Santiago is outrageously safe, for the most part. And for the most part, I mean specific neighborhoods including Providencia, Ñuñoa, La Reina, La Dehesa, Lo Barnechea, Las Condes, Vitacura, parts of downtown and lots of other comunas (districts) that you’d probably never visit unless someone invited you over for tea (or onces, as they’d be more likely to call it, especially if they are not very upper class). I have, of course, also been to a bunch of the lesser-loved comunas, from Macul to Cerillos, Cerro Navia to Pudahuel, Quilicura, Renca, Lo Prado and even Pedro Aguirre Cerda (affectionately called PAC), which seems to be everyone’s favorite whipping comuna. Part of it is under a highway, the public transportation isn’t great, and it has more than its share of substandard public schools, for which one of my acquaintances used to be a psychologist. And he has stories, yes he does. None of which I will tell here.
The funny thing is, being in a comuna where you are allegedly in danger, allegedly likely to have something happen to you, is where you, as a foreigner, are least likely to be targeted for being foreign. You might get the fish eye, but I don’t think you run a better chance of being asaltado (mugged/attacked) than the average Joe who’s just gone out to get a liter of milk or beer. Though the likelihood of this is admittedly high in some areas.
If you’re in a nontouristy area, you’re probably visiting folks, who will take you in and out via the best route, like a guy I dated who lived in the fuzzy area between La Florida and Puente Alto, and had a few pet streets that we never walked down, no matter what time of day. And we certainly never crossed the way into La Pintana, because if you don’t have a reason to go to a comuna that’s known to be turbio (shady), you just shouldn’t. I’m not talking about places like Estación Central or the smaller neighborhood called Franklin, which although questionable in places, at least have commerce. They’re places that at least “tienes por que estar” (you have a reason to be there). I mean places that don’t have a particular store or event that you need to go to, places where the map shows millions of dead end streets with numbers, (Pasaje 103, for example), rather than names, like the powers that be ran out of words before they got there. Even comunas that everyone loves to hate has places in it that are walkable, loveable, vistable. But you need to be shown these places, as they may not be evident. And you don’t want to be the person that surprised some ne’er-do-wells just when they were thinking about what to do next.
One day I was headed out on my bike to meet up with a bunch of friends at Paradero 14 de Vicuña Mckenna, which translates to busstop 14 on the named street. It’s a straight shot from Plaza Italia, a straight shot that I’ve ridden every single time I went to see the aforementioned ex (who lived closer to Paradero 23 1/2, and no, I’m not kidding about the 1/2), and up to Puente Alto, and to Pirque to go to Rio Clarillo or to Cajón de Maipo or further up towards Baños Morales. It’s dull, and under the metro, and trafficky. I decided instead to take Santa Rosa. This is where all of you Santiaguinos old and new visualize the map and put your right hand (if you’re right handed) up to your forehead. I was quickly treated to dilapidated buildings, a road under construction, flapping hojalata (corrugated iron used for rooves and external walls in poorer areas), and the ubiquitous barking dogs. And a flat tire. JOY! In the end, I did the old pump-and-pedal, and arrived to my friends at the paradero, who were happy and relaxed, in time to tell my tale of woe. But nothing had happened, there was no story to tell. I went where I shouldn’t’ve (love that double contraction), and nothing happened. Except I learned that some routes are better and safer than others to get to Paradero 14 of Vicuña Mckenna (and by the way, this name I spent the first three months in Chile humming to the tune of Hakuna Matada from The Lion King, the stress is the same, and which in Spanish would mean Hakuna Killed, but I digress, as is often the case).
And yet, I know that Santiago is not safe. That “things” happen all the time. Sunglasses stolen off of faces, and cellphones ripped from hands, bananos (buttpacks) stolen off the waist of a friend while she was riding her bike (?!), and purses taken off the back of chairs, and bags opened and their contents taken, to later be reducido (fenced) by people in the know, and a friend’s brother was carjacked (and killed), and another friend was stabbed on the street, and an acquaintance’s father was murdered in what looks like a business-related incident.
I’m thinking about all of this on the eve of my mother’s visit to Chile (and later to Uruguay, got any advice?), because of course, I want to keep us both safe. And because I’m often asked for advice on Santiago, and how safe it is. And I feel like two-face. Because the answer is: It’s safe! But you have to be careful. And lucky. Don’t forget lucky.
Wishing you all endless streams of wisdom and bottomless boxes of luck.