I have long had a fascination with South America. I remember finding long Argentina and skinny Chile a striking contrast to the massive blob of Brazil in elementary geography studies, while a jumble of smaller, but not exactly small, countries stuffed in the spaces around them. The topography and cultures were as disparate and intriguing as their shapes Though, oddly, not one of South America’s cities has ever ended up on the “Must go there now!” list. That is, until more recently.
French became my semi-second language in third grade, and Italian my third-ish in college. For a long time the Spanish language barrier intimidated me. Of course, that wouldn’t have been a hindrance for visiting French Guiana. What, you don’t remember that one? It’s up there on the top, right next to Suriname. (Check the map.) For the record, they speak Dutch in Suriname. Fascinating region! Italian heritage can be found in the more “popular” South American countries of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, and Venezuela thanks to the Italian Diaspora…of course, few continue to speak the language now. Besides, for me, South America summoned images of fiery Spanish influence with lively music, colorful festivals, ornate architecture, churrasco y asado…so yeah, mostly Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. But then there were earthquakes.
I hate to say that my interest in Chile began with a natural disaster, but we on the West Coast have these tremblings in common. I recognize those concentric circles all too well. And, as I began to read about Chile, I learned that we in Seattle shared many features with the areas within and surrounding those circles. Rugged coastlines, port cities, island chains, volcanos. If only we had their fauna. The Pacific Northwest could definitely use more pudú.
Aww, so cute!
Santiago is the capitol and largest city in Chile. And while provocative in its own right, somehow it’s not nearly as captivating as Valparaíso just 2 hours to the north. Much like my impression of the difference between Portland and Seattle. (Kiddingnotkidding, PDX!)
Photos reveal a patchwork of brightly colored hillside homes reminiscent of San Francisco on acid.
Public art hints at the city’s bohemian history (Pablo Neruda once lived here) with stunning images and a unique sense of humor, right down to the fact that murals are often painted on homes without permission. And yet they remain – disrespect respected.
Unesco declared Valparaíso’s historic center a World Heritage Site back in 2003, which sparked a major revival. Prior to that, the city’s facade, and likely its infrastructure, was cracking and crumbling with age. A major tourism development plan, as well as the $75 million Valparaíso Recovery and Urban Development Program, helped repave sidewalks and roads, repair cobblestones, restore buildings, and revive cultural sites. It’s not surprising that this effort has drawn new hotels to the region, as well as restaurants both specializing in and reinventing classic Chilean cuisine.
Tourism has steadily increased as a result of improvements, but Valpo, as the locals call it, hardly seems overrun. I think this is what appeals to me most. A strangely familiar city with unique character and creative locals simply doing their thing in relative obscurity from the rest of the world – exactly what lured me to Seattle the first time. For that, I think it’s time for me to overcome mi miedo a viajar en Español and head to South America!