In some ways, Santiago has a head start in appealing to an international audience. The bustling urban area with six million inhabitants has the lowest crime rate of large South American cities. The recently elected female, socialist president is committed to bringing Chile up from “developing nation” status to progressive, international player, and an already established gay district has clubs and bars that have been going strong for years. An economic success story with renewed investment in city businesses as well as sleek, efficient public services (the subway system is a model for South American nations) raises Santiago’s status considerably. There are world-renowned vineyards, ski areas, beach resorts, mountain forests, and desert areas all within easy reach of Santiago. Surrounded by the rugged and stately Andes mountain range with its snow and glaciers, the city is mostly dry and dusty with a Mediterranean climate. Forty percent of the city’s measurable pollution is actually soil dust in the wind. The architecture is eclectic with strong Spanish and French influences, but with no real priority on preservation, too many of the city’s once-grand historic buildings are lost, and unimaginative concrete boxes stand next to shimmering modern glass towers and a few remaining hacienda-style manors.

Probably only two percent of Santiagoans speak English, so brush up on your Spanish skills before visiting. To really test your linguistic skill, Chileans speak very quickly, mas rapido, and tend to clip the final consonant sounds, so Muchas Gracias becomes Mucha Gracia.

Santiago Centro is the beating heart of the city from which it sprang in 1541. It is one of 32 barrios or neighborhood districts in the city, three or four of which you are likely to explore as a visitor. When getting around town, the metro system is new and clean. Trains run from 6:30 A.M. to 10:30 P.M. and ticket prices fluctuate from peak to off-peak hours. The most expensive metro ticket is less than 500 pesos, or about 85 cents US. For late nights, or for convenience any time, taxis are everywhere. Cabs are black with yellow roofs and are easy to hail day or night in most areas. Fares are posted on meters and drivers do not expect tips, but most people round the price up.

The Plaza de Armas is the center of downtown (Centro) Santiago. The 18th Century cathedral here has been re-built and is a gathering place for the faithful as well as political activists, making the cobbled square a bit of an al fresco pulpit and soapbox. Along another side of the large plaza, the famous Pre-Columbian Art Museum, housed in the former Royal Customs House, is the second largest collection of that genre in the world with a remarkable array of textiles, statuary, and gold jewelry. The moody, dark interior also is home to the world’s oldest mummies.

Northeast of Santiago Centro is the barrio Providencia, the financial, corporate, shopping, and hospitality corridor with shiny new high-rise hotels, malls, and office buildings.

Downtown Santiago and the Bellas Artes barrio, with its narrow streets and small plazas, is having a resurgence with lots of new residential development (especially in renovated, older buildings) restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Same-sex couples are buying up apartments and converted lofts here as fast as possible. After a lingering lunch at a café among the bustling young professionals that populate the area, wander to the fine arts museum, Palacio Nacional de Bellas Artes (for which the neighborhood was named), and the modern Museo de Arte Contemporaneo.

The bohemian, artsy, and gay neighborhood, Bellavista, is filled with eclectic shops, dining, and nightlife of all stripes, and is presided over by the hilltop statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception on San Cristobal Hill. The barrio is in the shadow of Parque Metropolitano, a lush greenspace with walking paths, picnic lawns, the zoo, and a funicular to the top of the hill that affords wraparound views. Bellavista has a cluster of gay businesses all within walking distance of one another, side by side with straight nightclubs and bars, and crowds from all of them spill out into the streets and mix. There’s not a lot of blatant signage, so it is best to do a bit of research before setting out to be sure you find what you’re looking for. Chile in general is still very discreet and Catholic, so discretion is the rule. You may occasionally, within this small area, see two men holding hands, but you won’t find rainbow flags flapping in the breeze.

If you’re going out for a night on the town in Santiago, take your disco nap, because you shouldn’t even consider sitting down to dinner before 10 P.M. and that’s if you’re an early bird. You’ll probably hit a gay bar or two for pre-dinner drinks, dine for an extended meal from 11 P.M. or midnight until 2 A.M., then hit the clubs. You’ll wander back to your hotel with the rising sun and wave to people heading off to work. This is the Santiago way.

When it comes to nightlife, you have several choices. Discotheque Bunker was the ultimate in cool, but for queer patrons it has fallen from grace a bit as it has become trendy for hip straights to fill the place. “The new status symbol is to have a gay friend and go to a gay club,” says Alan, a local, and Bunker seems to be their first choice. There are also special Femme lesbian nights regularly scheduled here, and high fashion is the rule.

You’re unlikely to find Vox Populi if you don’t know where you’re going, but this bar/pub/restaurant is a favorite gathering place for gay Santiaguinos. Darkened nooks and crannies are popular for cuddling couples, while clusters of laughing, drinking friends fill the back garden.

Meanwhile, Fausto is the city’s original, upmarket, old school disco. In the 1980’s it was the only place for the gay community to congregate. Currently the clientele is mainly a cross-generational mix of dancing boys and men. Women were barred from entering for years, but no longer.

Another exciting venue, with a high-energy crowd, is Bokhara. Downstairs is a disco floor, upstairs thumps with techno tunes, and there’s even a “couples” hotel upstairs. The crowds are high energy, and this club was the first to have live sex shows and darkrooms, but no longer. “The gay scene is all equalizing in the middle now,” says Alan, “As homosexuality is considered less deviant, everybody is working hard to accommodate the mainstream and not be extreme in any way.”

