Whenever people ask me what’s my favorite place I’ve been to, I always come up blank. I mean, how can I possibly choose?! I imagine it’s like asking a mother to choose a favorite child.
So when I was invited by Accor Hotels to write about three things I love about my favorite city for their A Tale of Three Cities competition, I fretted over the decision. I was even going to completely blow it off because I just can’t choose! Is it the place I felt the happiest and most alive in (Koh Chang)? Is it the cutest city I’ve ever sight my eyes on, and which incidentally, contains my favorite restaurant (Wroclaw)? Or maybe it’s the city that completely awed me at every turn with its grandeur and history (London)?
But ultimately, instead of picking a favorite city, I have to pick the city that takes up the most residence in my heart – my beloved Santiago de Chile.
I never expected to like Santiago. “Who wants to go to Chile?” I thought when D proposed that we go. We were picking a place to kick off our new full-time traveling lifestyles, so it should have been somewhere epic. A dream city, perhaps. The whole world was at our fingertips, but D had to propose Santiago, a place that was never even on my radar. But going to South America does sound beyond adventurous, so I agreed. We bought the plane tickets, sold off our stuff, rented out the house, and flew to Santiago.
By all accounts, Santiago shouldn’t be a city that I would come to love so much. I’ve never had a worse first impression that practically made me want to get back on the plane and fly to Anywhere Else. It’s loud, the air is bad, there’s dog poo on the sidewalks, there’s way too much secondhand smoke, and I was pick-pocketed on my 4th day. But slowly, as we passed our month there, I learned to see the city in other ways.
I don’t love Santiago because it’s beautiful or romantic. Instead, it’s special to me because of how it changed me. This is the place where I learned to get out of my comfort zone and how to function as a traveler. Here is where I had my first taste of freedom and where I finally discovered what it means to be completely in love with life.
But because I can’t also send these same feelings to you through the screen, I can only tell you a few things about Santiago to inspire your wanderlust.
1. The vibrant neighborhoods
Santiago isn’t a city with a lot of must-see tourist attractions or must-do activities. Rather, the city is best experienced through its different barrios (or neighborhoods). A tour of Santiago just wouldn’t be complete without visiting each barrio and soaking in each’s individual charm.
If you’re in the mood for culture, history, markets, and authentic Chilean food, take a walk around busy Santiago Centro and you’ll be in the heart of Chile. For a self-guided tour of the best street art, head over to Bellavista and get lost among the colorful streets. For hipster clothing shops and organic eateries, look no further than Bella Artes. For those who prefer skyscrapers and luxury malls, Providencia and Las Condes will fool you into thinking you’re in another country. And if only browsing artsy boutiques and hiding in cozy outdoor cafes is an acceptable way to spend everyday, I’d never leave Barrio Italia.
2. The friendly people
On one of our first few days in the city, we stumbled into Yuly’s little corner stall in Mercado Tirso de Molina. Her food was delicious and we promised to come back the next day. We did. And the day after. By our third visit, she was greeting us with kisses on the cheeks. From then on, she’d see us walking over from her position on the 2nd floor, and by the time we had made it up there, our table would always be set and waiting.
Now, that’s hospitality.
Since Santiago, I’ve traveled to a lot of other countries. But never in another country have I felt so welcomed and like I belonged. That little story is only one of the many ways the people of Santiago made us feel at home. Almost nobody speaks English and our Spanish is broken at best, but that lack of a common language was never a barrier. Everyone was happy to talk to us through shoddily strung together words, mimes, and Google translate. I felt more at home there than in other countries where communication wasn’t a problem.
3. The distinctive food
Of course I can’t talk about a destination without talking about the food!
I honestly didn’t think the food sounded too exciting, but there’s nothing else in the world like Chilean cuisine. After all, what other country has a drink made of preserved peaches and grains of barley (I’m talking about the mote con huesillo, and yes, it’s superbly refreshing and delicious!)? And what other country’s national dish is a hot dog slathered with avocado and mayo (hmm… this one is kinda gross)? What about the love for dumping all sorts of things unto a bed of fries (the very caloric chorrillana)? And let’s not forget the humongous sandwiches or the sexy cafe con piernas.
Okay, so Chilean food is definitely a little odd. But it’s distinctive and very much a cultural experience. And if you get bored with Chilean food, you don’t have to search very hard for Peruvian food, which is just as popular as Chilean’s own cuisine.
And if absolutely none of those sound appealing to you, then there’s always the wine. :)
From the day I left, Santiago has never left my heart and I know it is there waiting for my return. If this post has had you looking up flights to Santiago and you happen to get there before I do, then please give Yuly a hug from me. :)
This post was written as part of Accor Hotel’s A Tale of Three Cities competition. They have some pretty awesome prizes (including a 9-night trip to Europe for first place, and go-pros for other places) so go participate as well!! Competition is open until January 26, 2014. Details here and here.
But because these kind of blogger competitions aren’t fun without dragging others into it as well, I’m gonna tag a few people too because I wanna know about their favorite cities: adventurings, Why Waste Annual Leave, Little Wanderings, and Eat Sleep Breathe Travel.
I’d love to hear from everyone else too! What is your favorite city and why?
This post is linked up to SundayTraveler with Pack Me To and others.