We're sitting in a dingy, smoke-filled bar in Santiago, the capital of Chile, and I can’t help but marvel at the local sense of humour. I’m sipping on a “terramotto”, the Spanish word for “earthquake". In a country frequently ravaged by these natural disasters it’s a strange choice of name for the much-loved national drink. But after just one of these concoctions, made of unfiltered white wine, Fernet, Grenadine, all topped with a scoop of pineapple sorbet (no counting calories here) the origin of the name becomes more apparent. Everything in the room seems a bit shaky, or is it just the effect of the drink, I wonder? I’m asked if I want a second drink, fondly known as an “aftershock” but think the better of it, unlike many of the locals who become more animated with every sip.
Santiago sits in a valley on the fringe of the Andes mountain range, which form a ridge along the eastern side of the sprawling city. It lies almost at the halfway point of this unfathomably long country, with the world's driest desert, the Atacama, to the north and the Lakes District and glacial fjords of windswept Patagonia to the south.
As South American cities go, Santiago is relatively clean, safe and prosperous. More than 5 million Chileans call the capital home, that's about 36 per cent of the country’s entire population. I figure if a third of country want to live here then it can't be a bad place to start my second South American adventure. The reality is the government was so concerned about the population concentration here that they decided to move the congress to the nearby port city of Valparaiso, 120km to the northwest. This did little to stop the influx of people into Santiago however, and even the politicians preferred to live in the capital and commute to work!
The city is built around the Plaza de Armas, where more charming then the colonial buildings that surround it, are the local men who flock to play endless games of chess under the tall palm trees.
Towering over the inner city is “Cerro San Cristobal”, a dusty hill with the statue of Virgin Mary and a small chapel that can be reached by a funicular or a one hour uphill climb. This is where Pope John Paul II held mass in 1987. It’s part of a larger park complex that has swimming pools, picnic grounds and a Japanese Garden. On a clear day the park affords spectacular views across to the Andes (although smog-filled skies are more common) and provides some perspective on just how far the city’s sprawl extends in either direction along the mountain range.
At the foot of the hill stands the ubiquitous mobile telephone building. The headquarters of the telecommunications company, Telefonica, the high rise was built in the 90’s to resemble a mobile phone, complete with massive aerial and screen. At the time of building the architects clearly didn’t count on the rapid advancement of mobile technology because the building has become an eyesore and a butt of the same almost black humour that led to the naming of their national drink. The locals assured me that if I was ever lost in their city the phone building was the landmark I should use to orientate myself.
It was between Cerro San Cristobal and the telephone building in the trendy “Bellavista” neighbourhood, that I found myself downing a terramotto. Across the highly polluted Mapocho River (more of a drain/rubbish dump then a river) from the city centre, this neighbourhood is at the centre of the creative and social scenes of the city. Many of the walls of this neighbourhood have been painted with colourful murals and the streets are lined with cafes and bars, where locals spill onto the streets into the wee hours on the weekends, eating hot dogs smothered in avocado and mayonnaise.
And after a terramotto or two, said hot dog sounds pretty tempting. The bar is really beginning to look like a natural disaster and it's probably time to leave before things really get out of control. Before we do however, we leave a little token of our appreciation in the best Spanish we can collectively muster and some shaky penmanship. "Muchas Gracias Santiago", if not for the very bad hangovers we're all going to have tomorrow, then for the fun we've had tonight!