Santiago, Chile: Destination of the Week

Take a cable car for a sweeping view of Santiago. Jose L. Stephens/Shutterstock

Chile is arguably one of the most buzzed-about eco-tourism destinations in South America. Its stark deserts, high mountains, untouched coastline and rugged Patagonian landscapes are the ultimate playgrounds for outdoor enthusiasts. Santiago de Chile, usually simply called Santiago, is the country's largest city and main hub. Because of Chile's economic success in recent decades, Santiago has become one of the most modern metropolises in South America.

The city is more than a stopping-off point for tourists on their way to Chile's wilder places. Since there are forests, hills and mountains (a natural addition to Chile's urban skyline) just outside the city limits, Santiago can act a base for eco-tourists who don't want to wander too far from civilization. The city has one of the best public transportation networks on the continent and also features a high number of pedestrian-only boulevards. Yes, this is a big metropolitan area, and there are environmental issues such as pollution, smog (from thermal inversion) and street noise. But natural attractions inside and outside the city make it possible to escape the negative aspects of Santiago.

Whether a stopover as part of a Patagonian or Andean adventure or the backbone of an urban South American getaway, Santiago de Chile deserves a spot on green-minded tourists' itineraries.

Go green

One of the most positive features to come out of Santiago's rapid urban growth is its useful, all-encompassing public transportation system. The backbone of this network is the five-line Metro system. In addition to cash fares, there is a reloadable card called the Multivia, which can be used for multiple rides on the subway and on buses. Aside from being a convenient way to get around, the subway also provides a bit of culture: Many of the train stations feature art exhibits.

Bus service covers the areas of the city between train lines. Route information is posted on each bus, and Multivia cards are widely accepted (and actually the only way to pay on many buses). Rides usually end up costing less than $1 per trip.

If you know where to go, Santiago is a very walkable city. The center of the city features paseos, pedestrian-only streets that make for a safe stroll away from the traffic-clogged roadways. Combining public transportation with walking means that getting around the city without a car is possible. In fact, parking and traffic problems mean that public transit is not only a greener option, but it is also more convenient than driving or relying on taxis.

Sleep green

One of the advantages of staying in the city is the wide choice of environmentally friendly sleeping spots. Green-minded travelers should be able to find suitable accommodations in every price range. For budget travelers, the Eco Hostel Chile makes green sleeping affordable. Its spartan rooms, recycling program and grounds covered by native foliage make it a good choice for those who are looking for a hostel-style experience.

The Oporto Hotel sits a little bit higher on the price and quality chain. This boutique inn was built using two existing 1940s-era buildings. In addition to solar panel water heating, the hotel has an ongoing recycling effort, a focus on local businesses, and energy-and-noise-reducing glazed windows.

The Gen Suite and Spa (official website in Spanish only) offers an impeccable green record along with a decent amount of luxury. The hotel has an ambitious recycling program called Green Point that tracks recycled waste and calculates its effort's effect on the planet in terms of energy saved and natural areas preserved. Gen also heats its water with thermal energy and boasts an aluminum-zinc alloy exterior designed to improve insulation and light reflectivity in order to reduce energy consumption no matter what the temperature is outside.

Eat green

Like other major metropolises around the world, it is possible to find organic, locally grown food in Santiago. A handful of the city's grocers and bistros focus on selling chemical-free foods. A small retail operation called La Chakra, which is a grocery-store-slash-restaurant, serves up locally grown, natural foods both on its shelves and from its kitchen. The menu at the restaurant includes fresh, organic salads and sandwiches. Fresh juices and yogurts are also available. The aptly named 100% Natural is another small-scale eatery with a focus on preparing organic foods.

La Isla is a restaurant and cafe that boasts some interesting green features including an on-site organic garden that it uses to provide ingredients for its kitchen and also to demonstrate the possibilities of urban gardening in Santiago. This is also a good place for organic meals, with many of the ingredients grown or raised in the farmlands surrounding the city.

To see the Santiago region's food closer to its source, you can head to Mercado Central. This is the historic retail venue. Stalls hawking fruits, vegetables, meats and seafood create a lively atmosphere. There are also eateries in and around the Mercado serving foods made with the fresh ingredients sold at the various stalls.

See green

The king of South America's urban greenspaces is Parque Metropolitano. This park is located on San Cristobal Hill (Cerro San Cristobal), the second-highest hill in Santiago, and the best place to enjoy the city's skyline views and get close to nature. A cable car brings sightseers to the top of the hill, which features a church and religious statue. Visitors with a decent level of fitness and a bit of ambition can hike the park's trails to the top. A zoo and botanical garden with Japanese-style design are located inside Metropolitano toward the bottom of hill. Unfortunately, smog from thermal inversion can sometimes obscure views of the city from the summit of the San Cristobal.

Cerro Santa Lucia is another of Santiago's showcase urban parks. It boasts a good view from the summit, which can be reached on foot by using a set of stairs. A small plaque in Santa Lucia is dedicated to Charles Darwin, who visited the hill on his famous journey to study nature on the Galapagos Islands.

Finally, Parque Forestal is a greenspace that follows the Mapocho River as it runs though Santiago. There are no great skyline views in Forestal, but this blocks-long park recently upgraded its trails, making for some great walking and biking opportunities amidst the trees and along the river.

If you want to walk in a more urban environment, Santiago Centro is the place to go. This downtown area features a number of paseos, which are pedestrian-only streets lined with shops, cafes and restaurants. It is possible to experience the cafes and live music scene (the city is known for its jazz clubs) without having to step into a taxi or even worry about having to cross a traffic-clogged street. For those who want a wider view of the city, a fleet of buses running on natural gas plies tourist-oriented routes, which pass some of the most important historic sites in Santiago.

For nature lovers, Santiago is best used as a base for exploring the surrounding areas. Some of the best hikes in the forests and Andean foothills can be accomplished using public transportation. Parks, ecological preserves, hills and waterfalls define the landscape near Santiago. No, these aren't the austere lands of Patagonia or the wilds of the high Andes, but they are a good introduction to hiking in Chile, and you can't beat the convenience. Visitors who want to immerse themselves even more in Chile's nature can head a little farther afield. El Morado National Park is an hour and a half from Santiago. Aside from hiking and climbing in the foothills and lower peaks of the Andes, the park area boasts glaciers, hot springs and ample opportunities for bird watching. Other convenient attractions for Santiago-stayers include Reserva Nacional Río Los Cipreses, a large, never crowded park near the small city of Rancagua, about 60 miles from Santiago. Ski areas like Portilo, near the Argentine border, can be reached in a day, with some resorts and hotels offering bus service from Santiago.

Santiago is definitely not the most remote and natural place in the nature-heavy nation of Chile, but writing this booming city off is a mistake, especially if you are new to the continent. Santiago is a convenient introduction to a country that has become one of the world's most interesting eco-tourism destinations.

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