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Chile's capital laughs now, revels in the fruits of its booming economy, and reaches out to the world that shunned it for much of the 1970s and '80s.

The unhealed scars, left by human-rights violations during the harsh dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, are hidden from view. Canadian-born author and journalist Lake Sagaris writes that this is a city where relatives still search for "names without bodies and bodies without names."But the casual visitor sees only the sidewalk cafes, elegant pedestrian malls, bustling streetscapes and pleasant parks.

Like Buenos Aires - which patterns itself after London even while sparring with Britain over the Falklands / Malvinas - Santiago seems more European than South American.

At times, rambling through this most walkable city, I wondered if the airplane had deposited me in Barcelona by mistake. This is a city on an upward spiral, a magnet for companies in search of easy profits.

During my visit in February - high summer below the Equator - the peaks of the nearby Andes formed a majestic backdrop. At other times, especially in winter, they trap exhaust fumes and disappear in a misty haze.

Santiago was founded in 1541 by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. But earthquakes have wiped out many of the original buildings. Today's city core is more 19th-century neoclassical than colonial. One of the oldest buildings is the San Francisco Church built between 1586 and 1618. An example of the colonial calicanto style, it has brick walls mortared together with a mixture of limestone, egg whites and sand.

Starting from the historic church, I toured Santiago's central core on foot with a group of Canadian tourists. The one landmark we all knew from television newscasts was La Moneda. Built as the country's mint in the late 18th century, the low, gray, stone building became the presidential palace in 1846.

Salvadore Allende, Chile's elected Marxist president, was in his office there when the building was stormed during a military coup on Sept. 11, 1973. The facade was ruined and Allende's body was found in the debris. "There were two versions about what happened to him," the guide told our group. "One is that he committed suicide. The other is that they helped him commit suicide, if you know what I mean."

Today, both the palace and Chilean democracy have been restored. Pinochet, who seized the reins of power after the coup, still lurks in the background as commander in chief of the armed forces. But he voluntarily relinquished political power in 1989 after losing the second of two plebiscites.

"People joked that voting `yes' meant you wanted Pinochet to continue and `no' meant you didn't want him to go," the guide said. "No one expected him to step down."

If La Moneda is the center of politics, the cathedral is the religious heart of this devoutly Catholic city. Started in 1748 and completed in 1979, the present cathedral replaces three earlier versions destroyed by fires or earthquakes. It faces the Plaza de Armas, the original Spanish colonial square. In the vast, dark interior, we saw penitents kneeling outside open confessionals, on public view as they sought pardon for their sins.

A more worldly businessman ignored them as he sauntered past, his ear glued to a cellular phone.

As our walking tour continued through crowded pedestrian streets, members of our group commented that the local populace seemed neatly dressed, that there were no beggars or street people, that they felt safe. Perhaps we let down our guard too much.

Late in the tour, two people discovered that their day packs had been slashed. One woman lost some cash and credit cards. It was the kind of petty street crime that happens everywhere these days, and I vowed not to let it mar my enjoyment of this city. I spent another day wandering its parks and promenades and encountered only smiles and hospitality.

My first stop, at the Pre-Columbian Art Museum, was far too brief. It houses 1,500 items including pottery, jade, gold, obsidian, textiles and sculptures. Assembled from Mexico in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south, the treasures showcase cultures that flourished before the arrival of Europeans.

Spanish language signboards, with English translations available in booklet form, trace how ideas and design concepts spread from society to society. A full day would have been required to take it all in. Instead, I was lured outdoors where the entire city seemed to be playing hooky to enjoy the summer sunshine.

A ride on Santiago's modern subway system and a short walk took me to the funicular, a steep-incline railway with a stand-up passenger compartment. It whisked me up Cerro San Cristobal - a spur of the Andes that thrusts its way into the city. From the summit, Santiago lay spread out below my feet. But I was dwarfed in turn by the giant sculpture of the Virgin Mary that has stood guard over the city since 1908.

