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March 12, 2004 -- Chile and Argentina, as far away as you can get from the United States and still be in The Americas, are more European in ambience than their surrounding neighbors. The mixture of influences from the old world of the Incas and other indigenous peoples and the new world of the Spanish invaders flavor everything you'll experience in southern South America. The countries, as rich in cultural history as there are in natural beauty, offer a taste of Europe without the sticker shock.

Among the better deals currently being advertised by operators with packages to Chile (and other parts of continent) are the following:

Gate1 Travel has a seven-day package that gives you a choice of first class or deluxe hotel room, daily breakfast, and arrival transfers. The prices range from $769 to $909, depending on what hotel you choose; flights are based out of Miami, but additional gateways are available at varying additional costs. There are also optional side trips to the Lake of the Andes, mysterious Easter Island, Punta Arenas and Puerta Natales, starting at $249 for a three-day stay at the latter, where you visit the Cathedral and the Salesian Museum, among other sights. These optional tours are add-ons and run from two to four days in length. Contact Gate 1 at www.gate1travel.com or by phoning 800/682-3333.

"Affordable Chile" is the name of a five-night package from Marnella Tours, costing as little as $669 out of Miami on Aero Llloyd-Boliviano via Santa Cruz, or $894 out of New York on either Lan Chile or American Airlines direct. The package includes your flight, five nights at the Diego de Zalmagro Hotel in Santiago, a city tour, and roundtrip transfers between airport and hotel. Sample prices from other US gateways include $969 from Miami on Lan Chile or American; $989 from Boston on American; $1,019 from Los Angeles on Lan Chile; or $1,089 from Chicago on American. Prices do not include airport and security taxes and fees. There are optional tours around Santiago, including one to the home of Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda, another to a winery or a horseback ride with lunch. Contact Marnella at www.marnellatours.com or at 866/993-0033.

Analie Tours has a six night trip combing Santiago and Buenos Aires, staying in first-class hotels, from as little as $935, valid all the way through December 15, 2004.Contact them at www.analietours.com or at 800/811-6027.

For those who want to see the wild beauty of Patagonia, Adventure Life has a base camp trekking tour of eight days costing $1,990, land-only. After arriving in Santiago and spending the night, you fly to Punta Arena, "at the end of the world," where you visit a penguin reserve. The next day you board a big catamaran to sail along the Ultima Esperanza Fjord and have lunch in view of the Balmaceda Glacier. You then take a zodiac (an inflatable raft with an outboard motor) up river to a mountain lodge, after seeing seals, sea lions, porpoises, black-necked swans and more. For the next four days, you take hikes from your camp in the mountains near Grey Glacier, French Valley and other spots your neighbors back home never heard of. Two nights are spent in comfortable hotels, one night in a mountain lodge, one in a backcountry refugio, two nights in a safari camp and one night simple camping. Twelve meals are included. Departure dates in 2004 include Mar 20, April 3, November 13 and December 11. Maximum of 12 participants and you should be fit, they say, as there is moderate hiking each day. You have to add the roundtrip flight between Santiago and Punta Arenas, costing around $405. Contact Adventure life at www.adventure-life.com or at 800/344-6118 or 406/541-2677, fax 406/541-2676.

Finally, Friendly Planet has a South American Odyssey that covers "the best that South America has to offer." In addition to the Andes and Santiago in Chile, you will visit Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and the magnificent Iguazu Falls. You'll cover Argentina, too, in this 16-day sojourn that includes deluxe and superior first-class hotel lodging in the cities you visit. Also a part of the package are 19 meals, tours of the major cities visited, and all intra-South American air and ground transportation, not to mention your roundtrip flights from Miami on scheduled Varig Brazilian flights. (From New York's JFK, add $75.)

Highlights include two nights in Santiago, a flight to Puerto Montt and Puerto Varas for a night, crossing the Andes through the Lake District from Chile to Argentina by boat and bus, then two nights in Bariloche, Argentina's premier mountain resort. Then you fly to Buenos Aires, where you spend four nights, with a day trip to the Pampas. On Day 11, you fly to the Iguazu Falls, where you spend one night before flying on to Rio, your base for three nights, a fitting end to your cross-continental tour. Cost of the trip is $2,499, which includes a savings of $400 off the regular price if you reserve before June 15, 2004. There are seven departures between August 1 and December 22, 2004. Contact Friendly Planet at www.friendlyplanet.com or at 800/555-5765 or fax 215/572-9803.

Have you traveled with any of these companies? We'd love to read about your experiences on Message Boards.