Travel: A trembling southern beauty

The Chilean capital of Santiago is a city of Andean vistas, exotic gardens and the occasional earthquake.
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Santiago is a city for nature lovers and gardeners. And, with the lowest fares ever coming on stream for our autumn/their spring, it's also for weekenders. Be the first on your patch to return home from the ultimate 20,000km weekend.

Nature can be bountiful to those who love Santiago. If you are lucky, you can catch one of those evenings when the setting sun shines in, and transforms 6,000m of Andes mountains to the east into a gigantic pink stone curtain that stretches from the northern to the southern horizon. The experience is never to be forgotten.

Meanwhile, in some of the main avenues of Santiago, the Chilean gardeners come to the fore. The central reservations are magnificent combinations of grey and green vegetation of exotic Southern Hemisphere plants. (The monkey-puzzle tree, for instance, is a local species.) There is hardly a square or broad street where you are not liable to be splashed by some loving gardener watering the plants in his care.

But I also mean by focusing on nature that the architecture in the capital of Chile isn't up to much. How could it be? Sitting in an earthquake zone, the city has over the centuries either seen its most delicate buildings shaken down, or has had to rejoice as best it could in the survival of buildings put up with great fat walls.

It was not until comparatively recently that architects made buildings sufficiently flexible to ride the earth when it galloped under your feet. Today, at the eastern end of the city in the financial quarter, a new generation of skyscrapers has been erected which should protect the bankers within when the ground rumbles again, as it surely will. But all public buildings have the exits well marked in case a little temblor turns into a full-blown sismo and you have to put down your cafe cortado or cappuccino and run.

One old colonial building remains, the Casa Colorada, a nobleman's house a block away from the central square which is now the Museum of Santiago. It shows how for centuries since the Spaniards founded it in 1541, the place was a backwater; capital of a country which had none of the gold or silver that the Europeans had crossed the Atlantic to find. Like some little US settlement in the Mid-West, though centuries earlier, it was nearly wiped out by Indians understandably hostile to Europeans with their secret weapons, the horse and gunpowder.

The city is positively stuffed with museums: decorative arts, sculpture - you name it they have it. One of the most intriguing displays is at the Museo Aeronautico, devoted to space exploration.

The presidential palace, the Moneda, was once the country's mint. Until the coming of military rule, the courtyards with their fountains were open to the public and used as a convenient short cut from one part of town to the other. The building was destroyed by bombing on 11 September 1973 when General Pinochet seized power. It has been totally restored but subsequent governments haven't restored the public's right of way.

The Plaza de Armas is the centre of the oldest quarter, where citizens come together to have their shoes cleaned, play chess or shout aloud how Jesus saved them. Under the arcade of the Plaza is Chez Henry, a traditional restaurant. It is unassuming with attentive waiters who will serve you with the finest seafood plucked from the South Pacific and wines from the vineyards which surround the city.

While you are downtown, go to the central market and see hake and salmon the size of small children, mountains of cockles, sea-urchins, crabs and lobsters, all going for a song. Go, then, to the Vina Santa Carolina, Concha y Toro, Undurraga or Cousino-Macul in the very outskirts of the city or in the Maipo Valley half an hour's drive beyond and see the wines maturing in their dark cellars.

If you have itchy feet while you're in the city you can always take a cheap collective taxi to Mendoza (about five hours away). This is the first big city on the Argentine side of the Andes, on one of the highest and most thrilling roads in the world (at one point there are 29 successive hairpin bends). At the top, there is four-kilometre long tunnel which enables you to cross the mountains at an altitude low enough to allow you to breathe. If you're feeling poor, you can do the journey on a bus for less than a fiver.

British Airways flies four times a week from Gatwick to Santiago. The airline has just cut fares to the city substantially for travel in October, November and the beginning of December. Through discount agents such as Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108), the airline is selling return tickets for pounds 519 return. You could travel for a similar fare on Aerolineas Argentinas, but this requires that you make a change of plane in Madrid and Buenos Aires.

The easiest way to travel long distances in Chile is on the national airline, LAN Chile, using an airpass; specialist agents can provide details