Flying into Santiago, it’s hard not to be impressed. There are only a few cities I’ve visited where, on approach, I had to look UP to see the mountains. Santiago, Chile is one of those places.
As soon as we landed, I felt at home. Maybe in a previous life, I lived on the south side of the planet. The countries I’d most like to see again are all below the equator: New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, and – now – Chile.
Santiago is Chile’s largest city. It’s named for St. James (“Santo Iago” en Español) and was founded on the 12th day of February 1541 making it, at least by my standards, quite old. The oldest surviving building in the city (most old buildings have been destroyed by earthquakes) was built in 1618. A full two years before the Mayflower sailed the ocean blue. That means there’s a lot of new construction in this city. Including South America’s tallest building: The Gran Torre Santiago.
It’s hard to talk about Santiago without talking about earthquakes. The Pacific coast of South America is one of the best places to see geology in action. Sadly, Santiago has been destroyed – at least partially – several times. Two of the most notable occasions were in 1906 (just four months after the devastating San Francisco quake) and again in 1985 (shortly after a ruinous earthquake shook Mexico City). A more recent one hit Santiago in 2010. In short, I’m walking on eggshells down here. I’ll probably sleep fully clothed in case I have to run into the street in the middle of the night. That’s one way to combine Safety and Looking Good.
This is a place with some staying power. But that’s not the whole story. A lot of places have been around for a while. Chile is a nation with a future, too. It’s far and away Latin America’s strongest economy. Walk around and you’ll feel like you’re in a major West Coast city in the US. But Chile also demonstrates the impact of Globalization.
It’s not just the earth that shakes Chile. It seems the world’s skinniest nation is highly dependent on other economies in order to stay stable. It’s said that just a few years ago, when the US sneezed, Chile caught a cold. Now, when China sneezes, they get the flu.
The Chilean economy is based largely on commodities, chiefly copper, which they ship in vast quantities to China. The tide is shifting toward lithium to power your iPhone, which is also shipped to China. Regardless, Chile’s 17 million citizens rely on Chinese buyers of their raw goods. And that dependence is exacerbated by the fact that they don’t really manufacture anything here. In fact, the Santiago Central Market is made of Chilean iron that was shipped to Birmingham, England where it was turned into a sort-of Lego building, shipped back, and put together again in the middle of the city in 1869. The trend of not owning the manufacturing process continues to this day.
How, you ask, have I learned all of this? Well, my new best friend, Gustavo told me. Unlike many of my journeys, I’ve got a tour guide. Gustavo is not only the best guide in all of Chile (according to me), he’s also President of the local Tour Guide group (according to him). That means walking through any tourist destination involves stopping and “politicking” with every waiter, bus driver, and referral source. It’s fine with me because getting to know the business end of tourism is pretty interesting to me.
On our way up Santa Lucía Hill — a 1,000-foot ‘hill’ (in my world, 1,000 feet make a mountain, but I don’t live in the Andes) overlooking the City — Gustavo explained that he’s a freelancer and will take all kinds of people through Santiago. Sometimes individuals, sometimes groups, sometimes couples. He’s got a group of 15 from Israel next week. He prides himself on tailoring his journeys. For example, I noticed some really big doors and made a passing comment: “Wow, those are some really big doors.” The next thing I knew, we began pausing at every door in Santiago. I mentioned that I was in the professional training business and, in his mind, that was like performance so he showed me the arena, which has hosted “Liza Minelli, Cats, and Sting.”
On our way down the 1,000-foot ‘hill,’ we had to pay. The uniquely South American practice of paying unofficial drunk men to ensure your car doesn’t get broken into or stolen is alive and well here in Santiago.