Nowhere in Santiago feels more South American than La Vega. Wander the city centre streets with its uninspiring but earthquake-proof architecture and there’s a real feeling that you could be anywhere. Not in La Vega. Santiago’s main market, set in a shady part of town next to the murky Mapocho river is gloriously, chaotically Latin American.
Fruit and veg is piled high inside and out, sellers brag about the size of their plums, housewives are scolded for squeezing the fruit and flies buzz around the vats of olives and hunks of cheese. Foreigners may baulk at the pigs heads that look out dolefully from the butcher’s stalls but the stray cats and dogs look on longingly.
Chile grows some of the finest produce in the world and it’s all here. From creamy avocados to juicy lemons, La Vega is a cook’s dream. Dirty and oppressively busy at the weekend it may be, but I love it.
Barely more than a single street, Lastarria is home to a fine collection of bars and restaurants frequented by people who wear designer glasses and black polo necks. There’s also a decent art house cinema, a museum, a theatre, a tiny park, several boutiques and a book and antique market at the weekends. If you’re lucky, you’re also catch a glimpse of the man who sports a skirt and a headscarf and sells dolls heads from a blanket. However, I like it best first thing in the morning. When the sun glints off the cobblestones and the terracotta walls of the Veracruz church and the smell of fresh bread wafts along the street, it couldn’t be lovelier.
3. Tostaderia, Calle San Pablo (near the Central Fish Market)
I’ve got no idea what this place is called, but I fell in love the moment I saw it. In a city that serves and sells terrible coffee (we’re talking Nescafe), this little shop sells and grinds coffee beans from Brazil, Columbia and Costa Rica from behind a long wooden counter. It’s worth ordering some for the smell alone (Costa Rican is the best). Also on sale are herbs and spices, potions and powders, dried fruit and baking ingredients. Watch out for the old ladies with sharp elbows.
4. Bar El Ático, Irarrazaval 1060, Ñuñoa
Not only because it reminds me of home and plays the best music in the whole of the city, but because Bar El Ático is a sanctuary from reggaeton and Latin American pop. Indie as it comes, I found my people here. The Pixies, Radiohead, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the like sound all the better when you’ve not heard them played out for a while.
5. The terrace of Emporio La Rosa, Calle Monjitas, Parque Forestal
Two minutes from home is one of Santiago’s most popular ice-cream parlours. It’s not my favourite (you can read where is here: https://natashayoung.wordpress.com/2009/06/01/ice-cream-heaven-we-know-where-it-is/), but the ice-cream is darn good and it’s in a great spot. By some weird quirk of weather or geography, the sun always seems to be shining here. Chocolate and Chilli Ice-cream, newspapers and sunshine is one hell of a mix.
6. The General Cemetery
7. Mimo’s Hairdressers, Mosqueto, Bellas Artes
High on entertainment value, Mimo’s is an institution. Run by a crazy Argentinean named Miguel, this man really knows how to cut hair. Judging by his constant stream of conversation, he also seems to know about a lot of other things as well. He once spent many minutes telling me that the left side of my hair was like the sea and that the stubborn flick of hair above my right ear was the masculine part of my personality expressing itself. He once refused to continue cutting until I’d promised to start a daily mantra that would harness my inner winner. He offers disappears for minutes at a time, returning with a violent sniff and talking ten to the dozen.
The salon itself is full of delightful misfits, who smoke like chimneys and nod along to the deafening techno. They play songs that have lyrics in English like ‘suck me hard oh yeah’ and the resident Yorkshire terrier has a purple and green fringe. As you leave, they all shout out, ‘Mira! Que linnnnnnnnda! It really is the most marvellous place.
By night, Pio Nono in Bellavista is like an English wedding gone bad. Like us Brits, Chileans appear to have an amazing capacity for alcohol but no off switch. While Pio Nono (the street that runs through the centre of the neighbourhood) is full of lurching drunks sloping Escudo over each other, two minutes away on Constitución, civilised dining goes on in expensive restaurants. It’s as chaotic as Soho, with live folk venues fighting for space alongside neon lit clubs, hot dog joints and salsa hangouts. During the day, Bellavista is great for graffiti spotting. If you’re lucky, you might catch an old crooner singing ballads on the stage behind the Feria at the weekend.
9. Centro Arte Alameda
You just don’t get cinemas like this anymore in England. Independent films in a quirky space that often has design fairs, gigs and club nights too.
10. The Swimming pool on Cerro San Cristóbal
Stupidly expensive and only open for a few months of the year, but by god what a view. Surrounded by the Andes and jaw-dropping vistas of the city on clear days, I’d go every day if I could.
So, those are mine. What are yours?
Now also published at Matador: http://matadortrips.com/my-10-favourite-places-in-santiago-de-chile/