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By Hans Tammemagi
For Travel Writers' Tales

I faced a challenge. How could I explore Santiago, located smack in the middle of the 6,000-kilometre-long shoestring that comprises Chile, in only 24 hours?

Under an azure sky I headed up San Cristobal Hill to the gleaming white statue of the Virgin, a religious and visual focal point of the city. Surrounded by parkland and accessible by funicular, the site is popular, drawing walkers, bikers, and picnickers. Panoramic views of the city and Andes foothills lay before me with the 64-storey, 300-metre-high Costanera Centre skyscraper-the continent's tallest edifice-towering over the rest of the city.

Costanera Centre dominates downtown Santiago

An outdoor patio full of colourful umbrellas in the fashionable Lastarria district called for a lunch break: platters of delicious ceviche, fried Conger eel, and pulmay, a stew of mussels, pork, potato and lamb, and a choice of Sauvignon Gris, Merlots and Carmeneres. An unusual feature: the chairs had clips to prevent purses and backpacks being snatched.

At the Plaza de Armas, the balconies and columns of Spanish architecture reflected the city's long history, reaching back to its founding in1542. The mighty Santiago de Compostela Cathedral was open and I gazed at the vast ceiling and ornate design while enjoying its dark coolness.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

A short walk led to La Moneda Palace (the president's place) fronted by an expansive parade ground and guarded by soldiers in crisp light and dark brown uniforms. Pedestrian walkways flanking teeming streets, took me to the former National Congress building with its tall white columns and lush gardens.

La Moneda Palace

Next up was the Central Mercado where I was surrounded by the aromas of exotic spices, meats and cheeses; in another section a kaleidoscope of colourful woolen scarves and handicrafts were on display. No wonder National Geographic rates it as one of the top ten markets in the world.

The chic Bella Vista area offered me a glimpse into its vibrant lifestyle as I passed by art galleries, bars and cafes. As dusk falls, young singles and couples head for this area, seeking fun amidst its lively night life.

On the way back to my hotel I strolled along the tree-lined avenues of the Park Forestal, one of several green spaces lining the Mapocho River, and lingered to admire the many statues donated by other nations in honour of Chile's 100th anniversary of independence from Spain.

From my 10th-storey hotel window while preparing for dinner, I could see bustling activity on Providencia Avenue below. The brassy sound of a mariachi band sounded from a square as commuters swarmed like ants to and from the entrance to the subway. Businessmen were dressed in dark suits; women, with dark, sensuous Spanish features, were attractively chic. I could see and feel Chile's thriving economy, considered the most dynamic in South America.

One of my best memories is of fine Chilean wine and superb cuisine. Chileans dine late, so I arrived at W Santiago Hotel's Noso Restaurant after 9 pm. My salmon ceviche, pumpkin soup with prawns, and ribs dripping with a succulent barbeque sauce was accompanied by an excellent Sauvignon Blanc.

Speaking of wines, Bocanariz, a wine bar in the trendy Lastarria barrio reputedly serves 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. So nice!

Bocanariz Wine Bar

The sommelier suggested a visit to the Casa Blanca Valley wine region, just 40 minutes away. It has about 20 wineries and produces Chile's best white wine. My group could have sampled cool chardonnays while gazing at green vineyards marching like platoons of soldiers up the dry, brown slopes of the Andes foothills. Sadly, however, our schedule didn't allow for this tempting side trip.

Visitors with more time might also consider visiting Valparaiso, a UNESCO heritage city situated on the coast, a mere 1.5 hour drive away. Famous for its multi-coloured houses, numerous art galleries and coffee houses, it enjoys a bohemian, laid-back pace of life. Chile's politicians 'voted' for Valparaiso's in 1990 by moving the national Congress here from Santiago.

A short drive to Casona Veramonte Winery

Although we didn't make the trip, for those who love the 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.

On departing, my head was spinning: I'd discovered that Santiago is an exciting, dynamic city with too much to rush through in a mere 24 hours.


Currency: 1 Canadian $ = 521 Chilean pesos
Electricity: Chile uses 220 Volts. Bring a transformer & type C or L plug adapter with two or three in-line, round pins.

For more information:

Chile Information:

Santiago Information:

Casa Lastarria Restaurant:

Torremayor Hotel:

Bocanariz Wine Bar:

W Santiago Hotel, Noso Restaurant:

PHOTOS - As accredited below:

1. Costanera Centre dominates downtown Santiago; credit Hans Tammemagi
2. Santiago de Compostela Cathedral; credit Hans Tammemagi
3. La Moneda Palace; credit Hans Tammemagi
4. Bocanariz Wine Bar; credit Turismo Chile
5. A short drive to Casona Veramonte Winery; credit Turismo Chile

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