If Bueno Aires is considered the “Europe” of South America then Santi - as we grew to call it - is surely the “United States”. Shopping malls, high-rises, condo-living, supermarkets, swanky pools and swankier parties. Arriving in this mecca of all things expensive after a week of “bathing” in a muddy river, we swiftly ditch our old, tattered clothes, buy shiny new ones and embrace the almost forgotten luxury of civilization.
Santiago sits in the middle of the Central Valley, a depression wedged between two gorgeous mountain ranges: the Chilean Costal Range and the Andes. Because of population, dryness, heat and lack of wind, a hazy pastel smog rests just above the skyscrapers during the day, obscuring the distance and stripping away any perception of the mountains beyond. However, hike up to one of the many viewpoints in the vast metropolis and you’re greeted with a magnificent sight. The colours resemble Californian sunsets dusting an impressive breadth of urban sprawl.
We choose one such ascent on our first day in town, climbing the Cerro San Cristóbal, a 300m tall hill and the second highest point in Santiago. Tourists and locals alike flock to its peak to visit the famous statue of the Virgin Mary. The most interesting way the Cerro is accessed is through the once-bohemian-now-über-tourist neighbourhood of Bellavista. You can walk all the way to the top - 45 minutes uphill if you don’t get lost along the many twists and turns - or take a cab. Worn weary from the road and ready to embrace our new lush lifestyle we pick the latter. Besides, we aren’t on a pilgrimage to The Blessed Mother but to our new idol of worship - the swimming pool. Way up high and perched around the edge of the hill are two massive blue pools. We float around for hours looking out over the city we are about to discover. We realize: up until now we've been travelling - but, for the next two weeks at least, we’re on holiday.
After strolling back down the hill during the tangerine sunset (we can manage the descent), we sit down for an expensive seafood dinner with cocktails and wine. The food in Santiago is not that good and we don't really care. It lacks the flavour and authenticity of the home-cooked meals we had found on the road but to us it’s dining and full of that sweet restaurant ambience; something we sorely miss. We dress up and eat out every single night; Italian, Indian, French - anything but South American - and consume frothy frozen frappuccinos for lunch. Having lived frugally for two months we now want to spend our money. We want to be pampered.
The peak of vacation begins once we're taken under wing by Rob, an old Aussie friend of Ella’s, and his rowdy group of expat buddies. They’re young, handsome men from Australia, the Netherlands, and the U.S. who came to Santi (as they lovingly coined it) for work and the dream of an exotic adventure. They've built a way of life here and happily initiate us into it. Dance parties, dive bar crawls, night club salsa, picking-up women, slow weekends, busy workdays, happy hours, and oh yes, more dancing.
We quickly grow envious of their happy lives. They are lucky to live in a city so beautiful and full of history, culture and the conveniences of a modern capital. At lunch-time we meet Rob at the French Health Club during a break from his corporate job. A place where non-french Chilean and expat businessmen come to practice their strokes in the pool as their young pregnant wives sun themselves on the side. At night we take part in “after-work”: parties held all over the city any time of week, in old renovated mansion-bars or in clubs on rooftop carparks. On weekends our new friends lead us on “mystery tours”: lazy, beer-fueled adventures around their beloved new home to the parts often forgotten in praises. We sit by the dried out Mapocho River, drink terrible over-Worcestershired Bloody Marys in a very committed “under the sea” themed restaurant, and swim with children in a particularly pretty fountain.
One day we trek to Barrio Yungay - a stunning neighbourhood full of crumbling classical architecture and brilliantly coloured graffiti. One of our favourite places in Santi, Yungay is quiet and empty. We're told it's not safe here at night; hard to believe as we sit against sun-dappled pink stucco and play harmonica with children calling down to us from an open window.
Our friends exposed us to so many experiences we may never have tried, and all at a leisurely pace. One day trip we venture to the infamous “La Piojera” (The Fleabag), the oldest bar in Santi. Squashed between strip bars and a ripe-smelling open-air market, La Piojera is frequented by the gamut of Santiago locals including some of its most poor. It has concrete floors and courtyards filled with very happy, very drunk people. Everyone comes here for the “Terremoto” (Earthquake): a bright pink drink made of pipeño white wine, Fernet, bitters, and grenadine, and topped with pineapple ice cream. It will knock you on your ass. After one we’re laughing and dancing with strangers. After two we’re hammered.
We spent much of our time in the capital either drunk, getting there, or hung-over. Perhaps, like in La Piojera, we needed to be. If you're sober in La Piojera you can't avoid the concrete floors covered in sticky pink goo, the leering men, or the reality of the like-minded people who regularly gather to do absolutely nothing but self-medicate while the sun is still high.
We leave Santiago having been shown so much of the city and yet seeing so little. We walked the beautiful cobblestone streets of Barrio Lastarria and climbed the Cerro Santa Lucìa for its views, grabbed gelato near the giant, geometric Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral where one can take free dance classes with the city’s ballet. We danced wildly one night in Bellavista to a Cumbia Folk music performance that was so entertaining it was almost theatre, in a sweaty night-club packed with the most joyous revellers we’d yet seen.
We saw a slice of what it would be like to be an expat in Santi and it was intoxicating. But - as we realized too late - we didn’t do much else. The country is fresh from the terrible rule of a dictator, its capital bursting with fascinating museums and remnants of its dark history. We look back wishing we had taken the time to make these visits and see these sights but we also ask ourselves: did we really have time to spare? We were busy! Enjoying leisure and laziness, swimming in pools and strolling down streets, dressing for dinner, sitting in fountains, getting to know new friends, and yes, getting day-drunk and sleeping-in late. Though perhaps we should, we regret nothing. To us Santiago expressed itself as one big warm vacation and for the first time on this Dirty Road we enjoyed a goddamn holiday.
Its a strange thing growing close to friends you make on your travels. They enhance the experience tenfold and fill you with laughter and love. The boys and Santi are intrinsically linked in our minds, they are one and the same. Like a soundtrack to a film; ripe with bittersweet nostalgia. They are ever-present in the cityscape of our memories. In sunny moments of perfect joy. In warm remembrance of what it feels like to be young and truly free. Yet memories are all one can take from a city, and so, as their lives continue across a hemisphere, so too does our journey. A journey down a road different from theirs, but a road forever changed.
What is Dirty Roads?
We are two girls, dedicated to an elevated travel lifestyle. We trek the Earth with camera and pen in hand to document an experience. We believe in respecting the land and the indigenous cultures we encounter, tasting authentic and delicious handmade foods, challenging our world views, seeking incredible beauty, and above all going beyond our nerves. Travel is not travel without a dusty face.