I am in Santiago, Chile, for the Society of American Travel Writers annual convention, after which there will be no more meetings, no more banquets and no more speeches, but opportunities to visit outlying parts of the country. Chilean officials keep referring to the country’s climatic and geographic diversity. As an illustration, a map of Chile overlaid on a map of North America, with the southern end of Chile on top of San Diego, the northern tip would stretch all the way to Prudhoe Bay.
Chile, now led by Michelle Bachelet, a democratically elected woman prime minister, has emerged from the long, dark shadow cast by former (and still jailed) dictator Augusto Pinochet, is proud of its robust economy, growing sophistication and personal liberties. Nowhere is this more evident than in Santiago, where some 5.5 million Chileans live. It’s just the start of out visit, but here are some initial impressions of Santiago:
- The official bird of Santiago is the construction crane. Buildings are going up all over. Many are dramatic. Most apartments sprout small balconies, and most balconies sprout flowers and greenery.
- Civic improvements include a new airport terminal and a number of new roadways, including a lengthy tunnel literally under the Mapocho River. The river is a concrete-lined culvert, made more attractive by several parks along its banks. I’ve read that it has long been heavily polluted both with household and industrial effluent, but the government has undertaken clean-up efforts and built wastewater treatment plants.
- The parts of the city that tourists are likely to visit are relatively litter-free, but graffiti blights many of the best old buildings.
- At this time of year (October = spring), mornings are foggy, but the sun usual comes out in the afternoon. Perhaps this Mendocino-type climate is why the wines grown nearby in the Maipo Valley are so good.
- Local chefs do not seem at all concerned with sustainable seafood harvesting. Salmon often come from fish farms. Chilean sea bass is served all the time, though someone has told me that the Patagonia toothfish that appears on US menus as Chilean sea bass is not the same as sea bass in Chile.