. Unfortunately, only those fluent in Spanish may delve into the Santiago art scene, as performances are rarely staged in English.
Hollywood films, rivaled by an excellent collection of independent films, come to Santiago a few weeks after their US release. Most films are in their original language with Spanish subtitles.
Santiago’s cultural institutions offer the Chilean artistic and creative community a number of smaller venues for exhibiting and performing their work. Activities include plays, workshops, exhibitions, film screenings, readings, and more. The largest and most significant institutes are the old train station Centro Cultural Estacion Mapocho, and Plaza Central Centrol de Extension Universidad Catolica. Smaller ones include Biblioteca Nacional, O’Higgins 651, and Instituto Cultural del Banco Estado del Chile, and Alameda 123.
Though possibly disappointing compared with other major South African cities, Santiago holds its own when it comes to livin’ la vida loca. Virtually every establishment in barrios Bellavista and Suecia turns into a pub, disco, or both at night, and still struggles to contain the throngs of party-seekers who come looking for the ultimate weekend beat. Vitacura and Ñuñoa, though a bit farther away, are also crowd-pleasers. Festivities start between 11pm and midnight, and crowds usually spill onto the streets until 5am. Bohemian Bellavista hot spots are the cheaper (and thus more popular) choice for locals, especially for teenagers and university students; most of these are near Av. Pio Nono. Suecia’s more expensive nocturnal delights have a more commercial appeal and attract an older, more international crowd.
Although Santiago still has some discrimination against homosexuals, the gay and lesbian community does have access to a vibrant nightlife, primarily in Barrio Bellavista. Establishments can be unmarked and inconspicuous from the outside, but inside, they host some of the city’s best parties.
South Americans are generally warm, tactile people who converse in close proximity - get used to being cozy with your chilean companions, because backing away is considered offensive. When greeting a group of Chileans, it is important to smile, make eye contact, and shake hand firmly with everyone present, as a group greeting can seem stand-offish. Closer make friends may hug and pat each other’s backs affectionately; women often greet each other by touching cheek to cheek and quickly kissing in the air.
Smoking at social functions is pretty standard, but if you are going to light up, offer a cigarette to your companions first. Always arrive fashionably late for social functions - 15 to 30 minutes after the invitation time is customary. If you get there on time or early, you may catch your host or hostess off-guard. (Promptness is essential, however, for business functions.)
Bringing a gift to a home you are visiting is an appropriate gesture, as long as you don’t choose anything too expensive that might seem flashy. Gifts from your home country that aren’t available in Chile, such as our country’s native handicrafts, candy, or liquor, are a good bet. You’ll also score points if you bring small tokens, such as candy or games, to any children in the household that you are visiting.
Flowers are acceptable gifts, but you should send them before your arrival or bring them with you o that they don’t seem an afterthought. Avoid yellow roses, a sign of contempt, and black or purple flowers, which symbolize death. If you receive a gift, open it immediately in front of your host and express enthusiastic thanks.
Chilean manners can be a bit more than formal than those of other South American countries, but keeping a few things in mind will help you make a good impression on your Chilean acquaintances. Be sure that you know the correct utensils to use for each course - eating anything with your hands is a definite faux pas. Placing your hands in your lap while at the table is a sign of deception, so take care to keep both hands above the table at all times. It is polite to sample everything that is served and to compliment the host or hostess on all of the eats.
Meals in Chile are often more about conversation and visiting than the food itself. Enjoy leisurely meals with your Chilean friends - stay for conversation rather than taking off when your plate is clean.
If you go out to eat, the person who makes the invitation often pays. Don’t expect to share in the bill, but plan to reciprocate with a similar invitation at a later date. Arrange ahead of time to pay the bill in a restaurant if you made the invitation. You will have to ask for the bill at the end of the meal - the waiter won’t rush you out by bringing it automatically.
Chilean businesspeople are big on exchanging business cards, so it’s a good idea to have yours translated into Spanish on the back of your standard card; the swap of cards usually occurs after the ritual handshake.
Meetings and business gatherings begin with chit-chat. Arrive on time, but don’t be surprised if others, especially the seniors of the meeting, arrive half-an-hour late. Status at meetings is important, and an age hierarchy is assumed. You should expect to defer to the eldest person present - if you are unsure who is the eldest, keep an eye on the behavior of others at the meeting.
Be aware that feelings are often the driving force in business interactions. A respectful and humble approach to discussion is your bet best - attempting forceful negotiations, cracking excessive jokes, or putting people down will lead only to embarrassment among your Chilean colleagues.
If you make some gestures common in other areas of the world, you may unintentionally offend your new Chilean friends. Be careful not to slap you right fist into a left open palm - this is a strong insult in Chile. Displaying an open palm with fingers splayed is taken to mean “stupid.” Make sure to point and beckon with your entire hand instead of your index finger. Also, do not raise your right fist near your head - this is a communist taboo in Chile.