SANTIAGO, Chile — For first-time travelers to South America, Santiago, wedged between desert and mountain in a valley dotted with vineyards, is like a dip in a lukewarm pool--refreshing but not shocking. This is a soothing city, affordable and easy to get around in. And Chilean hospitality, renowned across the continent, lives up to its reputation.
U.S. skiers trying out any of Chile's best known slopes are less than 90 minutes from its urban delights. People are friendly and casual, shopping bargains abound, meals are accompanied by some of the continent's finest wine, and cultural attractions are many in the native land of two Nobel prize-winning poets, Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral.
Most people visit Santiago during its warm months from December to March. But the intense summer heat--hovering in the 90s for days--is too warm for some visitors and sends even residents fleeing into its many parks and pedestrian malls. Temperatures in the winter months, June through September, can drop to near freezing at night and daytime drizzle is common, but travelers with slickers or overcoats can explore the city comfortably.
"The advantage of Chile in the winter is that there are a lot of activities. . . ballet, theater, opera, just about anything you can imagine in a developed cultural center," said Marilyn Pugh, tour manager for LanChile Airlines.
Santiago's main square, the Plaza de Armas, is where the city was founded 449 years ago by ragged Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. The plaza was used for public floggings and hangings in colonial days, but now it's inhabited by shoeshine boys, vagrants, strolling couples and youngsters kicking soccer balls.
The square is bordered by Sanitago's fourth cathedral--earthquakes and fires destroyed the first three on the site--with its religious art museum, the pink post office building used as Chile's first presidential palace and the National Historical Museum, whose documents, furnishings and paintings trace the country's struggle for independence.
Tucked under the arches off the plaza is popular Chez Henry, a three-in-one stop with a delicatessan-wine shop, restaurant and nightclub. The deli clerks offer good advice on Chilean wines and the restaurant, crowded around the clock, specializes in Italian pastas and such Chilean dishes as pastel de choclo, a rich corn and meat casserole.
Two blocks away on Merced Street is an art collection that links Chile with its most unusual possession--Easter Island, 2,300 miles away in the Pacific Ocean. The Merced Church museum has wood carvings, ceramics and other artifacts from this volcanic island, whose famous huge stone statues, called moai, have fascinated archaeologists ever since they were discovered. (One moai has been transported to the grassy promenade of Avenida Libertador O'Higgins.)
The church museum also offers a crash course in Latin America's violently graphic, colonial religious art, including bloody statues covered by crystal bell jars. The bell jars, survivors of an ocean journey from Europe and Santiago's frequent earthquakes, originally displayed erotic objects--which religious Santiaguinos, as city residents are known, replaced with Christian images.
Downtown Santiago is cut by two pedestrian malls where bankers in dark suits and window shoppers with children in tow cross paths. The malls, Paseo Ahumada and Paseo Huerfanos, are lined with banks, currency exchange offices, travel agencies, airlines, shoe stores (great buys on leather), boutiques and pastry shops.
On Ahumada, the pungent smell of coffee is a tantalizing sign that Cafe Haiti or Cafe Caribe--the city's trendiest daytime stops--are near. Chile produces no coffee, making the real stuff a luxury. What most restaurants serve is instant Nescafe. At these stand-up counters, thick strong coffee is served by women outfitted in exotic jungle prints. Executives hash out business deals over cafe con leche (coffee with milk) .
Ahumada's landmark is Falabella, Santiago's biggest department store, just two blocks from the Plaza de la Libertad, or Liberty Square. The plaza, sided by the imposing Palacio de la Moneda, has become a symbol of modern Chile's darkest days.
Built as the Spanish royal mint and decried for its size and exorbitant cost, the austere structure serves as Chile's equivalent of the White House.
In 1973, during the democratic country's only military coup, President Salvador Allende was killed inside La Moneda by military forces under Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
When foreign journalists entered La Moneda earlier this year, for the first time in 16 years, they saw the bunker built secretly during Pinochet's reign. Now, with the military dictatorship gone and President Patricio Alywin installed by democratic vote, the carbine-carrying police are no longer intimidating. Chile's economy is stable and there is a relatively low crime rate.