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Santiago Set on a wide plain near the foot of the Andes, Santiago boasts one of the most dazzling backdrops of any capital city in the world.
The views onto the towering cordillera after a rainstorm has cleared the air are magnificent, especially in winter when the snow-covered mountains rise behind the city like a giant white rampart against the blue sky.
Unfortunately, such vistas are few and far between, as these same mountains prevent winds from shifting the air trapped over the plain, leaving it thickly polluted with diesel fumes.
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As a result, Santiago is frequently covered by a dense blanket of smog through which the Andes can be only dimly perceived - a smudged, tantalizing shadow of their real selves.
The city itself is a great, sprawling metropolis of five million people - that's more than a third of the population of Chile - which is divided into thirty-two autonomous comunas , most of them squat, flat suburbs, stretching ever further out from the centre. Downtown Santiago, in contrast, is compact and manageable, and while not exactly beautiful has a pleasant, enjoyable atmosphere, especially when the sun shines and all of life pours out onto the streets.
Part of its appeal comes from the fact that it's so green: tall, luxuriant trees fill the main square and line the river bank, and exotically landscaped parks provide instant refuge from the traffic-choked roads. Its architecture is a mixed bag, with a number of splendid colonial mansions, palaces and churches surviving among the otherwise dingy arcades and office blocks knocked up in the Seventies. A short bus ride east, however, in the comunas of Providencia and Las Condes , you're in a glittering world of glass-plated sky-scrapers and international hotels, reflecting the economic boom of the last decade.
Santiago is not a city that demands major sightseeing, and you can get round many of its attractions on foot in two or three days - a walk around the compact downtown core might take in the changing of the guard at the Palacio de la Moneda , the excellent Museo de Arte Precolombino , a look inside the evocative Museo Colonial and a climb up Cerro Santa Lucía , while less strenuous activities could include lunch at the exhilarating Mercado Central , or just sitting in the Plaza de Armas with an ice cream and a book. North of downtown, on the other side of the Mapocho river, it's an easy funicular ride up Cerro San Cristóbal whose summit provides unrivalled views for miles around.
At its foot, barrio Bellavista is Santiago's "Latin quarter", replete with small cafés and restaurants and the former house of Pablo Neruda , now an intriguing museum. West of the centre, the once glamorous barrios housing Santiago's moneyed classes at the turn of the century make rewarding, romantic wanders, and contain some splendid old mansions, including the sumptuous Palacio Cousiño . Moving east into the barrios altos , the tone is newer and flasher, and there's less to draw you out here; notable exceptions, however, include the beautiful Museo de Artes Decorativos , and the highly enjoyable market at Los Dominicos .
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