How Cheap is Cheap?
The Best $5 You’ll Ever Spend
If you only have $5 to spend in Santiago, you’ll want to spend it going up Cerro San Cristobal, the giant hill that overlooks the city. It was used as a quarry in colonial times, and as a park since the early 1900s, when an observatory was opened, and later the 72-foot high marble statue of the Virgin Mary was erected atop its 2821-foot height (in 1908). The cerro (or hill), comprises part of a series of hills that constitute Santiago’s Parque Metropolitano, which is considered one of the largest urban parks in the world, and is said to encompass nearly 2,000 acres of land. The hill was originally called “Tupahue”, a Mapuche word meaning “God’s Place,” and was subsequently renamed to honor San Cristóbal de Licia, the patron saint of travelers by conquistador (and founder of Santiago), Pedro de Valdivia.
While entry to the park is free, the 5-km walk up from the Bellavista side can be tiring, sunny and hot, and the trail is easy to get lost on. Most people will take the funicular up the hill from the Bellavista entrance, at the end of Pio Nono, which costs about $4 US. Walk through the Disney-world style stanchions through the line, until you’re motioned on by the attendant, who will rip one of two perforated slips off of your ticket (you need the second one on the way down), and you stand in one of the cars for the trip. The best view of the city is in the bottommost car, while the best view of the oncoming car (they pass each other on the tracks, on a counterweight system) is in the front car, looking to the left. If you’re a penny pincher or would like to try the walk down, “ida” (one way) ticket for about $2 US.
Now You Do It
Regardless of whether you buy the one-way ticket or the round-trip, or even if you prefer the van service that leaves from the bottom (and is slightly cheaper than the funicular, though is decidedly slower), the trip up takes you through a wild array of plants, blooming at different times of the year. The hill has been planted with flowering and frondy plants and trees, from the crazy-looking chagual cactus to pelargoniums and a healthy does of cartuchos enanos (snapdragons). If you look hard enough, you’ll even see fruit trees, including a very soft (edible) plum. Once at the top, stop for a relaxing view of the city, and wander around a bit to get slightly different views from different angles. Don’t miss the staircase up to the Virgin for a little quiet reflection, a brisk breeze and the best view of Santiago, especially after a rain. At the plaza, you’ll see families, cyclists, couples, and kids posing on a stuffed zebra (really).
What to Do With Leftover Change
No matter what route you take, you’ll have enough money up top to buy a hypersweetened “mote con huesillo,” a local drink made of reconstituted peaches in their own juice, along with a hefty layer of wheat kernels lining the bottom. For the less adventurous, you can get “solo jugo” or just the juice, but you won’t want to miss this refreshing (and filling) treat. Save the peach pits to toss out, or fling them over the edge, as many locals do.
Also in the park and free (because if you remember, you’re pretty much out of money at this point) are a small chapel up top, the Japanese Garden, the Botanic Gardens and other little pocket gardens nearby.
The last funicular goes down at 8:00 PM, but check to make sure. In the spring and fall, that gives you plenty of time to enjoy the sunset before heading back down, but in the summer, you might just miss either the twinkle of the lights or the last funicular (not recommended).
If You’d Like to Splurge
If you’re flush and it’s summer, you won’t want to miss the pricey Piscina Tupahue (Tupahue swimming pool, $10 for adults, $7 for children) along the way, though even if you were swimming in cash, I might still recommend against the zoo, as wherever you’re from probably has a better zoo than this one. Also, if you have more time than money (or a bit of both), walk out the Pedro de Valdivia exit and check out the sculpture garden (closes at dusk, so plan accordingly) on your way to the Pedro de Valdivia metro.
NB: tourbooks and other sources that are not up to date will tell you to take the cable cars down the hill to the Pedro de Valdivia exit. This information is out of date, and should not be heeded. The “huevitos” (little eggs) have been closed for months, and will be closed until they are fully repaired. As of the current date, the cable car is out of service for 2010 and probably 2011 as well.