SANTIAGO (Reuters) - The city of Santiago, tucked under the towering Andes, cut off in the north by the world's driest desert and in the south by frigid Patagonia, has long languished at the end of Latin America, as if forgotten.
A brutal 17-year-long dictatorship that ended in 1990 only compounded the Chilean capital's isolation. But the city of about 7 million is finally letting loose and exploring its funkier side, bolstered by a flourishing democracy, increased prosperity and stronger ties with the world beyond its borders.
Bohemian neighborhoods, museums, leafy parks and a thriving nightlife are transforming Santiago, which residents had nicknamed "Santiasco," a pun on the Spanish word "asco," or disgust, due to its pollution.
Still, Santiago is not yet Buenos Aires - and don't you dare compare the two in front of a Chilean - but it is putting itself on the map like never before.
The following are some tips from Reuters for getting the most out of a trip to Santiago.
A BARD'S ABODE IN THE HILLS
Put on your walking shoes and head to the commanding San Cristóbal Hill (parquemet.cl) that overlooks metropolitan Santiago. Hike up, bike up or opt for the efficient cable car.
Nestled at the foot of the San Cristóbal is the Santiago home of Pablo Neruda, one of the Nobel Laureate and poet's three delightfully eccentric houses. A guided tour of "La Chascona" (www.fundacionneruda.org), named in honor of his mistress-turned-wife's disheveled red hair, is a must.
Roam the Bellavista neighborhood, celebrated for its colorful street art and rowdy nightlife. Cross the Mapocho River and pop into the National Fine Arts Museum (www.mnba.cl), which features paintings by Chilean and European artists alike.
Soak in the rapidly gentrifying Lastarria area, where wine bars and independent designer shops are flourishing. Sip a cafe con leche at Wonderful (José Victorino Lastarria, 90) as you people-watch.
Wander through the small castles and landscaped gardens with elaborate fountains clinging to the perky Santa Lucía Hill, once a sacred place for the Mapuche indigenous tribe who used it as a lookout spot during the Spanish conquest.
SHINY SKYSCRAPERS, DARKER PAST
Join the crowds gawking at mimes and chuckling with comedians at the Plaza de Armas central square. Get a glimpse of the imposing La Moneda presidential palace a few blocks over.
When Neruda moved from the countryside to Santiago in 1921, he reportedly moaned it reeked of "gas, coffee and bricks." While espressos are still in vogue, the bricks have all but disappeared. Check that out for yourself by exploring the wealthy eastern area, nicknamed "Sanhattan," due to its glittering high rises and parks, namely the polished Parque Bicentenario (www.vitacura.cl).
But despite the recent economic boom and increasingly liberal social values, Chile's tormented past lingers the subtext to most political discussions.
To clue yourself in, drop by the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (www.museodelamemoria.cl), which documents the 1973 coup that toppled President Salvador Allende and ushered in the bloody dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Decompress with a stroll around the charmingly rundown houses of the Brasil neighborhood, once Santiago's chic area.
Sample a pisco sour at The Clinic (bartheclinic.cl), a bar brimming with tongue-in-cheek, left-leaning political posters, to get one current view of Chilean society.
CHILLED RED WINE
While Chilean cuisine may not be as sophisticated as some others in the region, the country does boast fine wines and a fantastic array of seafood and fresh local produce.
Tuck into high-end local fare at Liguria (liguria.cl) or at one of the numerous restaurants sheltered under the iron-roofed Mercado Central (mercadocentral.cl).
But the sprawling, cheap and bustling Vega Market across the river from the Mercado Central has a more local/authentic feel to it. Get an action-packed look at Santiaguinos stocking up on juicy papayas, traditional Andean corn and just about everything else.
Consider visiting a vineyard to sample Chile's famed Carmenere. The well-known Concha y Toro (conchaytoro.com) makes for the easiest trip, though smaller producers on the road to the coast, such as the upscale Matetic Vineyards (matetic.com/en), are more charming.
Take advantage of Santiago's proximity to both the beach and the mountains - both under two hours - to escape the urban jungle. Fit in a trip to the funky port town of Valparaíso and dip into the Pacific Ocean at the nearby Viña del Mar beach resort or the prettier, but pricier Zapallar. Also consider skiing the Andean peaks that surround Santiago. [ID:nL6N0NR45B]
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Michael Roddy and G Crosse)