THE BLOG

Visiting Santiago's Parque Por La Paz

04/13/2012 07:15 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2012

For a trip off the regular tourist path in Chile, consider visiting Parque Por La Paz in Santiago. This park is built on the site of Villa Grimaldi, a former Pinochet era interrogation site and one of the most moving parts of any visit to this capital city.

During the Pinochet days over 4500 prisoners passed through Villa Grimaldi's front gate, some 229 never to leave the grounds again. Following the end of Pinochet's regime, the truth of the human rights violations that took place at the site came to light. On December 10, 1994 the site reopened to the public as Parque Por La Paz, keeping the memory of those who passed through its gates alive so that future generations would never forget what happened here.

It is a powerful reminder of the delicate balance of our humanity -- we are both capable of wondrous creation and devastating destruction. My walk through the park was a great journey through this balance.

Getting to the park itself was its own little journey, requiring a bus ride to the outskirts of town. well off the main stay of tourists to Santiago. You know you're headed to local territory when the bus driver gives you the "Gringo-wants-to-go-where?" look after you tell him your destination. It was amazing though, getting outside of the city proper and venturing out to where real Santiguenos live. The park is still relatively new and driving by on the road you would have never guessed what it was--probably the reason why Pinochet chose it in the first place. Make sure you check in at the visitor's office to receive your audio guide. It is a great way to learn about the history of the place and tour the park at your own pace. While many of the original structures were razed in the last throes of the dictatorship (most likely to try and bury any evidence of its existence), recreations and remains of certain buildings still stand on the grounds. They served as powerful reminders of what we humans are capable of doing to each other.

A section of paths where prisoners we jailed, helped recreate the sensory loss many of these prisoners had. The audio guide describes that most were blind folded and could only see the ground beneath their feet. The water tower, were many prisoners were beaten for information, was also reconstructed to stand watch from the rear corner of the park. Some of the original elements of the villa remained, such as a majestic Ombu tree and the foundation of the original building at the center of the grounds. As chilling as some of the stories were, I think it is a more powerful statement that such a park of peace now stands over the remains of a dictatorship.

The park is still a work in progress and on the day we visited we pretty much had the place to ourselves. I had read that on occasion former prisoners or their relatives are on the grounds as well. I can only imagine what such a visit would be like for them. One of the images that still stays with me is of the lock on the original gate where prisoners were brought through. The lock was placed there when the park was first opened to the public, to symbolize the closure of the place and how the gate would never be opened to violations of humanity again. This dichotomy of human torture and human peace is the greatest accomplishment of this place.

In all honesty, the only way I knew what happened here was the little mp3 player buzzing in my ear. Without the stories from the narrator, all I would have had was a peaceful sunny day with my family in a set of beautiful sculptures and gardens. The park was a living embodiment of the healing many in this country are still going through, looking to build a more beautiful future over the remains of a sad past.