Santiago is Chile’s capital and largest city. Approximately seven million people live in the Santiago metropolitan area, accounting for 40% of Chile’s total population of 17.5 million. Residents of Santiago are often referred to as Santiaguinos. A vast majority of Santiaguinos are either of European descent or a mix of European and Amerindian ancestry. Recent immigrants living in Santiago are few. Peruvians, seeking to better their circumstances, make up the majority of present-day immigrants. You can also find a smattering of recently arrived Argentines.
The Santiago metro area comprises 37 communities. In Santiago’s Providencia community, home to Chile’s stock market, there is an impressive and growing number of modern, architecturally complex office buildings and high rise apartments. Unlike other countries in South America, the Chilean economy has been stable and growing. Chile’s rich mineral deposits play a crucial role in its surging economy. Of all the minerals, copper is king. Chile supplies more of the world’s copper than any other country on earth. Various multinational corporations in the mining services industry have offices in Santiago, helping to lead Chile down the road to finite resource depletion and an economic dead end.
Communities in Santiago run the gamut from the commercial sophistication of Provdencia to clusters of rich suburbs to semi-rural, impoverished outskirts. Like any large city, there are places that you shouldn’t go. I only felt unsafe in Santiago once, when I got lost while taking a city bus. I wound up in one of those neighborhoods you shouldn’t go, the kind with lots of young men dressed like Daddy Yankee. Fortunately, I got myself out of there and headed in the right direction with no incidents.
Santiago sits in Chile’s Central Valley, a flat region sandwiched between the Andes to the east and coastal mountains to the west. The eastern edge of Santiago presses right up alongside the mighty Andes, giving the city one of the most impressive backdrops you can imagine. But there is a drawback to Santiago’s location: It’s perfect for trapping air pollution, especially in the winter.
Santiago is often enveloped in a haze that many foreigners mistake for humidity. The Central Valley is actually an arid place. The persistent haziness is caused not by humidity but by particulates and gasses emitted from vehicles and industrial activity. During the winter, when cold air rushes down from the mountains and sinks into the valley, a temperature inversion is created. The cold air sitting below warmer air traps pollution, which builds to unhealthy levels during the daytime. Also lending to the problem is the lack of wind in the Central Valley. Pollution often hangs around instead of being whisked away by moving air.
The city government does have methods to mitigate air pollution. On winter days when air pollution exceeds safety limits, use of cars in Central Santiago is restricted. Restrictions on personal vehicle use are based on the last digit of your car tag. Some days only allow use of cars with tags ending in an even number, while other days are for cars with tags ending in an odd number. Driving your car on a day when you’re not allowed can result in a hefty fine. Announcements are made on the radio and TV alerting citizens to restrictions. Additional measures include not being able to use wood burning stoves or fireplaces when bad air alerts are issued.
Getting around Santiago is fairly easy. The city’s modern subway system, called the Metro, covers a large part of the metropolitan area. Places not serviced by the Metro can be reached by city bus, of which there are hundreds. While public transportation is extensive and easily accessible, the city’s subways and buses are overwhelmed each day during peak commuter hours. Some two million Santiaguinos ride the Metro each day, and hundreds of thousands more use the buses.
Entering a bus or subway during rush hour can be like joining a dangerous game of Twister, where faces are pressed against windows, elbows dug into ribs and backs, hips forced into crotches, feet stacked on top of other feet, and the asses of those standing joined intimately with the heads of those seated. It took me a few months to acclimate to this madness. There were times when I felt like I was trapped and would suffocate to death in the crush of people. This feeling of claustrophobia forced me off the train prematurely a few times. Instead of returning to the train, I would choose to walk several kilometers to get to my destination.
When I have time, I prefer to walk instead of taking public transportation. Not because of the crowding on the public transportation, but because Santiago is such a great city for walking. Sidewalks cover most of the city. Many of these sidewalks are super wide, especially in the Providencia section of the city. There are also various linear parks, most with hard-packed dirt thoroughfares lined with trees. Since Santiago receives over 300 days of sunshine per year, you will most likely be doing your walking under a sunny sky.