Chile's capital is an unsung city. Unjustly, says Paul Clements, who took a bicycle tour of its liveliest localities and found them brimming with cultural and gastronomic surprises.

"We're not open yet," said the museum attendant when he eventually looked up from behind the front desk where he was busying himself - not entirely convincingly. "Go for a coffee."

We were 15 minutes early at La Chascona, a multi-storey mansion jutting from a forested hillside in Bellavista, Santiago's bohemian heart. The curved dining room and terrace railings gave the house a passing resemblance to a tug boat, one that had been stuck prow-first into the cliff face.

Built in the 50s by Pablo Neruda as a hideaway for his mistress (he later moved in with her), it is now a shrine to the Chilean poet, his life, loves and friendships with fellow artists - Picasso, Leger, Dali - whose paintings and ceramics catch the eye among the displays of bottles, ashtrays, dolls and toby jugs Neruda collected devotedly.

The poet, who died 40 years ago, remains an unofficial mascot for Santiago's artistic, intellectual and gastronomic neighbourhood. He loved women, wine and a good time, all of which are available here nightly. Just try getting a coffee the morning after.


As the museum yawned awake, we hurried to Pio Nono, a long strip of bars and restaurants that runs through the tattered but gentrifying area, peering on the way through the windows of darkened cafe-bars with vintage furnishings and chalkboard menus that might do a brisk tourist trade if somebody opened up.

Half an hour later, having declined our only chance of a hot drink, a cup of instant - Chile is a Nescafe nation - we gave up and headed back to the museum. Which is when we found its cosy first-floor cafe serving espressos to a dozen other "early" birds waiting for the first tour of the day.

La Chascona is a bit like Santiago itself: it can give visitors a false impression - that the good stuff happens elsewhere, when really it's on the doorstep. Most visitors do little more than pass through the city en route to Chile's frozen south, the Andean plateau in the far north or the wine lands and central ski slopes.

In a beauty parade with other Latin American cities, Santiago can come up short: its colonial must-sees are outshone by Mexico City, Buenos Aires has a more diverse cultural life, and the restaurant scene in Sao Paulo is edgier.

And then there's the smog. Santiago can be blanketed by a light-coloured haze that's locked in by the surrounding mountains. We got a closer look at it - and little else, apart from the Andean peaks that poked through - from the top of San Cristobal, the city's green hill and biggest open space. A funicular zips you up and down at an almost 45-degree slope, past the rather forlorn Jardin Zoologico, to a viewing area dominated by a giant statue of the Virgin Mary, arms outstretched (a case of anything Rio can do ...).

For a city living under a semi-permanent ring of pollution - between May and September, it can be a real choker - Santiago is surprisingly pleasant explored on foot or two wheels.

La Bicicleta Verde bills itself as "the way to experience Santiago". It is a laid-back operation with an HQ on the edge of Bellavista and its team of mostly young Americans on career sabbaticals offer themed tours on green sit-up-and-beg bicycles.

Matt, a bushy-bearded American geography teacher, escorted our small group on the "local life" tour. At the dawdling pace of a protest march, the handful of us wobbled off, my bike's gears crunching with every rotation. Matt signalled for us to pull over at key sites - a renowned restaurant, some artfully graffitied mansion walls (the mural supposedly sanctioned by the property owners) - to fill us in on Bellavista's history.


Once aristocratic families had chosen the foot of the Cerro San Cristobal to build their country houses, Franciscans and Dominicans erected temples, adding to the area's architectural mix. In the 20th century, it became a repository for Santiago's artistic and intellectual life, with tertulias (literary gatherings) adding to the bohemian edge, powered today by nightlife, theatres, a TV studio and a large student population.

Despite the terraces of quaint houses, framed by arcs of water that shoot from sprinklers hidden in the thicket of ferns and bougainvillea, daylight does Bellavista few favours. Matt alerted us to something invisible to the casual visitor's eye. Being an intellectual backwater, discrete snobberies are part of everyday life here.

"Those who go out on Pio Nono don't venture round the corner on to Constitucion," he said. "Those on shabbier Pio Nono laugh at those who'll happily pay an extra 1000 Chilean pesos ($2) just to eat on the right street."

Similarly, those Bellavistans who buy their fresh seafood from the smart 19th century Mercado Central might never venture to La Vega (Calle Davila Baeza 700), a gloriously earthy covered market just across the river in grubbier Patronato.

Dimly lit and with narrow passages, it's a warren of colourful stalls of fruit, vegetables, fish and meat, where perfect arrangements of polished granny smiths sit next to vivid, indigenous produce: sharon fruit, loquats and tunas, a cactus fruit whose prickly green skin yields to delicious, succulent flesh.

With our bicycles chained up, we pushed past barrels of nuts, drums spilling over with olives, spices and pickles, and refrigerated glass cabinets piled with pigs' heads, to the heart of the market, where a court of counter-style places to eat, offering stallholders and office workers ridiculously cheap lunch options: cazuela (chicken stew), pantrucas (dumplings) and empanadas (pasties), all for around $2 (and at a table with a cloth, too). I tried cherimoya juice - custard apple - a bit like pineapple, mango and strawberry combined. Three in one. It's so Santiago to get more than you bargained for.

As we returned to the bikes, Matt pointed out half a dozen stray cats near a fish stall. "It's a good sign," he smiled. "There are enough of them to keep all of the neighbourhood rats at bay." Which I took to include the well-to-do from over the river in Bellavista.



LAN Chile flies direct from Auckland to Santiago, with return Economy Class fares for $2168.


The capital is at its temperate best in the glow of autumn (February to April) or in verdant spring (September to November).