The co-founders of La Bicicleta Verde left stable and prosperous jobs to start an eco-friendly, politically-controversial tour of Santiago for one reason: they love the Chilean people. Peter Lewis, who worked as a university professor, and Joel Martinez, who worked as a lawyer, are not afraid to discuss the realities of Chile’s history and culture, […]
The co-founders of La Bicicleta Verde left stable and prosperous jobs to start an eco-friendly, politically-controversial tour of Santiago for one reason: they love the Chilean people. Peter Lewis, who worked as a university professor, and Joel Martinez, who worked as a lawyer, are not afraid to discuss the realities of Chile’s history and culture, and have a bold guide-recruitment philosophy that has created one of the most authentic and comprehensive looks at the city of Santiago and the people that live there.
All tour guide applicants must explain why they love Santiago in order to be considered for employment, and it truly shows in the authenticity of the tours. My guide, Rodrigo, never stopped smiling from the moment we set out on our bikes to the moment we returned. He wasn’t simply going through the motions, robotically giving the same tour day after day – he was genuinely enjoying himself and his love for Santiago was apparent.
The afternoon “Parks and Politics” tour, described as “the perfect cocktail of politics, landmarks, and green areas,” is nothing short of just that. Cruising through some of the city’s most beautiful green spaces, Rodrigo talked of how it is typical to see pololos and chuchos in the parks – Chilean slang for couples and stray dogs – neither of which are a nuisance to the Chilean people.
“Often times it is very unusual for Americans to see affection in public,” Rodrigo said. “When the boyfriends and girlfriends will lay with each other and kiss out in the open, sometimes it bothers foreigners. But I think that it is beautiful to see people so in love, as do most other Chileans.”
And as for the dogs, they are just as much a part of the culture as the Chileans themselves. “The people love the dogs. They are not mean, as strays are in other parts of the world,” Rodrigo said. “People take care of them, bring them food and water, sometimes even take them to the vet. And the dogs take care of the people too. Sometimes at night if you’re walking home and have had too much to drink, you’ll find a companion in a chucho who will make sure you get home safe.”
It sounds like a joke, but he wasn’t kidding. I have talked to a few different foreigners in Santiago who say that they have had stray dogs walk them home at night, and bark at people or other dogs they might see as a threat.
We cycled past some of the most famed landmarks and neighborhoods in Santiago, made a pit stop at a historical art museum, and ended the tour at Palacio de la Moneda, the seat of the Presidential Republic of Chile.
Sitting on the lawn in front of Palacio de la Moneda, Rodrigo gave us a summary of the political turmoil that Chile has undergone over the last fifty years; from the democratic election of Marxist president Salvador Allende, to his suspicious suicide during a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet, and the painful dictatorship that followed for nearly two decades. La Bicicleta Verde intentionally covers controversial topics that other tour operators avoid at all costs.
“Most tour guides around the world think talking about emotional topics should be avoided because tourists want to be happy while they are on vacation,” said co-founder and owner Peter Lewis. “People conflate happiness with lack of knowledge, but happiness is more complex than that. You can be happy by knowing someone’s essence. I don’t think you can understand Chilean psyche without understanding their political history.”
What Lewis said about how understanding the political history lends a hand in understanding the Chilean people was spot on. I walked away from the three hour tour (which felt like no time at all) with a much more comprehensive understanding of the people and the culture.
“The greatest thing about visiting Chile is the Chilean people,” Lewis said. “It’s not Patagonia, it’s not the Andes, it’s not the Pacific Ocean, it’s not the wine, it’s not the desert – it’s the people.”