You'd never mistake it for Rio at Carnival. But Chile's conservative capital is loosening up, with a lively new arts scene, more nightlife, and a fresh appreciation for fine food and drink.
Racy. Daring. Cutting edge. Hardly typical terms for describing low-key Santiago. Or, for that matter, for describing me. Like the Chilean capital, I'm used to words like stately, dignified, sober. Maybe even dull. But times are changing. I traveled to Santiago recently to let what's left of my hair down on my 40th birthday, and the city didn't disappoint. Long a button-down town of government, churches, and commerce, Santiago has loosened its collar and begun to discover the good life. The signs are everywhere: new restaurants, new nightclubs, new theaters, new newspapers and magazines. Artists who left the country in the '80s and '90s are starting to move back. Art galleries have sprung up among the office buildings in the city's gleaming business districts. A record number of Chilean films have been produced in the last two years. Even TV has gotten more interesting.

"There's been an opening up of all sorts," says historian Barbara de Vos, who also directs the city's recently redesigned National Historical Museum. "It's been a 180-degree shift. People are more awake, more alert, and more demanding."

Not that Santiago will ever be confused with Las Vegas or Rio de Janeiro. The city is, and probably always will be, a pleasant, quiet, conservative place, characterized more by shady parks and broad avenues than by glitz and neon. In this town of 4.5 million, the subway system shuts down at 10:30 every night, and on Sundays it can be tough to find a place to have a cup of coffee, let alone a pineapple daiquiri or quail stew.

Nobody said Santiago never sleeps. It's just having more fun in its waking hours.