A city as dry and smoggy as Santiago needs its parks. Yesterday’s visit to Santa Lucia Hill was an unexpected delight; today’s outing, although planned, was also surprising. The Parque Metropolitano has been described as “the lungs of Santiago”, its bare hills having been planted with trees and gardens over the past hundred years or so. There are even a few eucalypts.
You can drive through the park – or walk or cycle to the 300 m to the top of the hill, but it it is easy to catch the funicular. The park itself is celebrating its centenary, but the funicular was built in 1925. I had expected a seat, but it was standing only – justlike today’s Metro. The old photos show that riding the funicular in the 1920s was a pursuit for men only.
One of the highlights of the park is the 14 m high statue of the Virgin, which can be seen from many parts of the city. I had read about the statue and the nearby painted crosses, but the experience still exceeded my expectations. San Cristobal Hill is the second highest point in Santiago, the city sprawls beneath it in every direction. The Virgin and nearby chapel offer not only a relief from the heat, but a spiritual respite for those seeking peace and quiet from the city’s bustle. The hill was known as Tupahue, meaning place of God, by the indigenous peoples of Santiago.
At the foot of the terraces leading to the statue is a lifesize wooden nativity scene. The Pope has visited recently, and as I have seen no mention of it in the tourist guides, I suspect this may be a recent addition. Along with the shepherds and the Magi is a woman with a fat duck, and, necessito in Santiago, a dog.
Santiago is a city of murals, so it is appropriate that the crosses outside, representing the seven last words of Jesus, are painted mural style; some traditional, some more modern, some subtle, some emphasising outpouring of blood, but all depicting an aspect of Jesus’ death and relationship to humanity.
There was piped music – not overly religious, maybe modern hymns – reminiscent of the singing nun of my youth – and the signs requesting silencio were respected. Many Chileans take holidays in February, and Brazilians from Rio escape Mardi Gras, so tourists seemed to be outnumbered by locals. Families with children, young lovers, older people and friends, all coming for a day out or a spiritual experience. There was plenty of space to sit and reflect, or just rest in the shade.
There is a small chapel within the pedestal in which the statue rests, and a larger one a short distance away. The walls of the latter, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, are decorated with monochrome murals. It seems to celebrate the women of the Nativity story, with Mary and Elizabeth given precedence over St Peter and John the Baptist. Inside one can “light” an electric candle, but outside there is a framework for real candles and other offerings.
At 12 o’clock, the music stopped, bells rang, and a prayer to Santa Maria was recited. I don’t know enough Spanish, or Catholic prayers, to identify it, but I wonder if this is the same as radio 2SM would broadcast at midday many decades ago.
There are beautiful gardens around the statue and church. With a climate similar to Sydney, most of the flowers were familiar. But further on towards the next hill, the gardens were less tended, and some of the structures had seen better days. After a short exploration, leading nowhere, I decided to return to the city. But not by funicular. The other means of descent is the cable car, which covers much of the breadth of the park, with a stop midway near the zoo, swimming pool and restaurant. As promised, the views from the cable car were spectacular, and apart from a lurch at the beginning and end, the ride was remarkably smooth.
For those who tire of seeing ABC ( another bloody church) while travelling, San Cristobal hill offers another type of sacred site, and a mountaintop experience.