Santiago: Flying downhill on a bicycle, fists outstretched like a superhero, gripping onto the steel handlebars to hold off the conveyor belt of rock from smashing into your face. It’s first-hand, naked speed and danger, as scary as it gets for the coward in me that’ll never try paragliding, bungee jumping or any other alarming activity that threatens to overwhelm the fragile molecular forces holding my precious cells together.
Fortunately, I can get that same exhilaration, that jumping tune in my head and thrum-thrum of joy in my chest simply from striding the streets of one of this planet’s great cities. London’s perfect, but Santiago also has it, I’ve discovered. The press of people all weaving past each other with barely a bump, the 4-deep race of cars that stop sharply at a red signal and then thrust forward at green in a pulse that persists day and night. The bars that buzz with chatter, music, people and warmth, the order of planned buildings, and streets that lead to squares and markets.
Cities offer the finest display of human civilisation, the achievement of a species that has organised itself and the ground beneath it into an artificial creation of functional wonder. Even the best cities, of course, also reveal the worst about our human society.
Santiago, though, is unusual among developing world cities in that its shanty town districts are actually shrinking, rather than growing. This is partly the result of Chile’s strong economy, which weathered the global recession well – the country’s wealth disparity remains uncomfortably large.
We wander the tree-lined boulevards, enjoying pretty much the first tasty food we’ve had in Chile. The buildings here are older than we’ve seen elsewhere in the country and seem to have survived upheaval from frequent earthquakes rather better than in Concepcion.
A relatively stable government and strong economy means most of the international companies have their Latin America headquarters here, among the shopping malls and government buildings, the law courts and university buildings. There is a lot to be positive about in this conservative nation – it’s emerged comparatively well from the dark days of Pinochet, with laws safeguarding freedom of speech and a better separation between judiciary and government than in many European nations.
We head to the wonderful Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, housed in the old customs building, to learn more about the cultures of the first Americans – those stamped out by Spanish cruelty, by disease and by each other. The Incas, I learn, made it all the way down to central Chile. Fearsome Mapuche warriors prevented their further progress, or perhaps they were uninterested in occupancy beyond the rich northern mines.
The museum has stunning ceramics and textiles created by people who worked with humour and skill before the Egyptians had even started talking about pyramid building. Wonderful bottles and pots with cavorting animals, highly expressive faces and written languages that scholars are only halfway to deciphering.
We spend a happy couple of hours there and then have dinner in a bar filled with workmen repairing quake damage to the national theatre. Around 10pm, we amble back to our hostel through streets infused with Chileans just heading out for dinner. An exhilarating city of human ants on the march.