A elderly woman holds a rubber chicken in the crook of her arm and with a cheeky grin gives it a squeeze. It squeaks and she pats it like a baby, laughing with her husband. Young lovers embrace tightly in the park, their limbs wrapped intricately around each other. Around them, countless stray dogs prowl the streets.
It's the last ebb of summer in Santiago. People walk past enjoying ice creams and there's a casual breeziness to the city and its inhabitants. Santiago, Chile's capital is said to resemble Europe or America in feel but it is set to a different soundtrack to a different tempo. All of this is situated against the dramatic backdrop of the Andes.
Santiago lies cradled in Chile's Central Valley in the Santiago Basin. Medium rise buildings and a range of architecture feature in the busy city and it seems that almost everywhere you look, you can see the Andes ranges tower high above the silver man made structures.
Chileans have been described as the "English of South America" due to their reserved nature, particularly in comparison to other South American countries. There's almost a shyness onto them which one shouldn't mistake for unfriendliness - they're unfailingly polite and eager to help or to practice their English.
Clockwise from top left: the Providencia area or "Little Italy" area of Santiago, bottom right the entrance to The Aubrey Hotel, Bellavista
For my stay in Santiago I'm at The Aubrey Hotel in the Bellavista neighbourhood. Known as a boho chic area, there are plenty of bars, restaurants, art galleries and live music in this gay friendly area. Its most famous resident was poet Pablo Neruda. From the moment the car pulls into the driveway and they pull back the gothic style gates I know I'm in for something special.
The Aubrey is made up of two homes, one political figure Domingo Duran's former private residence as well as the residence of the Mannarelli family who were the original architects of both homes. Grandeur and history remain and there's also glitz and glamour added to modernise it.
Renovated to reflect a luxe, modern style it retains its Spanish Mission and Art Deco roots. It is a boutique hotel with 15 rooms and walking through the grounds is a journey of discovery.
Nooks and crannies hide sculptures and trinkets - its the old and the new and the quirky thrown in for good measure. The pool is open until 1am should guests want a midnight swim and the grounds are beautifully styled and maintained.
I'm in their Art Deco suite which is reached one way by descending a snaking staircase. A velvet wing back chair sits outside and the door swings open to reveal an expansive sunken suite. The lobby or work area is drenched in afternoon sun, the long work desk perfect for writing.
Next to the desk is the door to the private entrance to the suite. Yes folks, the other way to reach this suite is not through the hotel's main entrance. Instead, you need only slip through the front gates and slide your key into the door on the right and you are in your suite.
A mini bar holds soft drinks, bottles of wine and glasses. The room's Art Deco style never clashes with the furniture which is an eclectic mix of Asian and Scandinavian looking pieces. The striking curved leg chairs with black leather seats feature throughout the property.
The bedroom has an adjoining sitting room with a two seater couch and a large curve legged coffee table. The bed is a king sized bed with good quality sheets and there are two bottles of mineral water and earplugs to the side. The latter are necessary, particularly on busy nights as the nearby bars fill. There's a iPod dock on the other side of the bed and an enormous flat screen television hangs opposite. The bathroom is simple. There's a glass front shower and a range of amenities by Damana. Next to this is a separate toilet and a sink area.
The staff encourage guests to explore the grounds and come afternoon time, guests make their way down from their rooms to the dining room where an afternoon tea service awaits. There is tea, coffee or a slice of fruit tart and these are taken on various lounges in the area. Later that evening, the tea and cake become Pisco Sours.
There isn't a gym on the premises although they do have arrangements with nearby gyms at extra cost. Wifi is however complimentary and fast.
The rumble of my stomach interrupts my thoughts and the subject of food springs to mind. So what is Chilean food like? Chile's cuisine is different yet shares some similarities to other South American cuisine. They share the same love of sweets as Argentina. Their version of dulce de leche is called manjar and is darker and denser than dulce de leche. And as much as I love mayonnaise, be warned that a Chilean's obsession with the stuff reaches epic proportions.
Chile's coastline also provides the cuisine with plenty of seafood. Ceviche, oysters and fish are cooked simply and enhanced with olive oil or butter and herbs. Geographically Chile is a long, thin country and this means that the food differs regionally from city to village to island to town.
Their most famous drink is Pisco and they are engaged in a long standing battle with Peru as to who makes the best. Most of the Pisco that is exported to other countries is Chilean as long time agreements in place with several countries state that the only Chilean Pisco can be marketed as Pisco.
