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 Cristóbal if there's a break in the brown smog that often blankets the Chilean capital in winter.
San Cristóbal provides the best vantage point from which to see a 20,000-foot ridge of the Andes that overlooks the city from the east.
FOR THE RECORD
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.
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 Benítez 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 Río Mapocho to Barrio Bellavista.
That's where I boarded the rickety wooden funicular that rattles its way up the lush hillside of Cerro San Cristóbal.
The 72-foot-high white plaster statue of La Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción, 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.
The start of evening Mass was a cue to all three of us to leave. It was nearly 5 p.m., and I was faced with the tourist's quandary: What to do until dinner? Santiaguinos, like Spaniards, tend to eat late. Many restaurants don't even open until 8. After our overnight flight, I had no problem figuring out what to do: return for a nap to our hotel, the InterContinental (a fine hotel for a business traveler but one that conveys little of its host country).
On subsequent days we discovered that the more popular activity is an extended cocktail hour.
Over an introductory round of pisco sours, Claudia and Pilar, colleagues of Stacie's, treated us to rapid-fire insights on their native land, including our luck with the view of the city. Their choice of wines, a Santa María Gran Reserva Cabernet to complement our Patagonian lamb shanks at the trendy Astrid y Gastón, disabused us of the persistent myth that the best Chilean wines are routinely exported.
An hour or so later, the bill persuaded us that the cost of dining in Santiago really is as reasonable as reported: only about $15 per entree at this top-notch spot.
Despite my fatigue the next morning, there was no time to sleep in, at least not if I wanted to catch the every-other-day changing of the guard at 10 a.m. at Plaza de la Constitución. A quick cup of coffee had to suffice as I rumbled back downtown by way of Santiago's remarkably efficient and aesthetically pleasing subway.
I needn't have rushed. After goose-stepping their way menacingly into the plaza, the brown wool-uniformed army regiment stood around ill at ease and doing nothing discernible for the next 30 minutes. Just when I had concluded that they were going to stay that way indefinitely, the 50-piece band broke into a quick and quirky medley of international tunes, including "Yankee Doodle" and "Dixie."
Purging the past?
After the 15-minute show, I made my way inside the recently restored white stucco Palacio de la Moneda. It was built to house the royal mint in 1805 (hence the name, "palace of the currency"), until the balustraded neoclassical fortress was converted into the presidential palace in 1846.
It was here on Sept. 11, 1973, that Pinochet overthrew President Salvador Allende. It's unknown whether the president then committed suicide or was killed by the military.
The only uniforms to be seen today adorn the various groups of schoolchildren, who make wishes by tossing coins over their shoulders into the fountain of the Courtyard of the Oranges and pose for photos with the smiling guards.
Back out in the grass-covered Plaza de la Constitución, I noticed the telltale ventilation shafts that supplied the extensive underground bunker Pinochet had excavated so no one could overthrow him. An avuncular-looking bronze statue of Allende smiles down on the site of his death. Etched on the plinth are his alleged dying words, "I will always have faith in Chile's destiny."
Outside the former Congreso Nacional, another elegant whitewashed neoclassic edifice (Pinochet moved his residence and the congress out of Santiago to minimize the danger of insurrection), I checked with a guard to make sure photos were permitted. "Of course," he said, a backward flip of the hand indicating that the question was insulting.
By now I was beginning to think those bad old days were a figment of my imagination -- or more accurately had been purged from the public record.
But in the former Palacio de la Real Audiencia, now the extensive must-see Museo Histórico Nacional, an entire room is devoted to a straightforward photographic depiction of Chile's troubled years, done in much the same way that many an American museum treats the issue of slavery.
I spent another hour looking at the paintings, furniture, artifacts and dioramas that cover the eras of Mapuche Indian civilization, the Spanish conquest, the colonial hacienda economy, the war of independence and Chile's development.
On the sun-drenched Plaza de Armas again, I heard a band entertaining a lunchtime crowd. I headed over to one of the stand-up lunch counters on the colonnaded southern side, where I negotiated an order of empanadas and a bottle of Cristal, the national beer.
I advanced a little too closely to a silver-painted robotic mime, who pivoted like a hot-wired Tin Man. He fixed me with his silver ray gun and embarrassed me into a donation.
I beat a hasty retreat to the Casa Colorada, an 18th century hacienda, built for Chile's first president but now housing the Museo de Santiago. A series of amateurish dioramas depicts various scenes from the city's early days, including the devastating earthquake of 1647. The only building to have survived that quake is San Francisco church, Santiago's most historic and revered landmark.
A handful of conspicuous but patient beggars waited in the stone doorway for the spirit of charity to overtake those stepping inside its cool shadows to perform their daily devotions.
As I shuffled along the wooden floor on the way to La Virgen del Socorro, I noticed a brass plaque denoting the site where, in 1987, Pope John Paul II "pronounced an eloquent discourse in correct Spanish." Only later did it dawn on me that the plaque was in English.
Back out on the bustling Avenida del Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins (named for the Chilean-born son of an Irish-born colonial governor), it was rush-hour pandemonium. Denim-clad students from the adjacent Universidad de Chile jostled with suited businessmen from the nearby financial district, each doing their best to sidestep the sidewalk food and merchandise vendors who were not so inadvertently blocking their way. Away from the pedestrian surge, the limpiabotas (shoeshine men) were doing a brisk business.
A mosaic of suburbs
I was in a rush myself to get back to Bellavista, this time to shop for lapis lazuli along the Pío Nono, Bellavista's main drag, and to check out La Chascona, the quirky home that equally quirky Chilean Nobel poet laureate Pablo Neruda built for his third wife, Matilde Urrutia. I passed up and over Cerro Santa Lucía, Santiago's lesser hilltop park, and then bypassed the Palacio de Bellas Artes in the riverside Parque Forestal, where Santiago's shortage of public facilities leads to some distinctly non-Kodak moments.
Until its gastronomic supremacy was usurped -- first by Providencia, the fashionably exclusive neighborhood just north of downtown, and more recently by Las Condes, home of corporate and international business -- colorful Bellavista (many of its low-slung buildings are brightly -- if not garishly -- painted) was the only place to go for a spirited evening out. But for my money, overseas visitors are better served at the Mercado Central, the wrought iron and glass superstructure that was built in Victorian England and shipped to republican Chile.
Inside its towering Romanesque confines are several seafood restaurants, including the widely known Donde Augusto, all of which are freshly supplied by the adjacent seafood market.
Among the local delicacies (the Pacific is only 75 miles west) waiting to be sampled are congrio frito (fried conger eel), choritos (mussels) and machas (razor clams).
The next day we took advantage of what is perhaps Santiago's greatest touristic asset: its central location. We chose Valparaíso, the crusty old whaling port built on no fewer than 45 hills, and Viña del Mar, modern Chile's polite response to Nice, France.
The weather couldn't have been nicer.
Back at the airport the next evening, we could still see those impressive snow-covered Andes, glowing cold pink in the last reflected light of yet another sunny Chilean day. Santiago had, indeed, lived up to its lofty potential.
Marshall S. Berdan is a writer in Alexandria, Va.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times