Surviving on Sweet Nothing in Santiago

parque de las esculturas santiago de chile

It’s what you’ve all been waiting for – possibly even gleefully anticipating. I’ve gone and done Something Really Stupid again.

When I left Valparaíso and travelled to Santiago, I had just enough Chilean pesos to buy the bus ticket, so the first thing I did when I arrived in Santiago was look for a bank.

Unfortunately, I banged the back of my head very hard on the bus trying to get my luggage out of it. This may explain why, for the second time in two months, I left my credit card in an ATM, which promptly swallowed it and, as I later learned, destroyed it for good measure.

Several hours later, when I was at the vast Costanera Centre (complete with giant festive snow globe) buying some groceries, I realised my only bank card was no longer with me. Taking a deep breath, I paid for the food with half the cash I’d drawn earlier and went back to my AirBnB apartment to take stock and have a nice quiet panic.

Costanero Centre, Santiago

I wasn’t kidding about the snow globe. Disappointingly, the ‘snow’ was only polystyrene.

I had a few US dollars in cash, as well as a couple of hundred Argentinian pesos, which I could exchange if I got desperate. But I decided it would be more fun to see if I could make my remaining 23,000 Chilean pesos (about R420) last for the next four days. I prioritized essential purchases: steak, wine and my morning latte, as well as the bus ticket to the airport. Everything else was optional or would have to be free.

Apart from having nothing but boiled eggs and avocados to eat by Day Four, I managed pretty well on my stringent budget until I got to LAX, where I promptly spent $20 on a sandwich. The silver lining to my credit card cloud is that I can supply you with a personally-researched list of things to do in Santiago for free:

1. Walk. If you’re staying in a fairly central neighborhood such as Providencia it’s possible to walk to most of the main attractions of the city. From Pedro de Valdivia, I got as far as the central market and the Plaza de Armas (about an hour’s brisk walking). Santiago is a very pedestrian-friendly city, mostly completely flat, with lots of shady pavements and tree-lined riverside walkways. Although I have to say that it’s even more friendly to cyclists, who seem to have right of way all over the show.

The Plaza des Armas, the historical heart of Santiago de Chile.

The Plaza des Armas, the historical heart of Santiago de Chile.

2. Relax in the parks. There are loads of these, mostly strung out along the Costanera Norte, the distressingly muddy canal-river thing. Possibly the most popular is the Parque Forestal.

Parque Forestal

Some odd-looking trees I spotted lurking in Parque Forestal

3. Take yourself on a street art tour of Bellavista. The neighbourhood is a bit more sketchy than those on the other side of the river, but seemed perfectly safe to roam around on my own in the middle of the day.

Awesome house in Bellavista Barrio of Santiago

Awesome house in Bellavista Barrio of Santiago. For more photos of Santiago Street Art, check out this gallery.

4. Walk up San Cristóbal Hill. I was going to catch the funicular, but (as is apparently often the case) it was closed for maintenance. So I saved the 1,000 pesos it would have cost in spite of myself. The benefit of walking up San Cristóbal (apart from not spending R20) is that you’ll be so knackered that you don’t feel up to joining the friendly Britis you met for beers at their backpackers afterwards. On the other hand, you’ll happily pay 600 pesos to ride the metro home.

Cerro San Cristobal

The giant Virgin at the summit of Cerro San Cristobal.

View from Cerro San Cristobal

The view from Cerro San Cristóbal. Some of the white smudges above the smog are snow-capped mountains.

5. Enjoy free art. The Parque de las Esculturas is a free sculpture garden with indoor and outdoor exhibits, which are fun to wander around on a sunny afternoon. The Parque Forestal also has some interesting sculptures scattered about under the trees. If you have just a few pesos, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo are back to back in the same building and charge only 600 pesos entry each (about R10). In fact, this seems to be the standard entry fee for most museums in Santiago.

Sculpture in Parque de las Esculturas, with the almost  complete Santiago Tower in the background.

Sculpture in Parque de las Esculturas, with the almost complete Santiago Tower in the background.

The Museum of Contemporary Arts in Santiago. The entrance on the other side of the building is for the Fine Arts Museum.

The Museum of Contemporary Arts in Santiago. 

Three cheap tricks:

  1. The postcards in the souvenir shop at the top of San Cristóbal are the cheapest in I found in Chile (200 pesos instead of 350 or more).
  2. The prices on the metro are the same no matter where you’re going, but not no matter when. There are peak hour, busy and quiet time fares. The difference isn’t huge, but it can add up over time. (Besides, knowing when the different fares apply gives you a good idea of when to avoid the metro if you don’t want to be a human sardine.)
  3. Street food is inexpensive, tasty and safer for your stomach than the tap water (which is horribly chlorinated). When in Chile, you do need to eat at least one completo.
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