Plaza de Armas is the undisputed pulsating heart of Santiago. Located smack in the center of the city, Plaza de Armas is the space where tourists intermingle with locals, beggars, evangelicals, thieves and raconteurs. Oh, and an old man who dutifully transports three ponies – one large and two small – to the plaza every morning on a cart, rain or shine, in the hopes that parents will pay him to take a Polaroid photo of their children on his horses. His billboard of faded photographs sits nearby.
Plaza de Armas is comprised of four buildings, all about two blocks long, facing into the square. Spanish colonial town-planning consisted of constructing the Plaza de Armas – and all settlements in Chile have them – before anything else. These buildings housed the municipal offices, cathedral, post office, officers quarters and, most importantly, “the place of the arms”: the guns and ammunition. If the settlement was attacked, everyone retreated to Plaza de Armas, the only area they defended.
The architecture in the Plaza is spectacular. The post office and the space that evolved into the national historic museum boasts a strong, sturdy building that houses the clock tower. To the west sits the cathedral – a majestic building with bells that gong every fifteen minutes and chimes that play on the hour. So Ava Maria means it is noon. Opposite the cathedral are the former offices. On the covered veranda space between the road and the building there are a multitude of suitcase vendors, a few lingerie shops specializing in Chinese imports and shops with tables of plastic shoes.
Approaching the veranda space on the ground floor of Portal Fernandez Concha, the smell of urine is replaced by the stench of greasy food. The crowded space between the hotdog stands and the building reeks with humanity: grease, bodies packed closely together, a faint smell of vomit from one of the derelicts, now passed out on the sidewalk and propped up against the building. The fast-food restaurants lining the inside of the building display the dishes they offer in the windows of their establishments. The plates of withered food, shellacked and with a price tag propped up on the back corner of the white plates, alerting customers to what they can expect to eat and what they will pay for the privilege.
The establishments near the street offer hotdogs loaded with ketchup, mustard, guacamole and the ubiquitous mayonnaise piled on so thick that when people try to bite into the “completo”, as it is known, the sauces inevitably run down their chins. Each stall has glasses of napkins for the bite-wipe-bite formula.
Portal Fernandez Concha started out as officer’s quarters, was transformed into a hotel at one point and is now partitioned into apartments and offices. The building is home to a variety of alternative types: transgenders, retired people, sex workers, economic refugees from Peru, artists and business people. The concierge at the entrance keeps an eye on the comings and goings on a security camera. There is a brothel on the second floor and a hostel on the sixth.
The double-deckers regularly pull-up outside the post office at Plaza de Armas and belch out a fresh crop of eager-looking tourists. The foreigners stroll around, but tend to stay in the north-west area of the plaza, close to the museum and the cathedral. There they take a few happy snaps and climb back onto the bus to zoom off to the next stop. Alas, the tourists completely miss the most interesting element of Plaza de Armas – the people.
When the Plaza begins to stir in the morning, the derelicts – who have been sleeping in the doorways on the sides of the buildings — gather up their bedding and cardboard and quietly fade away. The hotdog stands open about eight, catering to the working-class people walking by, hoping they will buy something to eat before lining up for a free newspaper. The cleaning machines drive over the large square cobblestones of the Plaza, and whisk away the litter and debris.
By mid-morning the Plaza is on duty. The old man arrives with his horses and an old woman in a wheelchair positions herself in front of the cathedral, vigorously shaking her can of coins, demanding alms. The English speaking “Ask Me” guides arrive with their mobile carts and the Christian evangelical starts screaming. This particular demonination believes that you have to yell at God to get her attention, so they shriek and scream and wail like banshees in the hopes they will be noticed.
The evangelicals are the noise pollution of the Plaza. And their schedule is so predictable that you can tell time by them as much as by the cathedral bells or the clock in the tower. By 10:30 in the morning the evangelical is pacing back and forth, screaming as he waves a Bible in the air, threatening those who do not join him that they will go to hell. He is frothing-at-the-mouth angry. Understanding Spanish isn’t necessary as every third or forth word is “hallelujah” so you get the drift. He screams until 20:00, rarely stopping to eat or drink or go to the toilet.
Sunday mornings a tone-deaf woman alternates between shrieking and singing off-key hymns between 9:30 and 10:30. Saturdays and Sunday from 14:00 to 18:00 the faithful — ten or twelve poorly dressed people — gather near a public address system set up in the middle of the plaza. As soon as the screaming starts, it drives the locals – the poor and homeless who are taking shelter in the plaza and the young lovers intertwined and sticking their tongues down each others throats – to the benches on the edges of the Plaza.
