Santiago rising

30 Nov 2009 by AndrewGough

Chile’s capital is dodging the economic crisis and drawing visitors from across the globe to its cosmopolitan streets, finds Felicity Cousins

White-tipped mountain peaks play with the clouds on the approach into Santiago. The Chilean capital is nestled in the foothills of the Andes, 520 metres above sea level, and looks like a secret city basking in the late afternoon sun.

Its geography, like that of the country itself, has shaped its character. Patricio Ihnen Klammer, director of public relations for Starwood Hotels and Resorts in Chile, says: “Chile is like an island because of the mountains on the east, the Pacific Ocean on the west, and its desert in the north. It’s quite cut off from the rest of the continent, so has a different world attitude.”

Paula Roempler, European manager for Turismo Chile, agrees. “Because of its geography and, historically, its island mentality, Chileans are not as outgoing as people in some other countries. But one thing you can always do is rely on them.” She adds: “The economic and political stability of Chile is good for doing business and the government is very open to new investment.”

For corporate travellers new to the city, its European feel may come as a surprise. Although Chile will celebrate 200 years of independence from Spain in September 2010, the old influences are still all around. Catalina Huidobro Tornvall, Turismo Chile’s press representative for Europe, says: “Santiago is very cosmopolitan so it is easy to do business here.”

Downtown is where you’ll find most of the colonial buildings, some dating back to 1572, as well as grand offerings such as the presidential palace on Constitution Square, but a lot of the older structures have been destroyed by earthquakes over the years (Chile lies on both the Nazca and South American plates).

The city is also well connected. The airport is about 30 minutes’ drive from the centre, traffic permitting, and although no airlines fly direct from the UK since BA left the route a few years ago, Chilean airline Lan, flies daily from Madrid. It completed the roll-out of its new business and economy product on long-haul flights in May, and has good connections from Santiago for onward travel throughout South America. Air France (via Paris) and Iberia (via Madrid) are also options.

Chile has the highest internet usage in South America, and in Santiago you’ll find free wifi in metro stations and many cafés. This is in keeping with the city’s modern infrastructure – the metro has five lines, more than 100 stations and transports upwards of two million people a day. There are huge, glossy shopping malls and top restaurants, as well as chains such as Starbucks and McDonald’s.

From the top of Cerro Santa Lucia, where Pedro de Valdivia founded Chile in 1541, you can get a good idea of the size of the city. Take the winding road through the parkland with its native monkey puzzle trees and snoozing dogs, or jump on the funicular train to the top. The city’s main street, Providencia, runs from east to west, and while much of the business is focused around here, most of Santiago’s seven million residents live far out in the hazy distance. “Chileans like to live in houses [as opposed to tower blocks], so the city is expanding outwards rather than upwards,” Tornvall explains.

To the east, away from downtown, things are changing. The El Golf neighbourhood and the expanding financial area, known as Sanhattan, is where a lot of construction is under way. The Costanera Centre is a development of four skyscrapers, one of which will be the tallest building in South America when it’s complete (standing at 300 metres), although work came to a standstill in January when the recession hit. Nearby, another high-rise – the Titanium La Portada – is due to be finished by the end of 2010.

Although work on the Costanera is slow, Chile has largely dodged the worldwide recession. Before the coup of 1973, when Pinochet snatched control, the government had nationalised the copper industry, putting a percentage of profits into stable bonds. Since Pinochet’s demise, the country has been stable, and in 2006 saw the election of its first female president, Michelle Bachelet.

Starwood’s Klammer says: “Chile has been okay with the recession because of its reserves of copper and nitrate.” But what will happen in 100 years, when they run out? Roempler says: “Historically, Chile has been geared towards primary products [such as copper and nitrate], so when we run out of copper we could turn more towards the service industries. We are certainly getting more tourists to spend money here.”

Sanhattan is where a lot of hotels are located (see panel above) and the area recently saw the opening of the first W hotel in South America. Big names such as Hyatt, Hilton and Crowne Plaza are also here.

Chile has 4,200km of coastline but the country is on average only 150km wide, so a lot of business travellers head to the coast or to one of the many vineyards if they have a spare day. The city itself has a vibrant café culture, numerous museums and the British-built central market with its fresh fish restaurants. There’s also the exclusive tree-lined shopping street of Alonso de Cordova, chock full of designer stores.

Tornvall concludes: “People used to come here only for business but the new Santiago is becoming a more and more attractive city – I’ve lived here all my life and I have noticed the difference in the past few years.”

Visit chile.travel, turismochile.travel

A weekend in Valparaiso

Valparaiso is about two hours’ drive from Santiago and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. In many ways it has been Chile’s window to the world, being the main port since 1583, and the town sprawls from the bay up the surrounding hills like a giant coloured shell rising from the ocean.