It seems fitting that my first taste of Chile is seafood. We are having lunch at Miraolas, one of the top seafood restaurants in the Vita Cura area. On this sunny afternoon most diners are dining al fresco and it appears to be a popular place for business lunches. We start with a few appetisers to share along with of course Chilean wine.
The spiky hay coloured urchin is served out of its shell. A delicacy caught off the Chilean coast, its orange goose pimpled flesh quivers when I lift it with a fork. It comes with lightly toasted thin bread slices with a finely diced onion and parsley. This counters the richness of the sea urchin.
The black lipped oysters from Chiloe Island are flavoursome, smaller and less creamy than pacific or rock oysters. They're served with a shallot and red wine vinaigrette.
The ceviche is sublime. Chunks of sea bass are combined with red onion and lime juice and the resulting texture is buttery tender fish singing with freshness. The ceviche is on the judicious side of tart without making one's lips pucker.
There are two specialties at Miraolas and the first is fillet of sole served with your choice of sauces. Our waiter recommends the butter, lemon and parsley sauce. The sauce is good although the fillet is a tad overlooked.
The conger eel cheeks fare much better. Eel is a springy, firm fish when it is fresh and the fillet is succulent with a house sauce of clarified butter and shaved garlic.
Sides include mashed potato. Potato is big here in Chile with hundreds of varieties grown. The crispy potato chips are also moreish as is the avocado salad dressed with a simple vinegar and olive oil dressing.
Around 8pm that evening, we head to the fashionable Lastarria district. Bocanriz features an astounding 632 Chilean only wines on the wine list and food is served tapas style. The menu breaks the food down into tastes to help diners match the food with the wines.
We are ordering from their three course wine matching menu. This features five different wines all served in 50cc serves. The food is a bit of a mixed bag. When we ordered from the set menu the starter was fantastic while the mains didn't thrill. But it is a great place for a pre or post dinner drink.
At night, one of the best places to absorb the spirit of Santiago amongst locals is at the cultishly popular eatery Liguria. There are four locations and we are visiting the Providencia location. Santiaguinos adore this bar and bistro - the line is ever present and continues long into the night. Chileans typically eat around 9pm onwards and often it is a light supper type of meal.
Liguria doesn't take any bookings so waiting while nursing a cigarette outside is part of the experience for most. They serve classic Chilean food in a space decorated in Italianate style. Wood carvings form logos and retro touches like street signs and photos create a welcoming atmosphere. It originally started as a small hole in the wall but has expanded taking over the restaurant space next door.
Kristina, Rodrigo and I take a seat at an outside table. Cigarette smoke is a hazard but the outside tables are the most coveted. The food menu is simple and spans just a couple of pages. It's all in Spanish but Kristina translates the items for me. Her husband a Chilean artist Rodrigo suggests that I try a local favourite, the fish sandwich. He wants to order the tongue and watercress sandwich but alas the kitchen has sold out of this. Service is known to be great here and it is indeed friendly and warm.
Outside affords a great position for people watching and I watch the tables near us also ordering sandwiches. Pisco sours are poured and they set down some bread, pebre salsa, ketchup and the ever present mayonnaise which is house-made here.
Our meals arrive and I tuck into my sandwich served on marraqueta bread which is crusty and soft centered. It is filled with slices of tomato, lettuce, onion, pickles with a large pan fried fish fillet. The fish fillet is soft against the lightly crusty toasted bread and I savour every delicious bite.
I try some of Rodrigo's Arrollado filled sandwich. The Arrollado is a spiced pork meat roll made up of slices of pork meat rolled in a layer of pork fat which gives it flavour and protects it from dryness. The entire thing is then cooked in a pan with some water to keep it moist. It's a close call between which sandwich I prefer but perhaps it is the fish.
I return to The Aubrey and steal into my secret entranceway smiling to myself. Chile it turns out is full of surprises.
So tell me Dear Reader, have you visited South America and if so, what were your favourite destinations? And do you prefer meat or seafood based cuisines?
NQN visited Chile as a guest of LAN Airlines and The Aubrey Hotel
LAN Airlines operates six one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago, Chile. LAN launched the new air connection to Chiloé Island in November 2012, enabling travellers to connect to and from the island in Southern Chile more easily.
Constitución 317, Providencia, Región Metropolitana, Chile
Phone:+56 2 2940 2800