I still remember our first visit to Santiago in 2002 very well. I didn’t find the city particularly remarkable, although it felt clean and modern after Equator, Peru and Bolivia—as in, having running water was normal and there was no shit in the (paved!) streets. But overall, Santiago was quite sleepy, quite boring.
We stayed in a hostel, and we went to see Vanilla Sky. We splurged on a great lunch at the fish market and for dinner, I remember hesitating between fries, hot dogs, and fries with cut hot dog sausage on top, the only options available and none of them tempting.
When we came back in 2009, the fish market had turned into a tourist trap but there were plenty of new Peruvian restaurants. We stumbled upon the “Centro China,” a big mall full of cheap clothes and trinkets.
Centro China still exists—I’m two blocks away—but it’s pretty irrelevant now. The entire neighbourhood around Unión Latinoamericana is an ever-expanding Chinese mall with hundreds of warehouses, stores and vendors selling everything from plastic fans to flowery handbags, from pens to inflatable dancing penguins (I wish I was making this up). It starts with warehouses in San Alfonso, where products are delivered directly from China in large shipping containers. There’s packaging material all over the sidewalk and if you’re looking for a single selfie stick, you’re out of luck—they come in boxes of one hundred. Just a few streets up toward República, you may be able to buy stuff for personal use but bulk prices are always much lower. Around the bus terminals are two streets full of vendors selling toys and school supplies, as well are dozens of galería with clothing stores, eateries and more. I’m still trying to make sense of these neighbourhoods—they are so crowded you can barely see anything.
Sadly, authentic Chinese food isn’t yet easy to find in Santiago. Most restaurants offer meals that aren’t much tastier than what you’d get in a North American shopping mall food court—fried food seasoned with soy sauce.
Ironically, if you want a Chinese meal, you’re better off going to a Peruvian restaurant, one that doesn’t specialize in seafood, and order chifa dishes. Chifa is fusion of Cantonese food with traditional Peruvian ingredients. Arroz chaufa is basically fried rice, tallarin saltado are chow mein—and aeropuerto is a mix of both, rice and noodle!—while lomo saltado is beef with pepper. Don’t laugh if you’re offered to substitute white rice for fries, it’s Chinese food adapted to local taste.
Talking about food, most bakeries are either Colombian, either Peruvian. It’s easy to tell them apart— Colombians deep fry absolutely everything.
It took me a while, but I also found the Korean community, around Patronato. It wasn’t that hard, I just followed all the Chilean teens fans of K-pop. This is where you can eat a bibimbap, drink bubble tea and buy clothes featuring BTS, the beloved Korean boy band.
And now, it seemed that half of Santiago just arrived from Venezuela via Colombia a few months ago. Arepas and tequeños (deep-fried breaded cheese stick) are quickly becoming Santiago’s top street food, as long as the police isn’t around because selling homemade food from a cooler is apparently illegal.
It took me a couple of days to realize that “my” neighbourhood, around Universidad de Chile, is basically Little Caracas. If the food isn’t from Venezuela, the vendors are.
Most Venezuelans have a great sense of humour, like my neighbour whose store sign reads, “The Resistance—Here, we speak badly of Chávez and Maduro.” But the past few weeks have been tough for the community, who seems to be as puzzled as the rest of the world when it comes to the crisis. All the Venezuelans I talked to only want one thing now—humanitarian aid for their friends and family back home. None of them want to stay in Chile, but none of them have any idea what the solution is.
Every day, on Eleuterio Ramírez, there’s a ten- to twelve-hour queue in front of the PDI Internacional responsible for visas and long-stay permits. If you want to meet the world in Santiago, grab an empanada from the many vendors on the sidewalk, across the police station, and chat with people.
Santiago is no longer a boring, sleepy city, that’s for sure.