Dark Days and Dark Clubs
Chile has boomed and prospered for decades, making it the envy of its Latin neighbors. This is despite the fact that the country was under the famously brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990, whose junta has been linked to over 3,000 deaths of dissidents during his reign. Perhaps that's what has taken so long for gay Chileans to crawl out of the closet -- paranoia and suppression were the order of the day for so much of Chile's modern history.
I drove a couple hours to Santiago's coastal sister of Valparaiso, and saw that prosperity has always been in Chile's genes. This shipping town was one of the richest in South America before the Panama Canal was built, and its English and German immigrants helped build a diverse, tolerant place. Placed on a series of 45 hills, Valparaiso spills down to the sea like a haphazard city thrown down as an afterthought, with steep streets looking more like ski slopes and historic houses precariously teetering on cliffs in a town that was nearly destroyed by a 1906 earthquake.
It's a working port of candy-colored shipping containers and cranes, with gray Chilean navy vessels lurking in the background. In contrast, Valparaiso's (call it "Valpo" if you want to sound like a local) neighbor town to the north, Vina del Mar, is a fashionable enclave of wealthy mansions and wide beaches where Santiago's elite spend their summers.
This city, most if it ordained a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is punctuated by hidden staircases and ascensores (rickety funicular-type elevators). Seafood restaurants with sweeping views serve some of the best and most creative dishes on the continent. It can take days to explore the city's bohemian cafes and dark clubs. No wonder more than one observer has compared the city to San Francisco.
One gay-friendly dark club I crawled into was named Mascara. After climbing the prerequisite staircase (the city seemed to be bursting with stairs), I entered a huge and nearly pitch-black loft space lined with graphic murals. A pierced and black-outfitted audience gazed trancelike upon a punk band screaming out some staccato tunes. These were the "pokeman" I heard about -- a Chilean urban youth tribe who prided themselves in facial pins, dyed hair, and a bisexual attitude where everyone was encouraged to make out with everyone else, regardless of sexual orientation. Everyone appeared as one sex anyway with their matching dark outfits. Indeed, Chile was a-changing from the Pinochet days.
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four