In Santiago, the people are passionate and the souvenirs fancy, writes Pamela Wade.

The men in overcoats reading their papers at the shoeshine stands could be in New York.

The chic young women chatting by news-stand pillars plastered with posters look Parisian, and the pedestrian street of elegant shoe shops is surely in Milan. Wedding-cake palaces and stucco houses with shutters and wrought-iron balconies suggest Spain, but the white sky says Los Angeles.

Floating above the smog, however, ethereal and beautiful, the unmistakeable saw-tooth backdrop of the Andes means this can only be Santiago.

Chile's capital lies in a basin between the mountains and a coastal range of hills, ideal conditions for stewing the emissions from this busy city of about six million, but on a mild winter's day all I notice is that the smog gives an attractive sepia tinge to the snow-capped peaks rising so impossibly high above the buildings sprawled around us.


Santa Lucia Hill is a good place to begin a visit to Santiago as the city was founded here in 1541 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, it's central, and high enough to study the layout of roads and squares without wasting energy better spent exploring what turns out to be a conveniently compact downtown area.

I have been brought here by Loretta, who identifies the imposing municipal buildings laid out in the grid surrounding the hill, but my attention is taken by a young couple embracing in an archway below us.

As their kiss extends well beyond my own lung capacity, I remark that in my few hours in the city, I've already seen more pairs of smooching lovers than in a year in Auckland.

Loretta laughs: "For such a cold country, the people are hot!" She goes on to explain that visitors to Santiago should never look for cheap accommodation in a motel.

"They are for short-term hire only," she says.

We wind back down the ornate staircase beneath palm trees and past fountains and statues, briefly disturbing the couple, who fall immediately into another passionate clinch.

At street level in a large cave stalls sell indigenous crafts - musical instruments, knitted and woven goods, Easter Island stone heads, jewellery featuring local silver and deep blue lapis lazuli - and Loretta suggests I might like to take a closer look at a squat wooden carving of an Andean Indian.

Picking it up, I discover the reason for its cheeky smile: this "Indio Picaro", as the statuettes are called, is constructed like a bell, but instead of a clapper there is something the guy up the hill would be proud to own.

I put it back hastily and follow Loretta out to a wide avenue honouring the hero of Chile's independence, the memorably named Bernado O'Higgins. Here there are more grand buildings but, distracted as always by shiny things, it's the stall-holders I notice.

They are busily frying mini-doughnuts, demonstrating gadgets, reading tarot cards and - even Loretta is intrigued - a showman is somehow operating a dancing paper marionette at his feet, no strings attached.

A crowd soon gathers and he makes some brisk sales before he spots an approaching police officer, scoops up his magic puppet and disappears, unmagically.

Many police patrol the streets, and Loretta explains that they are the reason she no longer feels the need to clutch her bag to her chest. "If you are sensible, Santiago is quite safe," she assures me.

Just then two buses full of soldiers roar past and she stops to listen. "Ah, yes, another manifestation," she says, and in the distance I hear chanting and drums.

Loretta is unperturbed: "Nothing to worry about, they happen all the time."

Around the corner is the elegant 18th-century Presidential Palace, itself a monument to Chile's political volatility: in 1973, 17 bombs were dropped on this building and President Allende shot himself inside it rather than surrender to General Pinochet's forces.

Happily, the only action at the fully restored palace these days is the Changing of the Guard. Michelle Bachelet, Chile's first woman president, leads a peaceful, if vociferous, nation.

By the time we get to the city's heart, the Plaza de Armas, I have to ask Loretta about the dogs.

They are even more noticeable than the canoodling couples: all shapes, all sizes, well fed but scruffy, these strays are everywhere.

They lie asleep in the squares and on the footpaths, sit at traffic lights watching the cars and run through the parks, distracting the lovers on the grass.

None of them seem aggressive and some are particularly friendly. "They're street dogs," Loretta says, surprised I should ask. "People feed their favourites."

One at least has an owner: a police dog in a military jacket is
staring intently at the equestrian statue of Valdivia outside the cath
edral, a building surmounted by cupolas and statues that has been
invisibly mended after a series of earthquakes.

The square is surrounded by imposing examples of colonial architecture, but it is the people who make it buzz.

Everywhere artists are displaying every type of painting; street photo
graphers entice parents with miniature stuffed horses for their children to pose on; a stand-up comedian is ringed by his laughing audience; intent chess players pack into a rotunda; and, of course, more couples are kissing, and more dogs are lounging.

Loretta, a little disapprovingly, points out a shop with tinted windows and I peep inside to see leggy girls wearing high heels, tiny skirts and bikini tops serving mainly men standing at bars: but it's coffee,
not alcohol, that they're drinking.

This is a Chilean specialty, Coffee with Legs, and officially there
is nothing more on offer.

I wonder, though: passion tumbles through this city like the rushing mountain water in the Mapocho River that I cross to take the cable car up San Cristobal Hill.

High above the city, I watch the Andes blush pink in the sunset.

A statue of the Virgin Mary stands serenely on top of the hill like Rio's Christ, but my image of Santiago will forever be its lovers -
and its dogs.