Stepping out onto the rooftop helicopter pad at the newly built $150 million
W Hotel in Santiago, Chile, I could see the glimmering mirrored windows of the surrounding corporate office towers. The elaborate modern designs of these tall buildings are a reminder that in last few decades Santiago has emerged as one of Latin America’s wealthiest and most highly developed cities.
There is still, however, quite a big gap between the city’s rich and poor. Even on a clear day, the jumble of single- and multistory cement slums on Santiago’s southern fringe was clouded from view by low-lying smog. I looked out at the massive expanse of snow-capped peaks toward the luxury ski-resorts that cordon off the city’s wealthier neighborhoods to the north, and peered down at bustling streets in the El Golf neighborhood, Santiago’s financial district, named for the expansive golf course I could see over the side of the building, thirty-one stories below. The exeuctive giving me the tour of the hotel pointed out the golf course and then Entel tower, an ugly, industrial-looking concrete communications tower that looks like a some kind of giant abandoned microphone standing alone among the lower-lying, grime-covered walls of the neglected buildings in the city’s historic center.
A few days later, I went to visit a Santiago-raised architect, who runs a well-known English-language architecture blog, at his office in Providencia, a wealthy neighborhood that sits in the shadow of the W Hotel and growing skeleton of the Costanera Center, a three-hundred-meter tall tower that will soon be Latin America’s largest building.
“Do you want gourmet coffee or instant coffee? Snob style or scrub style?” he asked me with a mischevous smile as I walked into his office. “Either is fine for me,” I said, avoiding the question about my elitist or working-class sympathies. We sat down together in the conference room with our coffee. The architect had his brand-new Macbook and iPhone on the table. He pulled a kerosene-powered heater up to the doorway. It gets cold in the winter, but most buildings in Santiago don’t have central heating. Reaching across the table, he tapped a copy of Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper, pointing at a graphic in a recent article that shows income distribution in Santiago.
He explained that most of new investment in Santiago is concentrated in the elite enclaves of the “barrios altos” on the northern fringe of the city. Most of the graphic from the article was a sea of orange and red, indications of lower-income neighborhoods. Only the upper-right fringe of the city was marked blue for high income. Luis Valenzuela, a distinguished Chilean architect and urban-planning expert, is quoted as saying, “From a cultural perspective, we are producing segregation [in Santiago].”
Home to a private army of BMW and Mercedes owners and an impressive array of successful, globally integrated companies, Chile is widely regarded as being the economic miracle of Latin America. Between 1988 and 2008 the country’s economy doubled and then tripled in size, increasing by almost 600 percent in two decades. Fast growth helped cut down on the number of people living in absolute poverty, but Chile still has one of the world’s least equitable distributions of wealth. The streets in Santiago are choked with late-model cars, and the flashy white buses and smooth subway cars that are part of city’s multibillion dollar public-transportation system are usually filled with sharply dressed young professionals and troupes of uniform-wearing school children. But, despite the emergence of a growing middle class, Chile remains a highly stratified society.
When I walked through the El Golf neighborhood, I peeked in the windows at Brooks Brothers, the Mercedes dealership, and the brightly lit North Face store housed at the end of a glass walkway on the first floor of the W Hotel tower. At North Face, Gore-Tex ski jackets were being sold for $550 and trucker-style hats sold for $57. According to the government, more than one out of every ten of Santiago’s residents has a family income of less than $4,000 per year. Obviously, it’s an elite group of families who can afford to outfit themselves with skis and equiment and venture out into the resorts perched in the snowy peaks around the city, including Portillo, South America’s most prestigious ski resort, an isolated luxury outpost that sits nestled on the Argentine border, two hours from the city center.
The major hotels in Santiago all organize bus, van, and helicopter shuttles for tourists and locals who want to visit any of the ski resorts that overlook the city, but I was keen to find my own way up to Portillo. I ventured into the city center, walking through the bustling sidewalks, underneath the dirty walls of the fading ninteenth-century buildings, past the garish billboards, and brightly lighted storefront windows, and made my way to the public bus terminal. The bus station, like the neighborhood around it, is full of small stores that sell everything from new flatscreen TVs to cheap Chinese underwear.
I gave the bus-company employee who helped load my gear into the bus a 2000 peso tip ($4), enough to purchase twenty-four pounds of apples from one of the farms that dot the poverty-stricken hills outside of Santiago, but not enough to buy one of the massive Angus-beef and guacamole sandwiches seen in the glossy Burger King advertisements that are plastered all over the city. Some of the buses that carry low-income tourists and Argentine guest workers into Chile from the other side of the border stopped to let passengers out in the snow. Families gathered together to slide on the slippery slopes, using their cell phones and digital cameras to snap pictures of each other playing in the snow.
Having already made our reservation over the phone, my friends and I walked past the massive, sleeping St. Bernard lying outside the wood doors of the sixty-year-old yellow cement and stone building, into the carpeted lobby to the reception area. One of the team of receptionists was midway through explaining to a wealthy-looking Brazilian man in his early forties that the only rooms still available cost $600 per person, per night. “That’s fine, that’s fine,” the Brazilian man snapped impatiently in English.
Since even the cheapest rooms at Portillo require a week-long minimum stay, the South American ski vacation is still a luxury that only a tiny segment of the population enjoys. But, as the revenues continue to pour in from copper, fruit, and wine exports, and new businesses flourish, construction will continue in Santiago. New stores will open in the city center, and new corporate offices will be built in the financial district. As incomes rise and more and more residents start venturing out on the slopes of the mountain resorts that ring the city, Santiago may soon be known as the ski capital of South America.