Wherever you’re headed in Chile, Santiago is the gateway, and chances are you’ll be spending a night or two there on your way in or out. It is a sprawling metropolis, rather like Los Angeles, and it takes some good travel advice to get past the smog and skyscrapers and into walkable, charming neighborhoods to experience the local culture. Santiago was the last stop in my tour of Argentina and Chile, and Christian Ramcke of Pionero Travel, a longtime friend of Frontiers, generously offered to take me around and show me the best of the city.

The Central Market is a good first stop. National Geographic named it number five in their top ten food markets in the world. It is in a spacious, shady building, a respite from Santiago’s sunny weather. The high roof, pillars, and buttresses are splendid Victorian ironwork by famous architect Charles Henry Driver. The scene beneath them stole the show, however, with cases of ice heaped with eels, crabs, and fish of every size and color. In a newer building we walked along row after row of bright vegetable stands, vendors of fruits and spices. My favorite was the flower market, with its crisp air heavy with the scent of roses and lilies.

Near the market is a historic dive called La Piojera, which literally means “lice-ridden place,” not that it has any lice. The story is that in the 1920s President Arturo Alessandri went there and didn’t like rubbing shoulders with the working-class crowd, calling the place a “piojera.” The clientele turned the insult on its head by adopting it as the cheeky name for their favorite bar. Christian ordered me a Terremoto, or “earthquake,” the bar’s signature drink, a concoction of cheap pipeño wine and pineapple ice cream. I’m not a fan of sweet drinks, but the brash flavor of the pipeño mixes surprisingly well with ice cream. After days of elegant wine tastings in some of South America’s best vineyards, it felt rebellious to be drinking tasty dregs in a plastic cup.

Where the Central Market is a series of warehouses, the Artesanal Los Dominicos is set up like a village – cute little shops with red tile roofs, flowers and shade trees, roving peacocks and stray cats. Here you’ll find some fine hand crafts interspersed with the expected tchotchkes and souvenirs. There was an excellent silversmith, a gruff, grey-bearded Viking of a man with leather and silver knotwork around his wrists. I purchased a ring that he fitted for me on the spot, the silver still warm from being shaped when I put it on. I asked if I could get a photo of him in his shop, and he said no, but his son, also a silversmith, obliged me.

We went to Bellevista, with its brightly painted stucco buildings, a bohemian neighborhood famous for its artists. Here Pablo Neruda built a house for his mistress and his third wife, Matilde Urrutia. The house, La Chascona, is now a museum, preserved as she had it. It looks like one would imagine a poet’s house, full of eclectic art, amateur pieces by Matilde and gifts from artist friends, objects from their travels, mismatched doors of beautiful carved wood, and conversation pieces like a pair of giant shoes. If you’d like to stay in Bellevista, there is a lovely hotel called Castillo Rojo, an aptly named red half-timbered mansion turned boutique hotel.

LaStarria is a more staid, upscale historic neighborhood, home to some of the best hotels and restaurants in the city. I was staying at one of these, the new Singular Santiago, which has a classic, sumptuous elegance. The Cumbres LaStarria looks more contemporary chic, with its beautiful zigzagging white façade. It is still under construction, so I couldn’t peek inside, but it should be open in 2016. Since half the city’s best restaurants were all within a few blocks of my hotel, I could choose where I wanted to eat by strolling past all my options. I settled on Bocanariz, a local hangout with a laid back atmosphere – bare brick walls and heavy wood tables – but a serious menu. The first person to the table is the sommelier, and the wine list takes up a wall. If you don’t have time to make it out to any of Chile’s wine valleys, you can taste all of their best wines here. The menu is arranged by flavor profiles rather than courses, the better to choose food to pair with your wine. I suggest baked provolone and the Carmanere flight, three glasses of Chile’s classic red (which, I have to admit, I prefer to Argentina’s Malbecs). I can think of no finer way to toast the beginning of a trip, flush with the excitement of arrival, or tip your glass farewell to Chile on the bittersweet last evening of your journey than over a glass of Carmanere in a warm, lively restaurant full of the laughter of travelers and friends.

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