With a surface area roughly the same as New York or Paris, Santiago can prove daunting for the first time trying to navigate its neighborhoods and districts. Fortunately, many of Santiago’s most interesting neighborhoods are within easy striking distance of one another, and well connected by the city’s extensive public transit system.
Bounded by mountains and intersected by the Río Mapocho, Santiago is a fairly difficult place to get lost. The steep, gray wall of the Andes marks the eastern edge of Santiago and is easily visible from all points of the city except on the smoggiest winter days. The Mapocho runs from east to west along the northern end of the center, dividing the district of Recoleta from Central Santiago, and the nightlife area of Bellavista from the rest of Providencia.
Another good landmark is the Cerro San Cristobal, or St. Cristopher’s Hill, the green metropolitan park surmounted by radio towers and a white statue of the Virgin Mary. Located at the most central end of the Hill, the statue of the Virgin looks out over Pio Nono (one of Bellavista’s main thoroughfares) and over the river to Baquedano, one of the largest squares in the city. With these three major landmarks, it should always be easy to get your bearings in the Chilean capital.
One of the best ways to get around Santaigo is using its clean, efficient Metro system. As of now, five lines connect various points of the city, with two more planned for construction in the coming years. Prices range from CP$510 (about US$1) at the low traffic hours to CP$620 (about US$1.25) at peak hours. The Metro is open from 6am to 11pm, Monday-Friday, 6:30am to 11pm on Saturdays, and from 8 am to 10:30 pm on Sundays. Passengers can board using individual tickets purchased at the counter, or using a Bip! card, which also provides access to the bus system.
Though the Metro system has not yet reached large sections of the city, it does run through most areas attractive to visitors. Lines 1 and 5 (red and green) both cross Santiago’s historic center, with Line 1 continuing through Providencia to the eastern suburbs, and Line 5 cutting southeast. Line 2 runs from north to south and connects major markets like La Vega Central (Patronato), Mercado Central (Puente Cal y Canto) and farther south the Persa Bio Bio (Franklin). Lines 4 and 4A (both shades of blue) run along the eastern and southeastern edge of town. Most visitors will use these infrequently except to reach Plaza Puente Alto, from where buses out of Santiago are available to the beautiful Cajón del Maipo.
The Transantiago system, which was inaugurated in 2007, includes the Metro system as well as the bus network, which traverses the entirety of the city. For most visitors, the complexity of the bus system combined with the convenience of the Metro will make it a less popular option, but for some destinations (the bars and restaurants surrounding Plaza Ñuñoa, for example) the bus remains the best option.
When planning to use the bus, the Transantiago website trip planner allows you to enter start and end points as well as preferred mode of transportation. It then generates a helpful route to guide you through the journey. You can only board a bus using your Bip! card, and fairs following a Metro ride are free. The basic bus fare without Metro included is CP$540 (US$1.10) and remains the same throughout the day. Unlike the Metro, the buses run late, some running all night. It is worth checking bus schedules on the Transantiago website to be sure of the timing for your trip.
Though bikes have only recently started to become a common sight on the streets of Santiago, the city is rapidly becoming more pedal-friendly with the introduction of bike lanes and the Bicimapa created by the Centro de Bicicultura. For the casual visitor, participating in a tour or renting a bike from Bicicleta Verde is a great way to get to see the attractions of the city center.
The district of Providencia has also positioned more than 150 bicycles at strategic points on major roads and plazas. In order to use these, you must sign up with a registered address within the district of Providencia. Sadly, these are unavailable for tourists, but are a good means of navigating the city for students living in the area.
For other short or long term residents, purchasing a bike may be a good investment. San Diego Street is well known in Santiago as the best place to find the greatest variety of bikes. For an inexpensive, second hand bicycle, a visit to the Persa Bio Bio – Santiago’s largest flea market, held on Saturdays and Sundays – can yield some great finds for the persistent shopper.
Three types of taxis are available in Santiago and are a good alternative when traveling late at night. Visitors are most likely to use the standard black and yellow taxis, which are easy to find throughout the day on major roads, and charge based on the distance traveled with a base price posted in the window. Unlike ordinary taxis, which are black with yellow roofs, colectivos are all black with large white signs on top indicating their route. Rather than charging by distance, colectivos charge a flat rate per passenger and run on predetermined routes through the city. Radio taxis, which are usually indistinguishable from ordinary cars, can be ordered to your door and generally charge a flat fee depending on your destination.
Despite its size, much of Santiago is easily walkable. Probably the best way to see the city is to pick one of its many neighbors and wander its streets to get a better sense of its unique atmosphere and characteristics. Hop on a metro and get off at Cumming or Quinta Normal (Line 5) to wander Barrios Yungay or Brasil. Take Line 1 to Los Leones and stroll back along Avenida Providencia to the center past some of the city’s most popular bars and restaurants. Take the bus to Plaza Ñuñoa to enjoy its casual cafes and concert spaces. Traversing Santiago’s public transit is easy when you know where you’re going. Once you get there, though, it’s often best not to.