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A trip to Santiago, Chile: It sometimes feels like Los Angeles - it even has earthquakes.
By: Chris Clackum   |  Email: clackum@nbc.com

A pocket full of notes with a big "10,000" on them can give a visitor a false sense of prosperity. When 30,000 isn't enough to pay for dinner, however, it's time to head back to the ATM to pick up another 150,000 or so.

Such is the case in Chile, where a 10,000-peso note is worth about $21. The five-digit number doesn't mean Chile has an unstable currency, though. Far from it.

The Chilean peso trades at roughly 475 to the dollar, which means that even a soft drink or bottle of water will cost about 1,000 pesos. Visitors become accustomed to it quickly by dropping three zeroes and doubling the total. Thus, that 1,000-peso Coke is $2, a 5,000-peso pizza is $10, and a 40,000-peso pair of shoes is $80.

With the money mystery solved, there are many reasons to visit Chile, which hugs the western coast of South America for 2,650 miles, all the way from its northern border with Peru to Cape Horn, the bottom of the continent. But while the country is long, it averages only 110 miles in width before it meets up both with Argentina and the high Andes mountain chain, which runs nearly the length of the continent.

Most visitors concentrate on the area around Santiago and the port city of Valparaiso, 75 miles west. That's a good plan. One could spend two weeks in Central Chile, with a side trip to the Andean ski lodges and another trip or two to some of the fine wineries, without repeating anything.

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, is often compared to Paris. It would be easy to make a similar comparison with Santiago and Los Angeles. The Chilean capital is almost exactly as far south of the equator as Los Angeles is to the north. The climates are similar, although reversed. When it's summer in California, it's winter in South America.

The beaches, the plant life, the architecture and even the clothes people wear resemble one another. One van tour driver said last month that The National History Museum is adjacent to the Plaza del Armas in downtown Santiago. Visitors from California often feel as though they are at home. Then they look up, if Santiago's frequent smog isn't in the way, and see the 17,783-foot Cerro El Plomo, 3,000 feet higher than any peak in the contiguous United States, and the comparison ends.
One thing Chile doesn't have is a large number of visitors from the U.S. Americans tend to visit countries that are close (Canada and Mexico) or those with which they have family ties (the U.K., France, Italy).

Chile has been experiencing a tourism boom. Tourism Undersecretary Jacqueline Plass told the media in February that the country was host to 3 million visitors in 2012, three times the figure of 1991, when it was emerging from the Pinochet dictatorship. Most tourists come from nearby Argentina, Peru and Brazil.

Then there's the distance. With "America" in its name, South America is a relative neighbor, no? No. Santiago is 5,587 flight miles from Los Angeles, almost exactly the same distance as London or Paris. That would make it about a 10-hour flight, except there are no nonstop flights to Santiago. The result is a 14-or 15-hour trip.

Visitors may recall that Chile is known for its wine, fish and fruit. Ever notice where cherries and berries you buy in January are from? It's also the world's leading producer of copper.

Santiago's international airport is about 10 miles northwest of the civic center. There are airport limos,

A statue of the Virgin Mary, at the top of Cerro San Cristóbal, is a Santiago, Chile, landmark. It sits 1,000 feet above the city. (null)
but they require a transfer by taxi to your hotel. Since it's only about a $15 ride, it might be better to take one of the black taxis with yellow roofs you'll see everywhere. Avoid other taxis that might be somewhat less than official. They're almost certain not to have meters, which means exactly what you think it means.
Where to stay? Lodging is the biggest difference between an expensive trip and one that's more reasonable. You can change your dining budget every day, if need be, but most people don't switch hotels once they've arrived in a new city. Santiago isn't as expensive as Scandinavia, London or Tokyo, but American travelers are likely to find that almost everything costs at least what it would at home.

With that in mind, the neighborhoods of Las Condes, Vitacura and Providencia are convenient to the excellent subway system's red line and to many of the city's attractions. The neighborhoods are clean with far less graffiti than in most U.S. cities, and have a good choice of hotels, restaurants, pharmacies, banks and other services. Many restaurants combine indoor service and outdoor dining on tables set on wide, European-like sidewalks.

About the attractions: Santiago doesn't have as many historic buildings as many other Latin American cities, due to a mix of earthquakes and alterations.

