For the only time in a crowded calendar, the second round of the FIA Formula E Championship visits the continent of South America on 18 January, for the 2020 Santiago E-Prix. It should go without saying that the inhabitants of the Chilean capital have had matters more serious than sport to worry about in recent months, however Formula E takes the safety of everyone following the championship very seriously, and the UK Foreign Office advises that Chile is safe to visit, with precautions.
The political and social situation in Chile is, however, delicately balanced at the time of writing. What this means in practice is that around Santiago you are likely to find a larger-than-usual police presence, and of course tourists and visiting media should comply with their requests while moving around the city.
Additionally, while the advice at the present moment is that it is safe to visit Santiago as long as basic precautions are taken, the reality, without wishing to scaremonger, is that relations between government and protesters are still icy, and a public spectacle such as motor racing can, sometimes, draw the attention protesters seek – especially given there was some (unconnected) protest around the location of the previous Santiago E-Prix circuit. In short, read the Foreign Office advice thoroughly, and be attentive to what is happening around you, but have fun, and enjoy a wonderful country.
Santiago is a fascinating place which, in the height of the southern hemisphere summer, presents a beautiful location for a short break themed around all-electric motorsport. There are several reasons for this. Perhaps most famously, Chile is wine country. Take a brief trip into the countryside and you will find a panoply of pretty vineyards, many of which you can visit as part of organised tours. You can find information for the larger tours at your accommodation or at tourist information centres.
The Formula E action takes place in Parque O’Higgins, the second-largest of Santiago’s major parks, named after Bernardo O’Higgins, who led Chilean forces when they achieved independence from Spain. The 2.3 km winding street circuit in the park’s grounds was a new addition to the calendar last season, replacing a layout elsewhere in the city.
The circuit has proved popular with the majority of Formula E teams and media, with a design that encourages close, hard racing, although the concrete surface was exceptionally hard on tyres in its first event, and the surface was prone to breaking up under the extreme pressure of hundreds of race tyres in baking weather conditions. What this means is a race day that will likely be filled with drama, and will be won by the driver whose tactics best adapt to the conditions.
The air temperature, which was in the high thirties last year, made for a very humid local climate, which is something fans need to be aware of. Whether you’re watching the race from the grandstand, or scouting for fun attractions in the E-Village, it is essential to get plenty of water on board. Asthma sufferers will wish to make sure they bring their inhalers. The air can also be quite dusty, especially at the hottest time of year.
The Parque O’Higgins Circuit is right next to Fantasilandia, Chile’s largest amusement park, leading to the spectacle of being able to hear the high-pitched scream of electric powertrains on track, and the similarly piercing wail of children on the enormous rollercoaster just a few hundred metres away. Although you need to pay an admission fee to go into Fantasilandia, you can enjoy the verdant pleasures of a walk in other areas of Parque O’Higgins free of charge.
Away from the track, there are all the forms of entertainment you would expect from a bustling capital city. Patio Bellavista is a very popular place for people of all ages to go for food or drinks, with every kind of taste, from health food to junk food, and local wines and beers, catered for. Given the likely temperatures throughout January, you may wish to dine al-fresco. Mercado Central, the main market, is another spot well worth making time for, especially for its strong selection of fresh local seafood. There are stalls as well as small eating areas within the sprawling market area, but take care of your belongings, as you would in any other major market.
There are a few other things to be aware of. Although the population of Santiago is generally well-educated, and you will find a sufficient knowledge of English among people you speak to if you cannot speak Spanish, if you decide to speak the national language, you will soon find that the accent and dialect Chileans speak in is different from what you may be used to from holidaying in Spain. The meanings of certain words are different in Chilean Spanish, in a way perhaps roughly comparable to British English and American English.
Chile is an advanced country, and public transport in Santiago is modern. The metro will get you to most of the places you want to visit, while there is a decent bus system. As with any new city, if you’re walking, keep your wits about you, although Santiago is reasonably safe most of the time, at least when compared to other major South American cities, again, bearing in mind what we said at the top of this article.
Chileans are proud people. The principal income of the area is not tourism – its relatively remote location, with the Andes walling it off from Argentina, sees to that – and so you may find that attempting to flash the cash in order to get an upgrade isn’t an effective course of action as it may be in some other countries.
The locals are, though, extremely polite, and will reciprocate if you show a positive attitude towards them when they are serving you in shops and bars. The same goes for asking for directions – Chileans are generally happy to help tourists get around their city. A tip is expected by waiting staff, usually of around 10% of your bill. The general maxim – treat people how you want to be treated – should mean you have an enjoyable time and that you feel welcome on your trip to Santiago.
Stuart Garlick is a journalist who has worked for the likes of AFP, and has covered topics as diverse as Estonian politics, dance music, and electric vehicles. It was an interest in the last of those that led him to start Motion E, a website covering Formula E and sustainable transport. Stuart loves travelling and the kind of modern art that annoys people.