SANTIAGO, Chile — The Chilean capital is spread across a broad valley rimmed by mountains, most spectacularly the snowcapped Andes in the east. Other ranges add to the drama and with the Andes encircle Santiago.
It helps to have an elevated vantage point to visualize all this, and so it was that my press group visited San Cristobal, the hilltop site of Santiago’s 21,000-acre Metropolitan Park. From here, our guide Carlos pointed out the neighborhoods. He also advised that the government has stopped the city’s continued spread, forcing more development within the existing city’s confines.
The Plaza de Armas anchors the city’s historic district. The 18th century Santiago Cathedral and related churchly things are on one side, with the post office, a museum and city hall on another side.
We found this a pleasant square with flower-filled carts, many places to sit, and tables where locals played chess.
An area stroll led naturally to La Moneda Presidential Palace, a sprawling former mint on the sterile-looking Constitution Square. This was ground zero for the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973 — on Sept. 11, as it happens. Our guide Carlos said Sept. 11 was also the date, in 1541, when the native Mapuche people destroyed the original Santiago settlement.
Carlos also told us the city (population: 7 million) has only five colonial buildings still standing. The poor showing
is due to earthquakes plus the fact the Spanish colonial overlords did not invest in Santiago because they were not extracting the good stuff here, such as gold and silver.
(I love trivia so cannot resist this: The Mapuche people were never defeated by Europeans, and the Mapuche and other languages so changed Spanish here that Chileans study standard Spanish in school and Chilean soap operas have to be translated for other South Americans.)
In any case, Santiago, for visitors, is more about the present than about the past. Tourists ski in the mountains or sample wines in neighboring valleys. Or, they focus on unique neighborhoods for their restaurants, cultural activities and nightspots. The Bellavista district is well known for its bohemian aura — and distinguished visually with brightly colored wall art.
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