Take a walk on the wild side.
The chaotic northern edge of the centro histórico is a cameo of working-class Santiago. Its captivating spirit has been defined over the centuries both by its proximity to the poorer districts across the river and by its role as back door for the goods arriving from the seaport and the countryside at the Estación Mapocho – the Northern Railway station. In spite of the demise of the rail link, the area is still known for any number of commercial activities, from wholesale markets to textile retailers. Over the centuries, this business-oriented also harboured an ethnically-diverse population of Middle Eastern, Korean, Peruvian and Chinese communities, making this the multicultural heart of the capital, though it remains a traditional and quintessential corner of the capital.
In addition to the piquancy of its crowded streets, the area boasts something of a run-down beauty. Old, elegant palaces serve insolently as market lock-ups, smoky pool bars and brothels, in a display that can sometimes – though not always – be classified as picturesque. Yet there are some genuine architectural jewels that stand as proudly as they always have. Among them is the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, a church with origins that date back to 1557. Following three devastating earthquakes, João dos Santos Vasconcelos, a Portuguese architect, built the current structure in 1747 using quarried stones, resulting in a church of radically different character to any other in the area. The façade is austerely decorated with effigies of saints, and is crowned with two matching bell towers incorporated in 1808. The church’s inside is in line with the simplicity of the external ornamentation; the main nave is wide, dark and feels medieval with its bare stone pillars and complete absence of colour. Decorations too, are few and far between, the most notable being an image of the Virgin of Pompeii, which pulls the crowds every Thursday.
‘You’ll find several restaurants in the Market’s main hall, most of which offer exactly what visitors want: simple and authentic Chilean dishes with an emphasis on freshness.’
Two blocks north of Santo Domingo lies one of Santiago’s undying attraction, the Mercado Central. Although this has long been dethroned as the capital’s principal wholesale market, most visitors in search of a lively ambience, excellent food and vociferous fruiterers and fishmongers find themselves satisfied in this intricately ornate marketplace. Its origins can be traced back to the Mercado de Abastos which used to operate at the Plaza de Armas until 1817. That year, Bernardo O’Higgins, the then ruler of Chile, ordered the transfer of the market to a purposely built structure at the present-day site. The works for the current building started in 1864, including a roof structure manufactured in England in 1872.
A recent drive to exploit the Market’s tourist potential has resulted in a partial loss of its original use. Nowadays, you’ll find several restaurants in the Market’s main hall, most of which offer exactly what visitors want: simple and authentic Chilean dishes with an emphasis on freshness. The stalls themselves continue to offer an unrivalled – if slightly overpriced – selection of fruit, vegetables and fish, making this a true ‘foodie’ heaven.
Another highlight of the area is the Estación Mapocho. This virtuously decorated railway station was designed by Emilio Jecquier and built in 1905 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Chilean Independence. The station used to link the capital to both Valparaíso and Argentina, and was in service until 1987, when a boom in coach and air travel forced this section of the railway system out of business. Authorities then decided to transform the station into a venue for art exhibitions, concerts and conferences and the Estación Mapocho underwent refurbishment works that recovered some of Jecquier’s original style, which had deteriorated considerably over the years. Back to its original splendour, the building today hosts various events, from book fairs to fashion shows.
The station was built in an area of land that was once the natural riverbed of the Mapocho, and where authorities in the late 19th century decided to build the Northern railway. Such project affected the preservation of what was Santiago’s most emblematic bridge, Puente Cal y Canto which, despite public opposition, was demolished to make way for the station hall. The disappeared structure had been a masterpiece of colonial architecture, and the a few stone that remain can be seen inside the metro station of the same name. The Cal y Canto used to connect the centro histórico to what was denominated as La Chimba – a byword for ‘slums’ – or the underclass neighbourhood in colonial times. This is the precedent of today’s Recoleta and Patronato, two northern areas that have inherited much of the scruffiness of this singular area. Across the river, life is about tough business in whatever form it may come, from wholesale to street vending. This environment is overwhelming for Santiaguinos themselves, so don’t expect an easy ride if you choose to explore the city’s biggest fruit and vegetable market, La Vega.