In Santiago

By David Cogswell

The US Tour Operator Association’s out of country meeting for 2010 was hosted by Chile and was an opportunity for Turismo Chile, the tourism marketing organization, to familiarize the operators with their destination. It was organized around three regions, Santiago, the centrally located capital city; Patagonia, the southern end of the country, a frontier said to be the wettest place on earth; and Atacama Desert in the north, which is known as the driest place on earth. The itinerary was designed to showcase the variety of the country, giving a taste of two extremes and a bit of what was in between.

We flew to Santiago on an overnight flight from New York JFK. The flight departed at 8 p.m. and arrived about 6:30 a.m., a little ahead of schedule. I was fortunate enough to be in business class on Lan Airlines, which made the trip more pleasure than pain. The seats fold out to beds so you can actually get some sleep. The food was worthy of a fine restaurant, but served on compact dishes. The attendants were warm and friendly. There were enough choices of in-flight entertainment to keep you busy on a trip several times as long as this one.

Santiago is straight south of New York, so there was no time change, and therefore no jet lag. It was, however, a shift from the northern hemisphere to the southern, from spring to fall. They say the water spins in the opposite direction in the drains in the southern hemisphere, but I forgot to check.

In Santiago we were met by representatives of Turismo Chile and transferred into the city. The airport, which I was to see six times before we finished our tour of Chile, was spotless and shiny and seemed to be functioning normally. There were areas where repairs and renovations were taking place, but no more it seemed than we are used to perpetually at airports such as Newark and JFK. The trip into the city took 20 or 30 minutes, though it was the morning rush hour and traffic was at its peak. As we made our way towards our hotel, we saw crowds of bleary-eyed Santiago natives waiting for their morning buses to go to work.

Though I have stated it before, it deserves to be emphasized because of so much misinformation to the contrary: we rarely saw any signs of earthquake damage. It was remarkable because it had only been six weeks since Feb. 27 when the quake hit. It was an 8.8 quake at its epicenter in Concepcion, 270 miles from Santiago, and it registered 8.2 in Santiago. Discover magazine reported that the quake was so powerful it shifted the axis of the earth, and shortened the length of the day permanently by 1.26 microseconds, or millionths of a second. Discover quoted Richard Gross, a NASA geophysicist, as saying the quake “moved large amounts of rock, altered the distribution of mass on the planet, and moved the Earth’s axis by about … three inches.”

Apparently the Chileans know how to build structures that withstand earthquakes because the city showed little sign of its recent distress. Santiago is a pretty city. It’s a modern city, but with its own Latin American grace. Its skyline has architecturally striking steel and glass towers, as well as historical buildings from its colonial period. With the Andes as a backdrop, it cuts quite a figure.

We were given day rooms at Caesar Business Hotel in the downtown area while we waited for the Santiago Hyatt to prepare our rooms for overnight. Caesar was a comfortable, moderate hotel, with free wifi, which was very helpful for establishing quick contact with the home base immediately upon arrival. After a few hours of free time allotted for rest or personal exploration, the group gathered for a city tour of Santiago.

We visited Santa Lucia, where the city was founded in 1541. The hill is adorned with ornate stairways, neoclassical monuments and an ancient stone fort. There’s a viewing platform overlooking the city and park grounds throughout where Santiago’s youth like to lie in the grass hugging and kissing.

We also visited the historic Presidential Palace, where you can still see the scars from when it was bombed on Sept. 11, 1973, during the military coup to depose President Salvador Allende, who was a Marxist and had nationalized copper mines and other businesses claimed by American corporations. The coup was secretly backed by President Richard Nixon, but though Chileans know this history, it is a surprise to most Americans who learn about it. After our day in Santiago, we stayed at the Grand Hyatt Santiago and prepared for our trip to Patagonia, where we would spend the weekend, and then return to Santiago early the next week.

The trip was organized by Turismo Chile under the direction of Pablo Moll Vargas, general manager of Turismo Chile; with Nathalie Pilovetsky of Latitudes, a marketing and public relations firm in New York; and the USTOA staff, especially Peggy Murphy, director of operations. It all radiated out of Santiago. We flew from Santiago to Patagonia; returned to Santiago for business meetings and a marketplace; then left Santiago again for Atacama Desert in the North; then returned again to Santiago for international departures. It gave us the chance to experience different hotels every time we entered the city: Hyatt, W and Ritz Carlton, each a treat in its own way.

A large part of the message that Turismo Chile urgently wanted USTOA operators to get was that in spite of the fact that the earthquake was a horrific disaster, tourists will not be hindered to any significant degree by the damage. There was only one bit of damage that did affect me personally on this trip. The Museum of Memory and Human Rights, which just opened in January, was closed for repairs. It documents the history the 17-year dictatorship of Augosto Pinochet, from 1973 to 1990. From what I have heard about it, a visit to the new museum would go a long way towards satiating my curiosity about that horrifying period.

It has now been nearly 20 years since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, and the country has been reborn as a new democratic republic, and not just in name. Chile has now gone through several presidents and democratic transitions of power, and the grace with which the country handled the transition from the left-leaning Michelle Bachelet to the right-leaning Sebastian Pinera during the crisis of the earthquake, and the country’s amazingly successful recovery from the earthquake affirm the success of the new Chilean republic.

There is a vibrance in Chile as there is in South Africa, and Uganda and many other places that have a still fresh aura from having recently thrown over a tyrannical government. I find Chile to have that same kind of exuberance, and I find that exhilarating. -- David Cogswell

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