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Destination: Santiago
Seis Continentes / Fall 2000

By Larry Luxner

SANTIAGO -- Home to more than a third of Chile's 14 million people, Santiago ranks as the fifth-largest metropolis in South America (after São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Lima).

It is also one of the most polluted, due to the presence of thousands of cars, buses and factories within Santiago's municipal limits. But on smog-free days, the city's 4.5 million inhabitants enjoy magnificent views of the snow-capped Andes -- less than 100 kilometers away.

Although Santiago was founded in 1541 by Pedro de Valdivia, its historic zone is small relative to other South American capitals such as Bogotá, Quito and Lima. Most of the important colonial buildings can be seen in a one-day walking tour of the central area between the Río Mapocho and Avenida Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins, a wide boulevard known by locals as the Alameda.

The heart of the colonial city is the Plaza de Armas, a wide square to the west of which lie the Cathedral and the archbishop's palace. The rebuilt Cathedral contains a wooden statue of St. Francis Xavier, as well as the chandelier which lit the first meetings of Congress after Chile's independence in the early 19th century. A block west of the cathedral is the former Congress building now occupied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Congress has since moved to the Pacific port city of Valparaiso).

The streets around this area form the nucleus of Santiago's old business district. The headquarters of Chile's state-owned copper conglomerate, Codelco, can be found here, along with government ministries, outdoor chess tournaments and shopping arcades. It's also home to places like Café Haití and El Baron Rojo -- busy establishments famous for their beautiful young waitresses clad only in high heels and lingerie serving coffee and hot chocolate -- in the middle of the day.

One of Santiago's most colorful sights is La Moneda, the presidential palace built in 1805, where changing of the guard ceremonies entertain tourists and locals alike. Although La Moneda was damaged by air attacks during the 1973 coup that overthrew President Allende and installed Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the palace has since been fully restored.

The Alameda runs through the heart of Santiago for over two miles; along its length can be found several statues of Generals O'Higgins and San Martín, as well as the University of Chile, the Crowne Plaza Santiago, the beautiful Cerro Santa Lucia park and the new, steel-and-glass headquarters of Chilean telecom provider CTC, which was completed last year and bears a remarkable resemblance to a giant cellular phone, the undisputed symbol of Chile's yuppie class.

The Bellavista district, on the north bank of the Río Mapocho at the foot of Cerro San Cristóbal, comes alive at night, with trendy bars, restaurants and discotheques. It's also the home of art galleries specializing in lapislazuli, a semi-precious blue stone found only in two countries: Chile and Afghanistan.

East of Plaza Baquedano, Santiago's main east-west axis becomes Avenida Providencia, which heads out towards the city's leading residential and business areas, among them Las Condes and Vitacura. One of Chile's largest shopping malls, Plaza Arauco, can be found along Avenida Kennedy, not far from the future home of a 55-story office tower and residential complex which will rank as one of the tallest skyscrapers in South America.

Here are some attractions that shouldn't be missed during your visit to Santiago:

* CERRO SANTA LUCIA -- a cone of rock rising steeply to a height of 70 meters and famous for its statues, mini-waterfalls and spectacular views of the city.

* MUSEO HISTÓRICO NACIONAL -- a museum off the Plaza de Armas which covers Chile's history from the Spanish conquest until 1925.

* MAPOCHO RAILWAY STATION -- a former rail terminal recently converted into a cultural center.

* LASTARRIA -- a neighborhood famous for its funky bookstores, antique shops and handicrafts.

* CERRO SAN CRISTÓBAL -- part of the Parque Metropolitano, a huge hill overlooking Santiago and accessible either by car or teleférico.

* MUSEO DE ARTE COLONIAL -- a museum chock-full of religious paintings, many of the life of St. Francis. It's located on Calle Londres right next to the Iglesia San Francisco, one of the oldest churches in Chile.

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