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Up here in the United States, we sometimes tend to think of Latin America as being all-tropical, all-siesta, all-laid back. But then there's Chile, and especially Santiago, which might as well be a major European city for its moderate climate, frantic all-day traffic and cleanliness. Frequently acknowledged as one of South America's most beautiful cities, the place has its problems, too. Of the country's 15 million inhabitants, between four and six million live here (depending on how you figure the city proper, the metro area, and who's counting). An efficient subway system helps, but there are far too many cars and trucks jamming the roads. Then there's the air quality: Located in a river valley between two mountain ranges, Santiago has a lot of smog caused by thermal inversion, particularly in their winter months (June through August). On my trip, I was lucky most days and could see the glorious snow-capped Andes range to the city's east (the much lower Coastal range lies to its west).

I was surprised by the apparent homogeneity of the population, but perhaps should not have, as authorities say 95% of the people come from European backgrounds and only three per cent are denoted Amerindian. The climate being so moderate in Chile's Central Valley, where Santiago is located, evokes southern California more than Central America or other places nearer the equator. In fact, if you tipped Chile upside down and put it above the equator, this long, skinny country would range from around Baja California up to the Yukon, with Santiago somewhere around San Francisco, a lecturer demonstrated on a map while I was in that capital city recently.

Lastly, this may be a good time to visit Chile, as their tourism industry is not quite ready for primetime yet -- with some disorganization bordering on chaos -- so you'll be first among your neighbors to go there. Most of Chile's tourists come from Argentina and Peru, though the U.S. is a distant third, they told me.

Events

Look for these: January (fourth week) Folklore Festival in Santiago; September 18 is Independence Day, celebrating separation from Spain in 1810; November sees the International Wine Festival in Santiago.

Highlights

Downtown Santiago is where it's at, so head there first. The Civic Quarter includes the famous Government House (also known as Casa Moneda because it was formerly a mint) where the nation's president has her office. It's also the place where former President Allende was assassinated in September 1973 by his successor, the infamous General Augusto Pinochet. The interior courtyards have been open to the public since 2000, though on the day I tried to visit, they were closed because of a giant demonstration outside against the national education budget -- a good sign of democracy in action. (Metro: Moneda)

Not far away is the Plaza de Armas, the official center of the city, with its impressive cathedral and equally important and more attractive Central Post Office, both of which are National Monuments. (Metro: Plaza de Armas). One of the best museums of its type in South America is Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino where if you like the art you can buy a reproduction in the museum shop (Metro: Plaza de Armas). Nearby are the imposing Palacio de Bellas Artes, consisting of one museum for fine arts and another for contemporary arts. (Metro: Bellas Artes)

For an overview of the city, take the funicular up San Cristobal Hill. On top, you'll find a handicraft shop (the Torreon), a decent restaurant (Enoteca) and more. You can skip the zoo at the bottom of the funicular. (Metro: Baquedano) In Barrio Bellavista, try to visit La Chascona, one of three houses of poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda. (If you haven't read his poetry, you may have seen Il Postino, the award-winning film made in 1994 about his exile in Italy.) While interesting, this residence is not nearly as amazing as his house on Isla Negra, a suburb of Valparaiso on the ocean west of Santiago.

Some of Santiago's more colorful neighborhoods, all near Downtown, include the Paris y Londres district (home to several early 20th-century homes), the Concha y Toro district (where the eponymous wine-making company's owners had their town house) and Cerro Santa Lucía (a hill dotted with Art Deco and Belles Artes houses).

If your interests are political, check out the Legacy Tour, which retells the history of Chile up to "its historical climax" with the military coup by General Pinochet. You visit the Presidential Palace, the Pinochet Foundation, the General Cemetery (where memorials have been erected for coup victims), and the Villa Grimaldi, the principal torture center for the military regime until 1990 (which the U.S. helped erect). Price $65 per person, minimum six persons. Private tour is $95 for half day tour, $130 for full day. Backstage Tours, tel. 9/917-4670; www.backstagechile.com.

Activities

For sports fans, there's skiing in winter about an hour from Santiago at the world-famous slopes near Portillo and at other spots like the Valle Nevado. The rest of the year, you can spend 45 minutes getting to the Cajon del Maipo, with semi-arid landscapes, charming villages and hot springs -- not to mention rafting on the Maipo itself. In the Mapocho River Basin, you can visit the El Arrayan Nature Sanctuary, a great place of walking, biking, or paragliding; and the Yerba Loca Sanctuary, the latter with five trails, one leading up to the glaciers. On the ocean, just 75 miles west of Santiago, you can visit the resort cities of Viña del Mar and Valparaiso (the latter a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and former home to the poet Neruda.