The one main lesbian club, Mascaras Discotheque, has a disco room, a few billiards rooms, and looks a bit like a log cabin inside with arched doorways and rough walls. Theme nights and group specials keep it busy most nights of the week.

Puttin’ on the Ritz” is your theme song at the lovely Ritz Carlton Santiago, easily the finest hotel in town. The only Ritz in South America, this well-located brick hotel has large, comfortable rooms, a huge barrel-shaped rooftop atrium with swimming pool, and decadent spa treatments. Service is impeccable as the staff goes out of its way to pamper and spoil you with unasked for niceties (chilled champagne after a hot day of shopping, unending cappuccinos in the morning, etc.) The restaurant, Wine 365, has elaborate dishes and hundreds of featured Chilean wines.

The Grand Hyatt is a bit off the beaten path but well-connected to downtown Santiago. The upscale rooms have luxurious marble baths that are a cool and welcome respite from the hot, dry city. It is considered one of the city’s finest options and service is understated and very efficient. A small but updated fitness center, outdoor “lagoon” style swimming pool (where your fabulousness will be on display to many hotel guests and restaurant patrons who are very close by), and spa provide all the comforts.

As a reprieve from the urbanity of the city, you might try the intimate gay guesthouse, Bed and Breakfast Santiago. This art-filled private home (the owner does gay nightlife tours of the city) abutting a large city park, provides rooms with a proud personal flair. Breakfasts are hearty, the gardens are relaxing with the friendly house dogs, and wireless internet keeps you connected.

If you want a familiar place to call home, Sheraton Santiago has comfortable rooms with views of the Andes or the city, it’s close to a metro station, and has lovely indoor and outdoor pools. Their fine dining restaurant, El Cid, is an award winner, and seasonal al fresco dining in the gardens by the pool is a laid back treat. The hotel also has the only exclusive vineyard in downtown Santiago so you won’t have to search out those Chilean reds.

For European flair, like deep saturated colors, ornately patterned textiles, and botanic prints hanging over baroque furniture, the easy elegance of the Park Plaza Hotel in Providencia is a nice choice. They pride themselves on personalized service and have the chance to flaunt it at their upscale restaurant, bar, gym, and pool.

Oddly, at least to my mind, Chilean food is not spicy. Cooked vegetables, meats, and incredibly fresh seafood, including Chilean Sea Bass, over-farmed but still popular on American restaurant menus, are specialties, but always mildly spiced. While potatoes are served at every meal, a hot pepper is not to be found.

In the rapidly gentrifying Downtown area, Zully is a great nightspot for drinks and a hearty meal. Every room on several floors has been decorated by a different designer so there is an Alice in Wonderland quality when moving from the chill vibe on the roof deck to the checkerboard pattern of an interior courtyard to dining rooms with stripper poles or antique settees. Reservations are required since everyone wants to sink their teeth into tuna steak with black and white sesame crust as well as the molten chocolate cake.

The poet Pablo Neruda, a national hero, is memorialized at the funky restaurant El Mesón Nerudiano. Several floors of dark wood and wine casks add a mellow vibe to the already laid-back live jazz, black and white photos, and large-scale paintings. A two-story “Wall of Wine” lords over diners enjoying a well-rounded pasta/seafood/meats menu, while hipsters congregate for hours outside on the small deck.

Capricho Espanol is the only gay restaurant in Santiago. An inexpensive tapas menu and strong drinks make it the perfect place to start your night. The front bar and dining rooms have quilted silk ceilings and saturated colors, and the covered back patio is filled with groups of friends jumping from table to table.

On a residential side street in an old Providencia house, the interior of Ozono bar and restaurant is all hip post-modernism. Steel, lucite, and plexiglass make it feel as much like the inside of an aquarium as anything else, helped significantly by the perpetual bubble motif employed throughout. The large menu’s best bets are seafood, and the chef’s tasting menu of tapas is the way to go for those having difficulty deciding. The mod mod mod crowd wears black on black and all manner of creative facial hair.

Across the street from Ozono, el Barcelona has the same cool vibe with decidedly less attitude. Also in a former residence, the many rooms are deep red with wall-size Miro figures and intricate floor mosaics. A disc jockey spins trance-y music while diners enjoy sharing tapas across the low-slung tables and couches.

An iconic late night Santiago eatery is the ever-popular Liguria. Once a smallish storefront Italian and Chilean bar/restaurant, the original has expanded to take over a cavernous, three-story retail space next door, and they’ve also opened two more locations. It is the hangout for artists and intellectuals (and those that just dress the part in thrift store cool threads). Tables clutter the sidewalk in front, and there are many dining rooms inside, but still there’s always a wait. Wrought iron balconies and terraces indoors overlook the jumbled main floor with a wall of paintings and retro posters featuring everyone from Jesus to Che Guevara and Tarzan. Raucous groups stake out tables for hours, sip the popular house sangria, and pick at heavy, starchy foods all night long.

If Chile is one of those places that has always been on your travel list, but you just haven’t found the time to make the trip, you may want to rearrange your travel calendar. The dreamy lull of nearly year ‘round warm weather, an energetic surge of civic confidence, a growing economy, and the presence of unparalleled natural wonders in the city’s back yard make Santiago a great destination for anybody’s South America vacation planning.

by David Tumbiri
Source – Passport Magazine