El Palacio de la Moneda

Today we visited the Palacio de la Moneda, also known as the official center for the Chilean government. La Moneda has taken different forms over the years, has been destroyed and rebuilt various times, and has slowly but surely opened its doors wider and wider to the public. With our excellent guide, Paulo (who looked like was a secret agent…he never took off his sunglasses, even indoors), we got to see several rooms and patios and learn their different functions.

We arrived at La Moneda and were escorted in by several guards in very official green uniforms and squeaky black boots. The building is a large off-white building, not unlike the White House, with north and south entrances marked by huge Chilean flags. Paulo would later tell us that when the flag is raised with a particular emblem, that indicates that the President is somewhere within Chile. If the emblem is removed, he/she is traveling outside of Chile. The guards took our passports and pointed us through the metal detectors before we met Paulo, a young and enthusiastic Chilean guy. He gave the tour in Spanish, but as he knew we were students, explained everything very clearly, elaborating and acting out words. It was pretty entertaining for all of us.

Chilean flag at the south entrance.

The tour began in el Patio de los Naranjos, or orange trees. There are 40 orange trees in this patio; Paulo doesn’t know why 40, exactly. The section of la Moneda to the south of this patio was originally a money factory, which is where it gets name, la Moneda. After 1846, it was demolished and rebuilt as the center of the government and the President’s house. However, no president has actually lived in la Moneda since 1956.

Patio de los Naranjos.
Statue from Easter Island in Patio de los Naranjos

Next we entered the first reception room, Salón Pedro de Valdivia. Pedro de Valdivia was the original conquistador from Spain who conquered the indigenous people of Chile, later founding Santiago in 1561. The room had a grand portrait of the conquistador, in addition to marble flooring, a 19th century carpet that we couldn’t walk upon, and a crystal chandelier.

The next reception room was completely red, full of velvet red chairs arranged in front of a small stage and podium. Paulo indicated a space in front of the chairs that is reserved for the press – this room is actually used practically daily by government officials to address the public. It is decorated entirely in red to make the room stand out, to give it more attention and importance. Named after President Manual Montt (1851-1861) and Prime Minister Antonio Varas.

The final reception room is Salón O’Higgins, named after a soldier and politician who fought for Chilean independence. As “director supremo,” Bernardo O’Higgins was essentially the Chilean president, and the highway through the center of Santiago, the Alameda, is named after him. This room is used primarily to receive diplomats or hold fancy dinners and lunches.

Moving back outside, Paulo introduced us to the “patio principal,” to which the north entrance opens. This entrance is the official entrance, through which enter esteemed guests and politicians. Workers were setting up a large stage and music stands for some sort of orchestra. Paulo wasn’t positive, but he thought it was likely for a celebration tomorrow – the anniversary of Chile’s declaration of independence from Spain, April 5th, 1805.

The final patio was the patio de canelos, canelo being a tree sacred to the indigenous Mapuches. The tree has medicinal properties and represents the spirituality of the people. Beside it were two large wooden totems, meant to represent the male and female indigenous people. To the top left of the patio, we could see the very office in which President Salvador Allende committed suicide. It was very ironic but symbolic that this office was named “Salón de la Independencia.”

Last but not least, we examined a small case of coins that contains a coin with the face of every Chilean president next to a coin depicting la Moneda during their presidency. There is no coin for Pinochet because he was never democratically elected as president of Chile. (Only in 1980 did he issue a referendum claiming his legitimacy as president, and he totally falsified the results.) Beside the case is a beautiful wooden door with a window hatch. The door is called “Morande 80” because that is its official address. Morande 80 used to be the official entrance to the Moneda that only the President used. Allende was the last president to enter through it; after the coup in 1973, the door was destroyed or stolen, not to be replaced until 2003, 30 years later. Now, no one is to enter through the door, as a sign of respect to Allende.

Allende’s coins. He’s not accompanied by la Moneda, but instead his people, who he represented faithfully.

Paulo regretfully had to end the tour, as the hour was up – we had asked so many questions that he was pressed for time. He saw us off cheerfully while we watched in awe as several guards performed a sort of ritual march.

Guards at attention.

Paulo told us that there were about 40,000 visitors to la Moneda last year, 60% of them being students. I’m glad to have been another one of those students to see it. Like the museum dedicated to Violeta Parra, though there was not much to see, our guide made it worthwhile.

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