Everything I had done over the past months had been in preparation for this moment, “Bienvenidos a Santiago.” But now what?
There’s something about landing in a foreign country that you’ve never been to, knowing you don’t have a return flight booked, and having no real plans for the foreseeable future. In many ways, it’s a liberating feeling. A thrill spread through my body every time I found myself in a conversation with other travelers. There are inevitable questions that people ask you when you’re jammed together in a metal box flying at high speeds across the skies. Where are you from? Where are you going? How long will you be there? I loved answering. I’m from Pittsburgh, but I’m moving across the US. I’m starting my travels in Santiago. I don’t know how long I’ll be away. I would try to half-smile as I shrugged in a flippant way, as if this was totally normal and not-at-all a turning point in my life. It was fun to be so “effortlessly” cool, to be nonchalant and carefree and adventurous and the object of someone’s genuine admiration.
But in other ways, my sense of freedom was almost oppressing. For months my life had been compartmentalized into seemingly neverending lists of things to do (some of which I’m still finding in my purse months later). My mind had been a whirlwind of buy this backpack, call this bank, say good-bye to that friend, pack this in storage, take care of that bill, schedule this appointment, buy this first aid kit, organize those clothes, and on and on. All of that on top of normal life, like trying to remember to eat/shower/do laundry on a regular basis. But once those plane wheels touched down on Chilean ground, all of that shut off. Everything I had done over the past months had been in preparation for this moment, “Bienvenidos a Santiago.” But now what?
Initially, I started making another mental checklist: bathroom, ATM, find the bus terminal, find hostel, check in. I plunged in as if I were still back in the US, trying to accomplish as much as I could in one day. Even though I couldn’t check in to my hostel until the afternoon, I was determined to get there as soon as possible. And this rushing attitude ultimately led to my first mistake: when I struggled to find the ATM right away, I asked for directions instead of walking an extra twenty yards to look around. This in itself wasn’t a major issue, but the problem arose when the person I asked insisted on walking me to the ATM, and then to a cab to take me wherever I wanted to go. With a fast-paced mentality, I just went with it because it would put me ahead of “schedule.” It wasn’t until an hour or so later, when I was having drinks at a restaurant (because it was too early to check in) that I actually did the math and realized I had been duped into spending about 60 USD on a taxi that should have cost less than half of that.
Adjusting to a new mindset became the theme of my time in Santiago. When I had booked my hostel, I had booked for four nights (which ended up being my longest stay in any one city during my whole trip). I tacked on the extra day because I thought that I might need time to acclimate to being in a foreign country. While it only took me a few days to morph into my traveling self, I never expected that I would spend more time adjusting to simply being present and comfortable with myself without an overloaded schedule. This was my first foray into long-term traveling, and I struggled to break the habit of cramming as much as possible into a single day, which is what I would normally do on a typical 7 – 10 day vacation.
Instead of wandering the city at my own pace and making my own discoveries, or making an effort to meet other travelers or locals who could steer me toward less touristy experiences, I felt the need to fill any blank spot in my schedule with some kind of activity. Which means that I went on a lot of tours. Like really, a lot of tours. Here’s a breakdown of every tour I did in those four days:
La Bicicleta Verde Morning Markets Tour, ($41)- This was a bike tour through the La Chimba neighborhood, highlighting street murals and local markets. It was a peaceful, easy ride and my tour guide was great. This was my first introduction to Pablo Neruda, whom I knew next to nothing about before this trip. On this tour I also experienced my first South American market, La Vega Central, which was a bit of a sensory overload but only in the best possible way.
Wally Tours for Tips Santiago Highlights (free)- This was my first of FOUR Wally tours in Chile, so clearly I had a good time! The afternoon tour in Santiago took us through the major historical and political sites in the city center. Our guide did a phenomenal job of explaining Chile’s (sort-of) recent political turmoil in an unbiased, educational way. This was another subject that I knew basically nothing about (I don’t recall learning any South American history in school?), and the “lesson” was both sobering and enlightening. As an added bonus, we took the metro and our guide walked us through the ticket-buying process, and I found this helpful as I’m not used to public transportation and was a bit nervous about it.
Cajón del Maipo day trip- This one was a bit entertaining! A group of Australian girls in my hostel came back raving about this day trip, saying it was a beautiful and challenging hike. It sounded like my kind of thing so I signed up for it with the same company. Well, either I signed up for the wrong tour (always possible) or the wrong bus picked me up (also possible). There wasn’t much hiking involved, though the scenery was undeniably beautiful. I was also the only English-speaking person on the tour, and our guide didn’t speak much English. (Note: I understand that I was in a Spanish-speaking country and this should be expected. The only reason I’m including this comment is because I was under the impression I had signed up for an English-speaking tour.) While initially the language barrier made me nervous, eventually I worked up my courage to try out some of the Spanish I know, and I had a great time with the whole group. A Brazilian couple also acted like my personal photographers for part of the day, which I definitely appreciated! As a solo traveler I don’t like to bother people to take too many photos, so I loved their willingness to not only take pictures but also make sure they looked good!
Wally Tours for Tips Santiago Offbeat (free)- Second Wally tour here! The morning tour was labeled as the “offbeat” Santiago tour, meaning that it took us through the markets and then to the cemetery. This sounds a bit morbid but it was actually nice, the cemetery had more of a park vibe than a death vibe. My guide was once again amazing, and she had a lot of tips on Santiago and traveling through Chile in general.
La Bicicleta Verde Bike & Wine Santiago ($60)- It was a bit of an adventure to get to the Cousiño Macul vineyard, but worth it! We enjoyed a leisurely bike ride around the vineyard and then did a wine tasting back at the main building. It was a peaceful tour and our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about wine, but it was a little pricey. Even though I enjoyed it, I partly wish that I had saved some money and gone to a winery on my own, especially since there are a few in the city limits in Santiago that are easy to get to.
So yeah, five tours in four days. That’s a lot! I also found time to walk to the top of Cerro Santa Lucía and Cerro San Cristóbal where I had amazing views of the city. For Cerro San Cristóbal I could have ridden a funicular to the top, but I opted to take the 45 minute walk because the weather was beautiful and I needed the practice for Machu Picchu.
Overall, my time in Santiago was very busy and fast-paced. I enjoyed every activity that I did, but in hindsight I wish that I had slowed down a bit. I felt very much like a tourist in the city, and I think I would have had more authentic experiences if I had scaled back a bit and spent more time just wandering and exploring.
Have you been to Santiago? What tours (if any) did you do? Do you struggle to slow down when you’re traveling?