The Metropolitan Cathedral, on the city's Plaza de Armas, was begun in 1748 and virtually completed in 1800, but follow-up construction continued throughout the 19th century. La Moneda, the neoclassical presidential palace, was designed in the late 18th century and completed in 1805. It was heavily damaged during a military coup in 1973, but quickly rebuilt.

Many other highlights, including O'Higgins Park, the Central Post Office, National Museum of Fine Arts and Mercado Central, also date to the 19th century.

Perhaps the biggest attraction in town is Cerro San Cristobal. "Cerro" is hill in Spanish, and this one rises nearly 1,000 feet above the rest of the city. A never-ending parade of tour buses snakes up the side of the hill, but they can only go part of the way. A taxi or private guide can get you to the top. If the day is clear, it provides views of Santiago that you won't get from any other point. If not, it's a waste of time.

Some of the city's highlights don't have much history at all. Some are still being built. The six-story Costanera Center has more than 100 stores, some of which (Brooks Brothers, Armani Exchange, Nike, Perry Ellis) will be familiar to anyone who has ever set foot in an American mall.

But why not try one of the Chilean counterparts? Falabella is an upscale Chilean department store that also has locations throughout Argentina, Colombia and Peru. It offers men's, women's and children's clothing, as well as electronics, home furnishings and other items that aren't likely to make it back in your luggage. Paris is a similar retailer, a sort of Southern Hemisphere Nordstrom.

Another store that offers Chilean-made products is Guante, a men's shoe manufacturer and retailer. Given that more than two-thirds of Chithe world's shoes are made in China, the "Hecho en Chile" stamp in the shoe is unique.

Costanera Center also has more than 50 restaurants, and a 980-foot office and hotel tower that, when completed, will be the tallest building in South America. The sixth-floor Costanera cineplex, on a recent day, was showing everything from "Los Miserables" to "Lincoln" to "Django Sin Cadenas," titles that should need no translation, on three of its more than a dozen screens.

The antithesis of the Costanera Center is the Pueblo Los Dominicos, a craft village that has an Olvera Street feel to it. More than 150 workshops sell jewelry, ceramics, paintings, leather goods and handmade clothing from adobe stores that line both sides of cobblestone streets. My wife bought a lovely lapis lazuli necklace on a silver chain at a store which specializes in the Chilean national gemstone.

Santiago may feel like California, but, outside of areas that cater to tourists, little English is spoken. A visitor with no Spanish skills might find the subway and bus system tricky, as cash is no longer accepted. Users must buy electronic cards - called the Bip! Card - which are available at every station for about $2.50.

A less stressful but much more expensive alternative is Turistik, a citywide network that includes a "hop on-hop off" bus of a type popular throughout Europe. At $36, it's no bargain, but it operates from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and stops at 13 key places throughout the city. Customers can get on and off at any stop. It doesn't link up with all the key Santiago sites, but it will get you close, and all its guides speak English.

Turistik also has a tour to the coast at Valpara so and nearby Vi a del Mar. That one costs $110, but includes highlights of the historic port city of Valparaiso, a drive through Vi a del Mar, which resembles nothing so much as south Orange County, as well as a tour and wine tasting at the Emiliana winery. It's 11 hours in length.

The four-hour tour to the Concha y Toro winery costs $55 and has morning and afternoon departures.

As for hotels, read the books and the websites carefully, not for amenities so much as location. All hotels of a certain rating are going to have air conditioning, cable and internet. But they won't all be where, upon arriving, you'll wish they were.

We picked the Plaza El Bosque Suites in the Las Condes area. Our 14th story room in a city known for earthquakes seemed perfectly stable. We played too-hot, too-cold games with the air conditioning, but that was probably due to our lack of familiarity with the system. We would have preferred a TV in the living room, rather than the bedroom, but, when in Santiago ...

Our room was about $175 per night, including a very good buffet breakfast. The staff members are friendly, but you're playing Chilean roulette if you need to find the few who speak some English. They're more likely to be at the desk during the day.

A trip to Santiago, Chile: It sometimes feels like Los Angeles - it even has earthquakes.

By: Chris Clackum
Company Name: NBC
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