Lodging

Reborn as the Hyatt Santiago in December of 2005, the former Hyatt Regency (Av. Kennedy 4601; tel. 2/950-1234; www.santiago.grand.hyatt.com).is a great place to stay if you want to have a mini resort on call, with a big and glorious outdoor swimming pool, well-equipped spa and two outstanding restaurants (Italian and Japanese), as well as a business center, gift shop and other luxury amenities. Although located next to a large shopping mall (the Parque Arauco), it's in a residential area and far enough from downtown to require taxi rides most of the time. (The city's nearest subway station, Escuela Militar, is about a 25-minute walk away.) There are 310 rooms, said to be the largest in the city (about 560 sq. ft.), each well furnished and boasting broadband Internet access, with rates starting at $145 per room.

Downtown, you can't go wrong with the Hotel Plaza San Francisco (La Alameda 816, tel. 2/639-3832; www.plazasanfrancisco.cl), across from the church of the same name and thus great for travelers, even though the hotel was designed with business people in mind. Among its amenities are an indoor (basement) pool, health club and restaurant.155 rooms from $135.

Dining Out

Entrees so popular they are almost "national dishes" include empanadas (pastry turnovers stuffed with meat and onions), farmed salmon in a variety of forms, and cazuelas (beef and veggie stew). Chileans apparently love their meat nearly as much as the neighboring Argentineans; large chunks of it served with skimpy portions of vegetables at important meals, for instance. But the glory of Chile remains its wonderful variety of wines, which I sampled a lot of on a recent trip. Although I prefer red wines most of the time, I found several whites to be exceptionally good. I'll cover this subject in a later article on Chile's Wine Country.

In the Bohemian district of Bellavista, where Pablo Neruda lived, the Patio Bellavista (www.patiobellavista.cl) is a large inner courtyard featuring some 80 restaurants and shops, they say (I didn't count). It's a recent inner-city project designed to bring life to a once-blighted neighborhood by opening up the centers of city blocks to mixed commercial and public space. Cuisines represented include Peruvian (with a cheerful Peruvian chef/owner), Mediterranean, Italian, and Arabic. There are also an art gallery, book & coffee shop, ice cream shop, handicraft stands and a dance school. The Patio calls itself "the first cultural and gastronomical center of Chile." (Metro: Baquenado Station).

Ibis, in an undistinguished shopping mall in the Borderio district, specializes in fish, including the newly-popular tilapia, with nearly four pages of finny dishes on the menu. I had a warm appetizer of Machas a la Parmesana (pink razor clams with melted cheese) at Pesos 5,900 ($11USD), Chupe de Jaivas (crab stew) at Pesos 5,800 (just under $11USD), both acceptable as part of a group offering. By the large crowds of other happy diners assembled, I got the impression I might have done better if I had ordered on my own. They're at Av. Monsenor Escriba de Balaguer 6400. The phone number unlisted, so ask your hotel concierge to help you find them. Maybe they want to be hard to find.

Shopping

Look for handicrafts at El Pueblito de los Domenicos, where there is more variety than anywhere else in the country. There are 180 workshops, a botanical garden and antique shops. If you can handle the bus system, take one along Avenida Apoquindo. Otherwise, get a taxi. Location: Apoquindo 9085. Another good spot for handicrafts is the Feria Santa Lucia, on the Alameda just across from Santa Lucia Hill. Heaven for souvenir seekers.

Contacts

Note that when you arrive in Chile, you have to pay a Reciprocal Fee of $100 (since we charge Chileans a similar amount to enter the U.S.), but that is good for the lifetime of your passport. The exchange rate for the peso (confusingly indicated in Chile by the $ sign) at time of writing was 530 pesos to the US dollar.

Good websites for additional information: the Chile Tourism Promotion Corporation's www.visit-chile.org; Santiago Tourism at www.ciudad.cl (Spanish only); Sportstour at www.sportstour.cl, the National Tourist Office (Sernatur) at www.gochile.cl.

Read more about planning a trip to Chile and what to do in Santiago from Frommers.com Destination guides.

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