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Destination: Chile

Now Santiago comes into focus

Its political turbulence past, the capital of South America's most prosperous country offers a taste of colonial Spain seasoned with its own distinctive spice.

January 19, 2003|Marshall S. Berdan | Special to The Times

Santiago, Chile — If there is one piece of advice that all tour guides in Santiago can agree on, it's this: Drop whatever you are doing and run -- don't walk -- up 534-foot Cerro San Cristobal if there's a break in the brown smog that often blankets the Chilean capital in winter.

San Cristobal provides the best vantage point from which to see a 20,000-foot ridge of the Andes that overlooks the city from the east.

It is my candidate for the most impressive natural backdrop to any major city in the world.

On the sodden, dreary August morning that my wife, Stacie, and I landed at Arturo Merino Benitez international airport, the prospects weren't encouraging for even seeing the city close up, much less from above.

But by noon there was a positive rift of azure in the late-winter sky. (Their seasons, remember, are the reverse of ours.) Heeding the advice about the hill, I abandoned my leisurely inspection of the Plaza Baquedano, Santiago's turn-of-the-century focal point, and high-tailed it over the turgid brown Rio Mapocho to Barrio Bellavista.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 13 inches; 470 words Type of Material: Correction
Santiago, Chile -- An article in the Jan. 19 Travel section incorrectly reported that Santa Teresa of the Andes was the first South American saint. Teresa was the first Chilean to be canonized. Rose of Lima (Peru) was canonized in 1671, more than 300 years before St. Teresa. The story also said that the Casa Colorada was built for Chile's first president. It was occupied by the governor during colonial days and was not occupied by the president until later.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 02, 2003 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 2 inches; 86 words Type of Material: Correction
Santiago, Chile -- A story in the Jan. 19 Travel section ("Now Santiago Comes Into Focus") incorrectly reported that Santa Teresa of the Andes was the first South American saint. Teresa was the first Chilean to be canonized. Rose of Lima (Peru) was canonized in 1671, more than 300 years before St. Teresa. The story also said that the Casa Colorada was built for Chile's first president. It was occupied by the governor during colonial days and was not occupied by the president until later.

That's where I boarded the rickety wooden funicular that rattles its way up the lush hillside of Cerro San Cristobal.

The 72-foot-high white plaster statue of La Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepcion, her arms outstretched imploringly, isn't as captivating as El Salvador del Mundo in Rio de Janeiro, and the sprawling Valle de Santiago, with its conspicuous lack of civil engineering order and green spaces, isn't as impressive as the Los Angeles Basin.

But the view is something else: majestic snowcapped mountains, burnished golden in the noon sun (and residual smog) and defining the eastern horizon as far as the pivoting eye can see.

I spent much of the afternoon taking in the lofty panorama from various vistas in the encompassing Parque Metropolitano, which was just beginning to blossom into pink, orange and yellow.

For the next four days, the skies over Santiago remained clear, giving Stacie, who was here on business, a chance to see the mountains for herself, and forever coloring our memories of the Chilean capital in the same crisp blue and white of the national flag. As nearly every Santiaguino we met pointed out, we were lucky indeed.

Santiago's Spanish roots

Chile also has been lucky of late. The dark days of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's repressive military dictatorship ended in 1990, and in the intervening decade the economy has risen to such new heights that Chile, the southernmost country in South America, has been invited to become part of the agreement that opens its borders to freer trade with the U.S. and others.

Given the recent problems in Argentina, the trans-Andean rival that used to compete for the title of South America's most prosperous and stable nation, Chile is the undisputed healthy man of the continent. Long and skinny Chile -- Santiago is about halfway down -- is a place where norteamericanos can feel safe and comfortable but have the satisfaction of knowing they are outside the cookie-cutter world.

Visitors may think they've landed in Spain. Chile was the first of Spain's South American colonies to win its independence, but both Santiago and the Santiaguinos are Iberian to the core and proud of it, muchas gracias.

I resumed my explorations at the expansive Plaza de Armas, where conquistador Pedro de Valdivia laid out the first permanent settlement in 1541. The plaza is still the heart of this sprawling modern city that's home to a third of Chile's 18 million people, and Santiaguinos from all 32 comunas, or neighborhoods, still congregate in the palm-lined and fountained square to eat and drink, be absolved or entertained or just pass the time.

With its wealth of colonial buildings, it's also a place to which many tourists gravitate. In the afternoon sun, recreation and relaxation are the orders of the moment. A sidewalk cafe had set up shop in the northwest corner, next to the portable galleries where itinerant artists displayed their landscapes and portraits.

In the center, children gamboled around an 18th century bronze well, and under shade trees at the eastern end, a respectful crowd of players and spectators clustered around rows of folding chess tables. Puffs of tobacco smoke dissipated in the air above the collage of men, united silently in their love of the game.

In front of the huge 19th century cathedral, a group of political satirists was getting good laughs and a steady flow of coins from a crowd. A pair of stern-looking mounted policemen ignored them.

The cathedral is another mixed-use venue. Supplicants and penitents may unburden themselves in a series of gilded chapels. Especially popular that afternoon was Santa Teresa de los Andes, canonized in 1993 (South America's first) and now the patron saint of Chile. A blanket of white and yellow plastic flowers enveloped her conspicuously placed altar. In the dark shadows behind the gilded main altar, I surprised a pair of lovers, who scrambled to feign interest in a musty Baroque marble sarcophagus.

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