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Santiago (San-tee-AH’-goh) is 2305 km south of Arica, 3141 km north of Punta Arenas, 100 km from the Pacific coast, and 40 km from the Andean Cordillera border with Argentina with a population of six million (2004).

Looking at a map of Chile’s extraordinary dimensions, it becomes clear why defining a national character for the country seems an impossible task. Conversely, to appreciate the complexity of its capital city, Santiago de Chile, it is best not to look at a map that depicts its entirety in one glance for this región metropolitana of 155 square kilometers can appear quite overwhelming when it’s not.

Despite its size, Santiago exudes an aura of energy comparable only to a handful of cosmopolitan cities beyond South America: New York, London or Johannesburg, for example. One explanation for this is that this capital city, the center of the Chilean universe, is one of barrios—loosely defined as residential neighborhoods—spread along the valley of the Río Mapocho and into the Andean foothills. Any given block off either side of the bustling avenidas reveals a commercial and residential community comprised of aging villas and modern apartment blocks, venerable small business ventures and up-start, low-rise office buildings. Yet somehow it all blends comfortably.

This urban center is at once well-liked and disparaged by both residents and visitors. They celebrate its collection of eclectic characters and varied personalities but lament the challenges created by them. They praise its world-class amenities and laud its access to leisure activities but moan about heavy traffic and air pollution. Few recognize nor acknowledge its greatest and most visible asset, the Santiaguinos themselves.

With a predominantly Hispanic history, the people have developed a heritage of indigenous roots blended with immigration from Europe. Today, while Chileans recognize their geographical isolation, they remain unrelentingly connected to the rest of the world. They are savvy and sophisticated, educated and urbane, wealthy and poor, rabidly socialist and arrogantly elitist and everything in between.

Days in Santiago are long because while Chileans are hard-working, they also savor life. Midday meals are lengthy and evening meals are late. Evenings last far into the night; sleep is an annoying interference and mornings begin again slowly.

Above all, the people of Santiago—and by and large of Chile everywhere—are innately hospitable. This is a city that welcomes exploration and discovery. These are people with whom you can safely discuss politics, religion, or even fútbol.

Like every major world-class city, Santiago has a handful of “must-see” sites. If you are short of time, visit them by night, since the city is one of South America’s safest. They include: the two cerros (hills)—Cerro San Cristóbal, adjacent to Barrio Bellavista and Cerro Santa Lucía, on Avenida O’Higgins; historic el Centro, with its surviving buildings and plazas; la Moneda, the presidential offices; and the Mercado Central.

With limited daytime on hand, make sure to do the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino. If shopping is your mandate, budget an hour—and some pesos—for Los Domínicos. Time permitting, stroll Avenida Providencia between Avenida M. Montt, and Avenida Los Leones.

Long regarded as merely the base for adventure travelers heading elsewhere in Chile, Santiago today is a destination unto itself. Chileans welcome visitors with a broad range of accommodation ranging from charming hostales, hosterĂ­as, and residenciales to five-star multi-national hotels; and with restaurants catering to all tastebuds, they certainly aim to rival some of the finest establishments across the globe.

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