SANTIAGO, Chile -- This city takes some getting used to.
The first required concession just moments off the plane is bearing the pinch of a $100-per-head stamp imposed by Chilean customs and immigration. The levy -- good for the life of the bearer's US passport -- is tit-for-tat to Washington's $100 visa fee for Chileans wishing to visit stateside.
Then, do not expect to see snow-capped Andes starkly ringing Santiago against a cobalt blue sky. Such vistas are for old issues of National Geographic. Today's Santiago huddles beneath a perma-haze of smog, the unwelcome attendant to decades of galloping industrialization, real estate development, and two-car, middle-class families living in and around the city's immediate environs.
And never bring up the elephant in the room: the bloody coup whose 30th anniversary Chileans conspicuously ignored in September. To do so is the quickest way to be uninvited to dinner. Most Santiagans are quietly waiting for former dictator Augusto Pinochet to die in his villa high above the city so they can bury with him the memory of the 1973 US-backed overthrow of President Salvador Allende.
These compromises made, Santiago arguably becomes South America's most desirable hub for value and versatility. Chile's capital city of 6 million people has it all: an orgy of music, theater, and ballet for the culture seeker; shops with every level of consumer in mind, from folk crafts to cutting-edge high tech; inviting eateries; and a pulsing night life.
And what is not found in Santiago proper is close by. Some of the world's finest skiing and most spectacular vineyards are within an hour's drive. Add a bargain price tag when compared with other South American destinations such as Buenos Aires, and Santiago is a best bet for the value-driven traveler -- especially in the cooler months, April to October.
Santiago is considered one of South America's safest cities -- though pickpockets can be a problem, violent crime is rare -- which is partly why American ex-pat Eric Ostermeier moved here. ''The relaxed nature of folks here and the overt friendliness of the Chileans in general sets Santiago apart from other capitals," says Ostermeier, a consultant for a business development company based in Santiago. ''The bang for the American buck aside, that's what motivated me to settle here after living in other parts of South America."
And nowhere can that bang be felt more than in the performing arts. Santiago's resplendent Teatro Municipal has a full schedule of lushly staged operas and ballets, as well as classical and contemporary music by international and Chilean artists from March to December. Built in 1857, the twice-renovated Renaissance-style concert hall impresses even when quiet and empty. With seating for 1,500, the opulent theater is a bit more intimate than Boston's Symphony Hall or New York's Carnegie Hall. Yet ticket prices and availability set it a universe apart.
The best seats for performances by the Orquesta Filarmnica de Santiago or visiting world-renowned orchestras go for $14, and the ballet is just a few dollars more. For students, which in Chile means anyone younger than 25, a fine balcony seat is $2. The Philadelphia Orchestra, the National Ballet Company of Spain, and the Harlem Gospel Singers were among recent guest performers.
Santiago's other renowned symphony orchestra and chorus, The Orquesta Sinfonica and Coro Sinfonico, share a home at the Teatro Universidad de Chile along with the nation's darling, the Ballet Nacional Chileno. In
With a little planning, a couple can have seven consecutive nights of world-class ballet, classical music, and opera for less than $100 -- two nights on Tanglewood's lawn. Santiago is also the hub for Chile's traditional music. In mid-September, the Fiestas Patrias to mark National Independence Day spawns dozens of concerts all around the city. The Festival Folclorico takes place in January. And though the Festival Internacional de la Cancion officially runs for a week in mid-February in Vina del Mar on the coast, the ripple effect of song and dance reaches Santiago.
But to hear talented musicians, you need only wander to Plaza de Armas in the heart of the city. There, on any given afternoon or evening, any time of year, an array of musicians and street performers plays for free. These ensembles are not panhandlers with guitars, but rather are among the most gifted musicians in Santiago.
A quiet afternoon at Museo Neruda, the former home of Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda, is a requisite for any visit to Santiago. Neruda first shared the home, La Chascona, as a love nest with Mathilde Urrutia before she became his third wife. He named the house in tribute to her wild and tousled hair. The cinematic version of their simmering love affair was captured in the 1994 film ''Il Postino." Yet a tour of La Chascona is less about architecture and adultery and more about the creative workings of Neruda's often turbulent life as a poet and social critic of his fatherland. Neruda was a longtime friend and confidant of Allende, and died of leukemia 12 days after Allende's assassination. Meandering the gardens and chambers of La Chascona brings the life of this intellectual giant closer.
Food and shelter are Santiago's other values. During the cooler months, from about May to September, some five-star hotels with lavish amenities offer deep discounts. The Hotel Plaza San Francisco, for example, if booked online and prepaid through discount brokers, has rooms in the $75 range with views facing the Iglesia San Francisco, one of Santiago's oldest surviving buildings, a remnant of 16th-century colonial architecture.
On the other end of the spectrum, clean, comfortable residenciales -- a version of the bed-and-breakfast -- can be as economical as $20 a night with a fine meal.
Though lodging bargains are dependent upon the season, dining deals are not. Eating is Santiago's year-round affordable luxury and cuts across all levels of cuisine. From restaurants in five-star hotels to the informal picadas to a stand-up munch of fried fish, food in Santiago is easy on the budget and includes many international stops. You want Japanese, there's fresh sushi from the Pacific coast. For French, the biftek au poivre is nonpareil. The private chef of Chile's president is also executive chef at the Hotel Plaza San Francisco's Bristol, and for about $25, wines and dines in gourmet fashion whoever arrives.
Out of the city central the many neighborhood restaurants and sidewalk cafes that cater to locals serve sumptuous and lingering meals, including wine, starting at about $8. Evenings, the three locations of Bar Restaurant Liguria are the places to be on the cheap.
And in all of them -- from starlit to five-star -- you will have to ask for the check. For in friendly Santiago, an unsolicited meal check would rudely imply that it was time to leave, and Santiagans would rather the visitor stay.
John Budris is a freelance writer and television producer who lives on Martha's Vineyard.
How to get there
Lowest round-trip air fare between Boston and Santiago available at press time started at $1,128 on American Airlines, connecting through Miami. Be prepared to pay a $100 per person (cash and traveler's checks only -- no credit cards) reciprocity fee at Santiago's international airport. Standard cab fare from the airport to the city center is about $17.
What to do
Av. Augustinas at Av. San Antonio (Metro: Universidad de Chile)
Classical music, symphony performances, elaborately staged operas and ballet. Prices vary.
Fernando Marquez de la Plata 0192
Poet Pablo Neruda's former home.
Where to stay
Hotel Plaza San Francisco
$120 - $350 in season; $75 off-season.
A bargain B&B. $20 off-season.
Where to eat
Bar Restaurant Liguria
Av. Providencia 1373 (Metro: M.Montt)
Av. Providencia 2682 (Metro: Tobalaba)
Av. Las Condes # 12.265
Beginning at about $8 -- cash only.