Are there any cities with a more dramatic setting than Santiago?
Fringed by craggy, 20,000-foot peaks cloaked in snow, Chile's capital and largest city affords views of the magnificent Andes Mountains from just about anywhere in town -- and offers a good deal more, such as good food and drink, Spanish colonial heritage buildings, a sparkling central business district, a stylishly bohemian drinking and dining district and bracingly good modern architecture.
Santiago is typically a short stopover for travelers from North America, and that's understandable, if outdated. Chile is blessed with spectacular natural attractions such as the mountains and fjords of Patagonia in the far south and the world's driest salt desert in the far north. In their haste to explore wild nature, visitors pop in and out of Santiago's international airport and skip over the city.
More's the pity. Fueled by a turbo-charged market economy, Santiago and Chile have shaken off the cultural torpor and violent political repression of the Pinochet dictatorship, which ended in 1990. With nearly 6 million of Chile's 15 million people, Santiago is the showcase for Chile's extreme makeover.The Andes, maybe 20 miles distant, are dazzling -- when smog, another less desirable consequence of Chile's recent reinvention, doesn't hide them. The smog is worst in winter. But by visiting in late September, on the cusp of the Southern spring, my wife and I were able to get clear mountain views.
We enjoyed an Andean panorama from expansive, gently curved, floor-to-ceiling windows in our room at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, itself reinvented and rebranded from its earlier incarnation as a Hyatt Regency. The Grand Hyatt rises above an upscale shopping and café-hopping neighborhood, easily accessed from the airport by an expressway bordered in springtime by a blooming profusion of cheery, orange-red California poppies.