The last city I visited prior to Santiago was La Paz, Bolivia- where my first impression was that off post-apocalyptic LA from the opening scene of The Terminator. Perhaps this was unfair, as my bus from Copacabana had entered through the impoverished Los Altos neighborhood (in La Paz, the poor live on the frigid heights while the rich live in the lower, oxygen-rich center.) On the whole, though, the city seemed a shabby, gloomy place. I went looking for a restaurant to try some Bolivian food, but even downtown near the presidential palace I couldn’t find any culinary options finer than some (albeit tasty) empanadas sold out of windows.
Driving through Santiago from the airport, by contrast, felt more like driving through downtown Boston. Traffic was thick, but orderly. Trees and parks lined the avenues. Men in suits talked on iPhones. No one sold knockoff Andean handicrafts on the sidewalks. I saw many elegant, well-maintained buildings.
After eating my fill at a one of the innumerable Chinese restaurants, I decided to walk through a small park bordered by tall trees. The park’s entrance was deceptive, though. Passing through the wrought iron gates revealed steps leading up a small hill. Ascending the small hill revealed a bigger hill.
Climbing the bigger hill led to a plateau a hundred meters above the city whose cobblestones, fragrant flowers, and iron lamps recalled Central Park in the late summer. Past the trees and railings I could overlook much of downtown; due to a trick of terraces and trees I had walked beneath the park earlier without noticing it.
I arrived at another gate opening onto steep stone steps through a red arch up to a high castle above the park. I felt the familiar surge of wonder that accompanies discovering a new place. I climbed quickly thanks to the month I’d just spent living at altitude and entered a courtyard leading to another gate and even more steps leading up to yet another castle that had been hidden from below.
Looking back I could see the city receding below and reflecting the haze-scattered light of the golden sunset. Beyond the city and its glass skyscrapers rose the snowcapped Andes. I felt like I was climbing through a dream or mirror-world reflection of Boston, New York, and the Spanish castles of Cartagena that rose Inception-like into the sky.
Even stranger, there weren’t any other people. Such a place in New York would be swarming with dog walkers, joggers, and Tinder dates. A man with a gun approached and I soon understood why- the park had just closed five minutes before, he explained. I pleaded that I’d climbed all this way and just needed a few minutes to snap some photos, and the guard relented.
I ascended the rest of the way to the highest tower, quickly savored the commanding view of Santiago at sunset, and began my descent down the other side of the hill across more cannon-lined plazas and past various fountains and columned buildings.
After exiting the opposite gate to the streets below, I was informed by Google Maps that the park in the sky I’d visited had been real. Cerro Sta. Lucia was the name of the hill, and the ramparts I’d walked were the Castillo de Hidalgo.