Santiago was first settled by Spanish colonialist because of its fertile soils and access to water. Now the Chilean capital is central to everything.
Lastarria is considered to be Santiago’s bohemian neighbourhood. “The barrio is known as the Little Paris of Santiago,” says my guide, Mauricio. “Up the road a bit is Little Italy, while the area around the Plaza de Armas, the city’s historical heart, is known as Little Peru.
“Chile is a country of immigrants,” he continues. “The Spanish came here first, ahead of the English, who moved to Valparaiso and then to the mining areas of the Atacama. The Germans and the Swiss went to the Lake District while the Croatians settled in Patagonia. But this is where they all mingle – here, in Santiago. And everyone meets in Lastarria.”
From being the original site of Spanish settlement (at the foot of nearby Santa Lucia Hill), Lastarria has grown to become Santiago’s hipster hub. It’s not hard to believe:
I count at least a dozen cafes and eateries from my hotel steps. The people on the sidewalks are tattooed and bearded or pierced and dreadlocked. None would look out of place in Fitzroy or Newtown.
One block ever is Parque Forestal, a green space overlooked by period residences borrowing architectural styles from early-20th century Paris.
It’s a favourite hangout for friends and lovers, who meet on the lawns beside monumental fountains and bronze statues of forgotten heroes. Most of the city’s museums, galleries and theatres are within walking distance, often bearing similarities to their French peers. And the pedestrian street after which the barrio is named is just around the corner, hosting a street market selling crafty offerings and secondhand collectibles.
As much as I’d like to, I don’t linger with the writers and artists in Lastarria’s avant-garde cafes. And I don’t loiter inside its groovy wine bars with the yuppie crowds. They’re both tempting, but across the Mapocho River, beneath San Cristobal Hill, the bars and dubs of Bellavista are even livelier than those in Lastarria.
As I walk along Pio Nono street rowdy Chileans spill on to the streets, cradling beer bottles and wine glasses. I was led to believe that Latinos like to start late and finish early (the next morning), but this lot look like they might have got into the swing of things well before dark. I long to join them, but the scene is too young and energetic for me. Besides, I’m after something more cultural.
I’ve heard whispers about a newly opened cabaret venue where restaurant diners can eat while they watch music and dance shows that highlight differing streams of Chilean culture. I’m told the idea came from the tango houses in Buenos Aires and that it’s the first of its kind in Santiago, so I hunt the venue down and find it inside a restored Spanish colonial residence.
The performers at De Pablo a Violeta mingle with guests around an open barbecue and bar area, sipping terremoto (or “earthquake”) cocktails and glasses of Chilean-style sangria, borgoña (red wine mixed with strawberry).The enthusiasm of these actors, poets, musicians, singers and dancers creates a festive atmosphere that rubs off on those around them. Upbeat numbers have me tapping my feet and guests are actively encouraged to link arms and tag along during the final session.