Thanks for the Memories, Chile!

Thanks for the Memories, Chile!
By Patrick Nixon

Souvenir shopping when traveling abroad can be a tiring and frustrating business. Trekking around the center of Santiago several hours before your flight takes off can leave you exhausted, feeling ripped off and with nothing more to show for it than a plastic Moai statue and a bottle of cheap pisco.

In Chile, if you take some time to look and ask around, you can find some unique crafts at a reasonable cost. In Santiago, the two most obvious options are the craft fairs on the Alameda main street opposite the Santa Lucia Hill and another one on Pio Nono street with Santa Maria Avenue near the night hotspot Bellavista. There you can find typical souvenirs from various regions of the country, such as jewelry made with the blue lapis lazuli stone, leather wallets, copper plates and woolen sweaters. But these are usually Latin American fairs where Chilean, Peruvian and Ecuadorian products are lumped together.

If you’re looking for something authentically Chilean, it’s best to go to the indigenous craft fair that is literally a converted cave on the Santa Lucia hillside. The entrance is on the side closest to Miraflores street. There you will find a range of products from indigenous groups from the north, the south and Easter Island.

Particularly appealing are the beautiful salad bowls and butter dishes hand-carved from the red-colored rauli tree, a native Chilean species. You’ll find sweaters, scarves and shawls woven with the fine alpaca llama wool, Mapuche silver jewelry, musical instruments and necklaces made with white coral and shark teeth from Easter Island.

The prices tend to be higher than average, but quality is assured. Another advantage is that you buy directly from the artisan who made the piece. He or she can explain the meanings of symbols or show you how to play a Mapuche instrument.

Craft shopping shouldn’t be limited to Santiago, and coastal towns often have an artisan vender. One thing that most Chilean artisans have in common is resourcefulness, and they always have something unusual made from something very simple, such as a wine bottle. In the small Region V town of Isla Negra, for example, there are a number of craft stalls in the plaza near to Nobel prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda’s seaside home, which is now a museum. Some sell leather pouches with Neruda poems painted on them, others offer painted glass lampshades. Innovative crafts include an incense holder made simply from a bent spoon with the scoop carved into a face.

If you’re looking for a bit of everything, you’ll find just that in Region X’s Puerto Montt. Along the sea front of the town is the tiny fishing village of Angelmo, where there is an array of stands that sell not only a range of woolen clothing designed for the cold weather, but also a selection of practical wooden kitchen implements, such as a mortar and pestle. Some of the best-selling clothes items in past years in Puerto Montt and neighboring island Chiloe were colorful woolen skirts and shawls. These were made famous in 1999 by the main character in the national television soap opera La Fiera (The Fierce One), which was based on rural life on Chiloe island.

Whatever you’re looking for, it’s always worthwhile to converse with the vendors, who are normally friendly and open to bargaining.