A thriving city of more than six million people, Santiago has finally recovered from a difficult period in its long history. In contrast to some nations in Latin America, Chile had a long tradition of peaceful democratic rule and was prosperous, thanks to its rich deposits of nitrates and copper. But on September 11, 1973, a bloody military coup appointed Augusto Pinochet as head of the government. Pinochet's was a reign of terror, with opponents tortured or put to death. Thousands of Chileans were expelled or fled the country to escape the regime. While the wealthy prospered, unemployment and poverty soared during his 17-year reign. Pinochet was finally ousted in 1988, and order and democracy have returned. The many new buildings being erected show that Santiago is flourishing under a stable and progressive government.
This is a sprawling city with a narrow river wandering through it, but with a good look at a map, it is easy to get your bearings. Centro is the downtown area and the oldest part of Santiago. The artistic enclave of Bellas Artes and some unexpected neighborhoods within might make you think you had stumbled into Paris or Rio; streets are busy and filled with dozens of buses. History is found in the Spanish Colonial buildings in the leafy Plaza de Armas and the stately Civic Quarter; the grandest European-style buildings, including the Municipal Theatre, the National Library and the Palace of Fine Arts, were built after Chile gained its independence in 1818. The funky Bellavista quarter and the big Metropolitan Park are just to the north of downtown, across the River Mapocho.
Modern Santiago is growing to the east. That's where you will find Providencia, an area with wide streets and lovely homes; it's a popular place to stay because it is walkable and features many shops and restaurants. Further east, Vitacura is home to gourmet dining and to the Boulevard Alonso de Cordova, where the city's most exclusive designer shops are found. Posh new condominiums and lavish shopping malls are beyond in the Las Condes district.
With historic squares, broad avenues, modern buildings, green parks, tempting shops, wonderful restaurants and diverse neighborhoods, Santiago begs to be explored.
A word of caution: Watch out for your belongings. Though generally safe, Santiago, like most big cities, has areas where thefts occur. Be careful when visiting the Plaza de Armas and Bellavista areas, and avoid walking around these neighborhoods at night.
--written by Eleanor Berman