Our first 72 hours in Chile have gone so smoothly. I floated into the customs entry line amidst the sea of others disembarking from our flight, slightly disconcerted after a three-leg, twenty hour journey. “Well hello there, friend. Fancy seeing you here.”
And there, just a row ahead of me in line, was Mariah. I dove under the line divider and embraced one of my best friends. There was lots of jazz-hand jumping and high-pitched outbursts and laughing and more hugging.
Santiago was supposed to be our entry point to Patagonia, just a metropolitan stopover to the final mountain destination for which we really made this trip. But the surprise and embrace Santiago had in store for my spirit was much like my reunion with Mariah. It is a big city, but it is also clean, the streets lined with cobblestones and a variety of funky botanical life. The stray dogs are so well cared-for that they’re more of an entertaining furry addition to the scene than a begging pest; apparently in the winter, they’re all quite classy in their anonymously provided-for sweaters and scarves.
Mariah concluded on our ride down the funicular from San Cristóbal Hill that Santiago can be summed up in three sounds: salsa music spilling onto the streets; a speedy, slang swallow of Spanish; and the smooches of very public neck-nibbling. There is SO much PDA… but I kind of like it; the people here are even less reserved than me, and the entangled legs and public park make outs reflect their unabashed nature.
Our walking tour guide Felipe said that Chile is a country comprised of open people with strict laws, remnants of Arroz Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship from 1975-1990 and the conservative values of today’s elite.
Still, Santiago is alive and vibrant. A refreshing wind counterbalances the power of the summer sun, which has kissed the in-proportionally high number of bronzed, sexy men strolling down the sidewalk. As with most Latin and South American countries, no one is in too big of a rush, even amidst the chaos usually reserved for city life. Colorful murals or classy graffiti decorate most exposed concrete walls, a testament to Nobel Peace poet Pablo Neruda’s influence in Chilean art and politics. We visited his house yesterday, and he was the MAN — or, as he liked to call himself, the Captain; despite never learning to swim, he loved the water.
There are three sleek or hipster coffee shops on every block (careful though — apparently some of them have “legs,” caffe con piernes, and lock up for one happy minute in the middle of the day to strip tease those handsome business men.) Street vendors sell a rotating food menu every few hours – a melon medley for breakfast, fried potatoes around noontime, homemade fruit popsicles and mote con glosios dessert in the heat of the afternoon, and meat shish-kabobs as dusk sets in.
Quaint, distinct neighborhoods make what is a relatively large city feel more intimate. Our first dinner together, we splurged at Bocanáriz in Lastarria, an especially hip and bohemian pedestrian-only pocket of the city. The menu boasted over 350 local wine selections, and we dined on fresh, fruity ceviche; butternut squash ginger tortellini in a red pepper sauce; and Chilean lamb. Don’t get me started on the national cuisine specialties we have enjoyed since then – empanadas de pino (fried and stuffed with meat, onion, and egg), pastel de choclo (fried corn mix with beef, raisins, and egg), and Chorrillana (French fries loaded with beef, onion, and other goods. [NB – if in need, perfect hangover food after a few too many pisco sours.])
I might have a mountain soul, but I can appreciate the distinct character of an incredible city. For different reasons, Charleston, Austin, Seattle, Budapest, and London have all won spaces on my “Favorite Cities” list, but Santiago holds its own too, and I hereby officially induct it.
As the plane dipped into descent just a half our before landing in Santiago, it occurred to me that this is really the first trip of its kind for me. I have built up enough associated experiences – Hispanic culture in Costa Rica and Ecuador with my family, dirt-bagging through New Zealand with Kayla and hitchhiking in Hawaii, communicating in a foreign tongue and sporadically connecting to wifi in Italy. But never all of those components, all combined. Backpacking, with one companion, in South America, in Spanish. We are getting by on our rudimentary language skills (oh, to be fluent!) and Mariah is prepared for, as her parents put it, “baptism by fire” once we hit the trail.
Every time I go somewhere new and do something incrementally more challenging, I feel like I become a little more in touch with the internal explorer in me, just waiting for its time to come alive. This trip is definitely that next step, and though only 3 days in, I am in my zone. If I didn’t have to secure a teaching job this spring, I would be staying in South America for months, I am certain. I suppose that just means I will be back though!
I’m so grateful that Mariah and I have time for some much-needed life catch ups, but also the time to just be, sharing this adventure together, figuring out what’s next, hour by hour. We notice different things – Mariah usually the ornate details, I the larger picture – but we appreciate those observations equally. We’re also both so extroverted that we’ve already met several really interesting people and invited them to join us for a meal or excursion. The novelty of being together is not wearing off, and we make a damn good team (though we do miss you, Trace Face, and wish that you could improve our navigation skills.) Today, we flew South to Punta Arenas and are finally in the heart of Patagonia. This evening we pressed on on to Puerto Natales, the launchpad town for the famous Torres del Paine Circuit. The journey continues!