How to best explore Santiago, located smack in the middle of the 6,000-kilometre-long shoestring that comprises Chile, in only 24 hours? I faced a challenge.
Under an azure sky, we set off, and drove up
San Cristobal Hill passing cyclists, joggers, and pedestrians, reaching the gleaming white statue of the Virgin, surrounded by parkland and which can also be reached by funicular. Panoramas of the city and Andes foothills spread out before us with the 64-storey, 300-metre-high
Costanera Centre skyscraper, the continent's tallest edifice, lording it over the city. A slight haze hung over the valley, as Santiago is known for its smog
We lunched at an outdoor patio in the fashionable Lastarria district. The waitress brought platters of delicious ceviche, fried Conger eel, and pulmay, a stew of mussels, pork, potato and lamb. The food was washed down by Sauvignon Gris, Merlots and Carmeneres. An unusual feature - our chairs had clips to secure purses and backpacks from being snatched.
We hastened to the historic centre. Everywhere Spanish architecture and history abounded, reaching back to 1542 when Santiago was founded. Sadly, much of the Plaza de Armas, the heart of the historic section, was cordoned off for repairs. But the mighty Santiago de Compostela Cathedral was open, and we wandered in the dark coolness. We viewed La Moneda Palace (the president's place) with its expansive parade ground and soldiers guarding the entrance. We followed crowded pedestrian ways to the Congress, with its tall white columns. Then we wandered amongst the stalls of the
Central Mercado smelling exotic spices, meats and cheeses amidst a kaleidoscope of colourful woolen scarves and handicrafts. No wonder National Geographic rated it as one of the top ten markets in the world.
A quick walk through the chic Bella Vista area, we enjoyed vibrant life amongst the art galleries, bars, and cafes. As dusk falls, young people head for this area, seeking fun, the opposite sex and lively night life.
We admired the expansive parks, all containing many statues, and returned to our hotel along one of the broad boulevards lining the Mapocho River, which bisects the city landscape.
From my 10th-storey hotel window, I viewed bustling activity on Providencia Avenue below. The brassy sound of a mariachi band sounded from a square as commuters flowed like ants to and from the entrance to the subway. Businessmen were dressed in dark suits. Ladies, chic and attractive with dark, sensuous Spanish features. I could see and feel that Chile has a thriving economy, considered the most dynamic in South America.
My best memories are of the fine
Chilean wine. At W Santiago Hotel's Noso Restaurant, superb Sauvignon Blancs and Cabernet Sauvignons flowed endlessly during a gourmet dinner. Then we headed to Bocanariz, a wine bar in the trendy Lastarria barrio, reputed to serve every wine produced in Chile. I sampled their best seller, a Pinot Noir Refugio 2012, produced by Montsecano y Copains winery. Cherry-red in colour, it exuded spicy, fruity and earthy aromas.
The sommelier suggested we visit the
Casa Blanca Valley wine region, only 40 minutes away. It has about 20 wineries and produces Chile's best white wine. At the Casona Veramonte winery, for example, we could sample cool chardonnays while gazing at green vineyards marching up the dry, brown slopes of the Andes foothills. Sadly our schedule didn't allow this tempting side trip.
Visitors with more time can also visit
Valparaiso, a UNESCO heritage city, situated on the coast a mere 1.5 hour drive away. You can wander amongst multi-coloured houses, numerous art galleries and coffee houses, enjoying the bohemian atmosphere and laid-back pace of life. Chile's politicians recognized Valparaiso's insouciance and in 1990 moved the national Congress here from the capital.
Valparaiso's New Year’s party is famous and an extravagant fireworks display lights up the sky.
We didn't make the trip, but for those who love the heady crispness of alpine air, four ski centres lie about 60 kilometres to the east, offering steep snow in winter and hiking and mountain biking amongst flower-bedecked slopes in summer.
Boarding the plane, my head was spinning. I had discovered, in a rush, that Santiago is an exciting, vibrant city with too much to see in only 24 hours.