It’s a long way down from Santiago to the far reaches of Chilean Patagonia, but the rewards—haunting fjords, shimmering glaciers, pristine mountainscapes—are as endless as the fabled pampas
It was decades ago, in the pages of some long-forgotten magazine, that I first learned about Torres del Paine National Park, whose cloud-wreathed mountains rise dramatically above the Patagonian steppe. Naively, I figured the name translated as “Towers of Pain”—the sharp-edged peaks certainly looked as though they would be painful to climb. And in my youthful imagination I began to think of them as the Misty Mountains of The Lord of the Rings, a mythical, far-off highland where magical things were bound to happen. I promised myself that someday I would venture to the southern reaches of Chile to see them.
Flash forward 30-odd years, and I’m touching down at the international airport in Santiago, a city I last visited in 1999 while researching a book about the Pan-American Highway. The intervening years have seen the Chilean capital change almost beyond recognition. Back then, Santiago couldn’t hold a candle to Rio or Buenos Aires; it was a drab, melancholy place that served mainly as a jumping-off point for journeys to the country’s more compelling attractions—the Atacama Desert, say, or the wilds of Patagonia. “At the end of the world” is how author Isabel Allende once described the city of her youth. But all of a sudden Santiago has grown up, taking on a swagger and sophistication that was never there before. Today, the sprawling metropolis of six million people feels very much at the center of the universe.
It was the downfall of the Pinochet regime in 1990 that set Santiago on its current course. Though it took a good decade for the city to emerge from the dark ages, when it did, there was no turning back. With 48 hours to kill before starting off for Chile’s deep south, I explore Santiago by foot and bike. Nearly everywhere I go there is something new, such as the 300-meter-tall Gran Torre Santiago, the tallest building in Latin America, which rises from a neighborhood of other new skyscrapers that locals have dubbed “Sanhattan.”
More established parts of the city have changed as well. The hulking concrete headquarters of Pinochet’s military junta has been transformed into the flamboyant Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral, named after Chile’s first Nobel laureate. The wonderful Art Nouveau mansions of the capital’s older districts, ignored for so long, are being recast as trendy restaurants, jazz bars, salsa clubs, and art galleries. And the once-dilapidated Mercado Central, with its Victorian-era cast-iron roof, has morphed into an oasis of gourmet dining, in particular the seafood that Chileans cherish.
“The changes have been dramatic,” American writer and longtime Santiago resident Kristina Schreck tells me over dinner in the courtyard of The Aubrey, a 15-room hotel that inhabits one of those recently restored mansions in the bohemian Bellavista district. “Santiago once felt stuck in time and worn out, which of course was the hangover period following the dictatorship. But today the city is alive and vibrant. It’s woken up in a frenzy.”