Not to be outdone in the noise competition, Priscilla Guzman arrives on Saturday and Sunday afternoons about 14:00, sets up her sound system and starts singing into the microphone is her raw, untrained voice until 20:00. Her fan club gathers and some dance a sort of waltz-shuffle to the popular tunes. Another circulates in the crowd, enticing the listening audience to buy a copy of her CD. When she sings Total Eclipse of the Heart in a language that isn’t quite English, it is about 16:00.
It is Monday nights from 19:30 to 22:00, however, that is the loudest. The vocal followers gather in the south-west corner of the Plaza, crank-up the speakers and stage a full-blown revival meeting, They take turns screaming into the microphone. People who live in the 342 apartments in Portal Fernandez Concna have complained to the municipal authorities for years, but to no avail.
Scattered in the south-west corner of the Plaza, close to the metro stop, are the artists who range from not-bad right through to those who would flunk a Grade Ten drawing class. They are generally working on a creation, splashing bright paint on the canvas or sketching a face in charcoal, hoping that a tourist will commission a piece.
Also performing in this area are the chinciearos, a Chilean street performing phenomenon. The art of beating a drum strapped to the back, while clanging symbols, and whirling around at incredible speed it passed from father to son. For the first couple of performances it is interesting to watch the coordination involved. After that it fades to a spectacle, rather like a dog standing on his hind legs and barking.
Spaced out between the metro stop to the south and the cathedral to the north are the human statues: a tree, a miner and a Virgin Mary. Painted, clothed and able to hold an immobile position for a long time, these artists blend in with the permanent stone pieces of a couple of cardinals so well that sometimes they go unnoticed. Petty thieves work this area. Eyes darting about, waiting for an unsuspecting tourist not noticing her handbag or camera is vulnerable. A couple of comedians, always surrounded by a crowd, keep people amused for hours at a time. While a few meters away, the evangelical – still alone and ignored – waves his Bible and screams louder to be heard above the laughter.
A couple of police officers on horses guard the entrance to the metro station, and watch the people come and go. When they get bored they take the horses for a walk around the plaza. Tourists and locals pose to have their pictures taken with the men on horseback. The Mapucha statue is another photo-opportunity location. Getting the mounted police and the statue in a photo is a premium shot.
The chess club players come out when the weather is good. Gathering under a pagoda-roof and spreading out as required. The players hunch over their chess boards, furrow their brows deep in thought as they plan their next move. A few meters away is a statue of Don Pedro de Valdivia — the founding father of Chile — mounted on his steed and leading the troops into battle. “The horse” as it is known, is the easiest meeting place in Santiago, because everyone knows it.
Official ceremonies and protest marches are all held at Plaza de Armas. The president of the country making an announcement will arrive with his entourage for the photo opportunities of the plaza – but he doesn’t stick around to meet the masses. Or a visiting cardinal going to the cathedral will show up at this historic cathedral, complete with police guard, a brass band and banners. All protests, be they in support of the Mapucha hunger strikers or the pharmacy workers who want to draw attention to their plight, must go through the plaza with drums and horns and followers shaking their fists in the air. The press photographers generally gather in the south-west corner, to frame the plaza as the backdrop.
Although tourists and well-heeled Chileans might walk through Plaza de Armas and a few may go to the two restaurants, they don’t stop or stay long. Plaza de Armas is a space for poor people. The wooden benches on the edge of the Plaza are beds for the homeless and the derelicts during the day. Young lovers hold hands and stroll through the plaza, and they stop under the palm trees to grope each other, oblivious to people who walk by.
Old people in the plaza sit in the sun during the winter and in the shade during the summer. It is a meeting place for people who don’t have anything to do or anywhere to go. They spread out, do not talk to each other, lost in their own thoughts. The queltros – the street dogs – patrol their areas.
By 19:00 the lights in the plaza go on. A couple of people appear with telescopes that they set up and rent out so people can better view the stars. People gather at the two restaurants so have a pisco sour – a cocktail made with strong Peruvian brandy and the juice is a first cousin to limes– or order a meal from the two-price menu: If you want to sit outside on the terrace you pay extra for the privilege.
The plaza is quiet by 21:00. Even on the weekends, the evangelicals have stopped screaming and Priscilla Guzman has packed up her sound system. The police van parks in the space between the cathedral and the clock tower, its red light revolves all night to warn people not to even consider vandalizing the national monuments. The homeless families gather under the lights on the south side of the plaza, many of them Peruvian economic refugees who came to Santiago to try to eek out a living. Nursing mothers sit on the hard wooden benches, and watch their two toddlers chase each other around. They disappear into the night to sleep somewhere else.
By 23:00 Plaza de Armas is asleep. The only sign of movement is the red light on the police van and the palm trees swaying in the night breeze. Tomorrow will be another predictable day of chaos.
» Read about more Neighborhoods in Santiago on Leave Your Daily Hell.