Peluquería Francesa: A step back to 1920s Chile

A traditional barbershop within Santiago’s patrimonial Barrio Yungay offers nostalgia and straight-razor shaves.

Walking through the etched-glass entrance of Peluquería Francesa takes you back in time. The barbershop has existed in its current location since 1925, and a smell akin to your great-aunt’s house mixed with Barbasol proves it. The surrounding neighborhood of Barrio Yungay is historic and bohemian and offers a singular contrast to Santiago’s more modern environs.

“If Yungay is amazing right now just imagine how it’s going to be in the future. We already have a reception room, a theater and a library,” Manuel Cisternas, a barber at Peluquería Francesa, told This Is Chile. “We even have a ghost metro station [Metro Libertad/Yungay] that someday might start working.”

Cisternas has worked as a barber for fifty years and at Peluquería Francesa for the past seven.

Peluquería Francesa itself is a tribute to antiquity. The shop is staffed by a handful of old men using even older tools and techniques. The white-coated barbers are friendly although you rarely hear them speak. The walls are covered with antique advertisements and photographs while an unusually tall ceiling gives the room a sense of being larger that it is. A display case of kitsch barbering items is found in the center, resting upon a hardwood floor of thin and gnarled slats.

You are here to receive a straight-razor shave, something that is both intriguing and slightly disconcerting due to the tool being used. Incredibly sharp by necessity, the navaja requires the hands of an expert. The straight-razor has become a rarity in the world of overpriced, quintuple-bladed safety razors with which we are now familiar.

You will experience the shave from the well-worn comfort of a barbering chair which has a leather strop hanging from the side. Firstly, the barber prepares your face by placing a steaming towel upon it, covering your eyes and leaving space only for your nose so that you may breath. The environment is soothing as Parisian café music permeates the space. It is not uncommon for someone to whistle along, perfectly in tune with a familiarity gained only by time.

Next the towel is removed and shaving cream from a toothpaste-like tube is dabbed upon your face in various places. The cool cream settles into your skin beneath a second hot towel. After removing the towel, the barber uses a shaving brush to create a robust and mentholated lather.

It is easy to fall into a trance-like state as infrequent sounds of auto traffic outside mix with the chop-chopping of scissors from neighboring barber stations.

A meticulous, drawn-out shaving process ensues. Beginning with your neck, moving to your cheeks, and ending around the delicate area of your chin and upper-lip, the barber executes a series of short and steady strokes while periodically wiping the blade clean. The barber first shaves with the grain of your beard, and then, after re-lathering, against.

The barber ensures a complete job by running his hands repeatedly across your face and neck, checking for missed spots and fixing them if found. Your face may feel a bit uncomfortable at the conclusion of the shave, but the process is relatively smooth.

Peluquería Francesa and the services offered within serve as a bridge to a bygone era. “I think our barbershop must be one of the best and oldest in the world, that’s why we try so hard to keep our traditions alive,” said Cisternas.

Barrio Yungay, Peluquería Francesa and the affiliated Boulevard Lavaud, a memorable café and restaurant reflecting the barbershop’s nostalgic appeal, can be accessed via Metro Cumming at Calle Compania de Jesus 2799. A straight-razor shave costs US$ 10 (CLP 5,000).

By Michael Sun