Dispatch: Voyage to the Bottom of the World -- Santiago

Travel Weekly senior editor David Cogswell departed for Santiago, Chile, Jan. 3 to begin a two-week adventure to Antarctica and the Falkland Islands, sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent. He'll be transmitting on-site reports to Travel Weekly's New Jersey headquarters on a daily basis (weather and Internet access permitting).

Abercrombie & Kent puts Santiago into its Antarctica and the Falkland Islands itinerary primarily because its the southernmost point for scheduled flights. The company gathers its customers in Santiago, then organizes a charter to get them to Ushuaia, the embarkation point for their Antarctic voyages.

But Santiago also adds spice to any journey to the colder southern climes. Bursting with early-summer vibrance and fertility at this time of year, Santiago is radiantly beautiful. The temperature was in the 80s the day we arrived, but the mixed effect of the Andes, which surround the city like a bowl and the Pacific Ocean, which borders it on the west, produce a Mediterranean-like micro-climate marked by moderate, dry heat.

In Santiago A&K puts its people up in the cylindrical tower of the Grand Hyatt, which vies with the Ritz-Carlton for the distinction of being the top five-star hotel in this cosmopolitan city of five million. Its a handsome structure with a central atrium that goes all the way to its top. In early January, it still sported a two-story Christmas tree in the middle of its atrium. The Hyatt has an expansive green lawn and terrace and an inviting pool surrounded by lush vegetation and backed by a waterfall.

I arrived around midday along with a number of other guests and A&K had arranged a city tour to begin not long after. We toured the city with a guide, stopping at a number of points of interest and becoming acquainted with the citys geography, architecture and history.

We drove along the city's main thoroughfare, named for Bernardo Higgins, the Irish Chilean who is credited with liberating Chile from Spain. We saw the river rushing through its concrete-walled path, muddy and surging from the seasonal melting of the snow in the Andes.

The sight that affected me the most was the grand Presidential Palace where General Pinochet launched an aerial bombardment against then-President Salvador Allende on the morning of Sept. 11, 1973, in the CIA-backed coup that transformed the republic overnight into a brutal military dictatorship. Local guides are instructed to soft-pedal political history when talking to Americans, but today, only a few weeks after Pinochets indictment for murder, Chileans could more easily be persuaded to talk politics with a little gentle prodding.

One woman I spoke to had been forced to flee the country as a young girl because her father was one of Allendes top officials, and that put him on Pinochets A list, which meant he and his family were targeted for liquidation.

By the time we get back from Antarctica in mid-January, Chile will have completed its run-off election and will have either installed its first female president, Michelle Bachelet, or her opponent, former senator Sebastian Pinera, the majority owner of Lan Airlines.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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