I descended San Cristobal by a different, but equally enjoyable, mode of transportation. This time I took the teleferico, a gondola car ride that skims the treetops. Back on the city's lower level, I wandered through an outdoor sculpture garden beside the mud-brown Mapocho River, then crossed to the Providencia district with its cluster of art galleries, cinemas, theatres and restaurants.

At the corner of Avenida Sueca and General Holley, every building seemed to house a mock-English pub. I lunched well on the sidewalk patio of the Old Boston Pub. By midafternoon, my wanderings brought me to the monumental Alemana fountain. Donated by the city's German community in 1910, it was meant as a solemn tribute to mark the centenary of Chile's independence. But on this day, it had become an impromptu water park. Dozens of children were clambering up the feet of the heroic bronze figure, representing the spirit of Chile, and plunging into the ornamental pool below. I longed to join them in spite of the signs prohibiting swimming because of additives in the water.

I had no desire, however, to join the teenage daredevils at Cerro Santa Lucia, who had found a different way to cool off. Scrambling up a sheer rocky cliff, they were diving into a tiny pool of water far below. Santa Lucia is one of the delights of downtown Santiago. It's a fantastically landscaped park laid out in the 1870s on the steep slopes of what was once a barren rocky mound. Today it is studded with fountains, sculptures, monumental steps, secluded walkways, quiet gardens, noisy gathering places and panoramic lookout points.

A statue atop Santa Lucia honors Lautaro, the rebel leader of Chile's native Mapuche people. He captured Santiago's founder, Pedro de Valdivia, in battle and had him executed in 1554. Taking an even-handed view of the battle, Santiago pays tribute to de Valdivia a few blocks away with a giant equestrian statue in the city's central square.

Little evidence of Mapuche culture remains in Santiago, but many of the city residents carry both Spanish and native genes. Other European bloodlines, including British and German, are also part of the ethnic mix. Even national hero Bernardo O'Higgins, who helped lead Chile to independence in 1810, was the illegitimate son of a Spanish army officer with Irish roots.

In late afternoon, I made a rush taxi trip to Bellavista where a row of shops specialize in handicrafts made of lapis lazuli, a semi-precious deep blue stone found only in Chile and Afghanistan. That took care of shopping for my wife and two daughters in one swoop. In the evening, when the temperature had dropped, I joined a friend for dinner in El Bosque, another of Santiago's many restaurant and night-spot areas.

From a variety of ethnic options, all with sidewalk patios, we chose Munchen, a German eatery.

Visitors with a free day to venture beyond Santiago proper can relax on the beaches of Vina del Mar in summer or ski the slopes of the Andes in winter. Excursions to the vineyards of the Maipo Valley are also popular. I took a half-day bus excursion to one of the 10 Concha y Toro wineries that are scattered throughout Chile. They were founded in 1883 with vines brought from France. The one I toured at Pirque, had 45,000 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon stored in its "Devil's Cellar."

The name was introduced a century ago by a vineyard owner who hoped it would intimidate workers who were pilfering the wine cellar.

Heading to the airport for my flight home, I noticed a billboard that had first attracted my attention on my arrival. It's a catchy advertisement for Cristal beer, but to me it sums up the spirit of Santiago - at once businesslike, friendly and full of fun.

"Hello - Allo," it reads.

"Friend - Amigo. Beer - Cristal."



If you go . . .

Getting there:

Lan Chile Airlines flies to Santiago from New York, Miami and Los Angeles. American Airlines has flights from Miami.


Hotel Plaza San Francisco is a first-class hotel with a central location adjacent to the San Francisco Church and within walking distance of the subway and most downtown landmarks. Rates are $200 (U.S.) single, $220 double. The phone number is 011-56-2-6393832. For a listing of other hotels, check the Internet at http://www.chilehotels.com/santiago.htm.


"Chile & Easter Island," a travel survival kit, Alan Samagalski, Lonely Planet Publications; "Chile, A Remote Corner on Earth," Turismo & Comunicaciones, Santiago, available in English-language bookstores in Santiago; "After the First Death: A Journey Through Chile, Time, Mind," Lake Sagaris, Somerville House Publishing, Toronto.