Santiago is the capital of Chile, the center of the metropolitan region, and home to one third of the country's inhabitants (5,623,000 of 16,185,000, according to the UN's World Urbanization Prospects: The 2003 Revision). The city is located in a closed basin between the Andes and the Coastal Range (Cordillera de la Costa). The only natural openings are the Maipo River valley and the narrow passage of the Angostura de Paine that leads into the Central Valley. Founded in February of 1541 by Pedro de Valdivia, who had been appointed adelantado (governor) of Chile by Francisco Pizarro, governor of Peru, it developed at the site of a small indigenous settlement located between the southern bank of the Mapocho River and the Santa Lucía hill. During colonial times it was only one of several Spanish administrative and cultural centers. Its position was contested by the outpost of Concepción, where much of the military was massed against the Mapuche population (known to the Spaniards as Araucanos, or Araucanians) and pirates, and by La Serena, then the center of commerce and communications. An inland town, Santiago was served by the port city of Valparaíso, 85 miles to the west. Other cities continued to challenge Santiago's primacy over the emerging country, but the political, cultural, and economic power of Santiago's colonial elite prevailed and established the strongly centralized tradition of government that continues to characterize Chile.
The basin of Santiago stretches out at the foot of the Andes, which serve as a majestic backdrop to the city. High above the bustling metropolis, four major ski resorts provide a snowy playground to wealthy Santiaguinos and many foreign visitors. Well ventilated by the mountain winds, the eastern section of the city—the Barrio Alto—is the preferred place of residence of the wealthy: boasting numerous parks and traversed by wide avenues, the municipalities of Providencia, Vitacura, Valdivia, Los Leones, Los Condes, and La Reina serve as home to the city's financial sector, the largest malls, the residences of diplomats, the military academy, and the medical school. The original site of Santiago, between the Mapocho River and the Avenida de las Delicias, today known as La Alameda (renamed Avenida Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins and Avenida 11 de septiembre in different sectors of the city), is still the core of the city and lodges ministries, major banks, embassies, large department stores, theaters, and cultural institutions. The presidential palace, Casa de la Moneda (the colonial Mint House), sits prominently on La Alameda, but Chile's legislative bodies meet in Valparaíso. This sector is also the cultural center of the city. Sites include a new cultural center under la Moneda, the extensive collection at the Pre-Colombian Art Museum, and the Fine Art Museum and Contemporary Art Museum, both housed in the "palace of fine arts" within Parque Forestal. Surrounding neighborhoods, including Barrio Brasil, Barrio Bellavista, and Bellas Artes, are home to filmhouses, theater companies, and art galleries.
To the north of the city, at the foot of the lofty San Cristóbal hill, spread the popular neighborhoods of El Salto, Conchali, and Huechuraba. Also to the north lie the plains of Colina and Pudahuel, site of the Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport. To the west lay more populous boroughs interspersed with industrial establishments—Renca, Quinta Normal, Los Pajaritos, and Maipú. Nearby lies the industrial park at Los Cerrillos at the former site of the international airport of Santiago. Toward the south, and readily accessible by subway and the wide southern segment of the Pan-American Highway, are middle-class boroughs such as San Miguel and San Bernardo, and extensive poblaciones, or populous neighbohoods, such as La Cisterna, Espejo, and Cardenal Caro. Slums are located in the southwest: it was in La Florida that the the forces of General Augusto Pinochet met with popular resistance during his rule (1973–1989). These municipalities are only a few of the thirty-seven which make up Greater Santiago, the 64,140-hectare (as of 2002) conurbation comprised of Santiago, San Bernardo (which lies in Maipo province), and Puente Alto (in Cordillera province).
Santiago is the final station of a major railway to the south of the country and of another from the port city of Valparaíso. The city is also the connecting point of the northern and southern segments of the Pan-American Highway.
Enhancing the centralized character of the capital city was the decision of past administrations to bolster the industrial clout of Santiago by allowing the establishment of manufacturing plants in the capital, which now account for over half of the country's total. The city generates 45 percent of the nation's GDP, notable in an economy that continues to be dominated by mining and agriculture. In addition, the leading papers, television stations, the stock exchange, three major universities (Universidad de Chile, Universidad Católica de Chile, and the technical school Universidad de Santiago), the Air Force Academy, and the Officers School of Carabineros (the national police), as well as international institutions such as ECLAC (the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), are established in Santiago.
In February 2007 the city launched Transantiago, revamping the city's transportation system with the hope of introducing more people to the Metro and of making the bus system more efficient. However, the transition to the new system backfired as patrons confused by a new fare card system and different bus routes vied for space in overloaded metro cars and suffered long waits due to a decreased bus fleet and malfunctioning GPS devices.
The city's position in a valley creates meteorological conditions in which warm air holds colder air close to ground. Combined with the emissions of automobiles and industry, this phenomenon results in smog that sometimes becomes dense enough to blot out the mountains on the horizon. This pollution, in addition to the contamination of the Mapocho River, have accelerated the exodus of the affluent toward the slopes of the Andes, thus accentuating the socioeconomic divide evident in the city's geography.
This socioeconomic divide manifested itself in massive student protests which shut down the city's schools in May of 2006. Students rallied in the streets and took over their schools in protest of the resource and performance gaps between public schools and private ones. Dubbed the Revolution of the Penguins for the students' appearance in their grey and blue uniforms, the protests won concessions from the government, but students have continued to protest what they perceive as the slow response to educational inequality.
Galetovic, Alexander, ed. Santiago: Dónde estamos y hacia dónde vamos. Santiago: Centro de Estudios Públicos, 2006.
Vicuña-Mackenna, Benjamín. Historia de Santiago. Santiago: Universidad de Chile, 1938.
Walter, Richard J. Politics and Urban Growth in Santiago, Chile, 1891–1941. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.
CÉsar N. Caviedes
Katy Berglund schlesinger