There has been little town planning here and brightly painted houses snake over the 45 hills – they are so steep that the locals boast of having the best legs in Chile. If you struggle with the ascents, jump on one of the rickety funicular trains, which have been around since 1883 (there are only 15 remaining, so plan your route wisely).

Alegre and Concepcion hills are good places to get a feel for the bohemian town as they are right above the old centre, and inspired graffiti art is splashed across many of the buildings. Winding roads reveal cafés and restaurants set on overhanging rocks with hazy views of the bay below.

East of these hills is what I considered to be the heart of the town – the house of Chilean writer and Nobel prize-winner Pablo Neruda, on Florida Hill. (Make sure you get the audio guide as it brings his stunningly designed abode to life.) When I was there, the sun was beating through the huge windows on to the many strange artefacts Neruda had collected over the years – a wooden horse, his personal bar decorated with glasses used by Russian tzars, Japanese friezes, and his favourite armchair.

At the top of the house you’ll find a simple desk and typewriter, and a vista so beautiful it’s not too hard to see how inspiration must have flowed. Neruda said of his “crazy port” town: “If we walk through all of Valparaiso’s stairways, we will have travelled around the world.”

If the house is the heart, then in the evening the soul of the city has to be in one of the many bars. Live, intense jazz was playing at La Piedra Feliz (lapiedrafeliz.cl) off Avenue Errazuriz, and somehow I found myself having an impromptu salsa lesson at the bar with local couples, old and young joining in.

With few chain hotels to speak of, accommodation is in casas. I tried Casa Higueras (hotelcasahigueras.cl) on Alegre Hill. The 1920s building was transformed into a hotel five years ago, and its owners have created a carefully decorated boutique property with 20 rooms, some with stunning port views. The restaurant is worth a visit – sit out on the terrace if you can. Guests can take a dip in the infinity pool before sinking into the outdoor spa bath – undoubtedly the best way to relax after a day trekking up and down the hills.

Where to stay in Sanhattan

Santiago and the Residences at W Santiago

Santiago’s 196-room W hotel opened in summer 2009. The five-star new-build is part of a larger complex of exclusive shops and residences, and has striking interior design by New York designer Tony Chi and Chilean Sergio Echeverria. There’s an assortment of bars and restaurants, and all guestrooms have flatscreen LCD TVs, wifi (US$16 for 24 hours) and iPod docks. There’s a business centre and free wifi in the public areas, plus eight event spaces totalling 1,700 sqm.

Intercontinental Santiago

The Intercontinental was renovated in 2008 and has 296 rooms, including eight suites. It offers an executive floor with a business centre, butler service, a lounge with free lunch, dinner, snacks and cocktail hour, a separate check-in area and turn-down service. All rooms have high-speed wifi access for US$20 per 24 hours. The hotel has two restaurants open for lunch and dinner – La Terraza’s, where breakfast is also served, and Bice La Trattoria, an Italian offering with a Chilean touch. There’s a health club (US$8) and sauna, a business centre and 12 meeting rooms – the ballroom can hold 800 delegates theatre-style.

  • Rooms from US$153
  • 2,885 Ave Vitacura, Las Condes; tel +56 2394 2000; ichotelsgroup.com

Radisson Plaza Santiago

The Radisson Plaza has 159 rooms including 19 suites. All rooms offer king-size beds, tea and coffee-making facilities, free breakfast, wifi access (US$10 for 24 hours), a safe and minibar. At check-in, guests are offered a welcome drink. There’s a health club with an indoor pool and several types of in-room massages are available – one to help with jet lag. The business centre is open 24 hours and there are five meeting rooms, the largest of which holds 250 people. Brick restaurant serves international and Chilean fare for lunch or dinner, as well as breakfast, and Trader’s bar offers cocktails in a relaxed environment.

  • Rooms from US$175
  • 2,610 Ave Vitacura, Las Condes; tel +56 2433 9000; radisson.com

Four Points by Sheraton Santiago

This hotel has 128 rooms, including 16 suites, which have views of the Andes or the city. All have tea and coffee-making facilities, high-speed internet (US$10 for 24 hours), a minibar and safe. There’s a business centre and three meeting rooms – the largest with a capacity for 100 people. The hotel has the 24-hour Bar Buganvilia, which has live music Monday to Friday from 7pm, and the Buganvilia restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s also 24-hour room service, a rooftop pool and a small gym.

Ritz-Carlton Santiago

Open since 2003, the Ritz-Carlton is a well-established five-star property. It has 205 rooms including 49 Club Level ones. Internet is charged at US$15 for 24 hours. For events there’s the Grand ballroom with a capacity of 400, eight conference spaces, and a business centre. For wining and dining, there’s Adra restaurant and Wine 365. The spa and pool on the 15th floor are stunning.

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