Monday, March 30, 2009

Random Travel Update 39

Last locations: Santiago CL, Vina del Mar CL, Valparaiso CL
Arrival Date: March 17, 2009
Departure Date: March 27, 2009

Current location: La Serena, Chile
Arrival Date: March 28, 2009
Departure Date: March 30, 2009

Next Location: San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Arrival Date: March 31, 2009
Departure Date: April 2, 2009

We are three countries into our South American itinerary. It helps not to plan a trip if you want to be truly surprised when you arrive. When I read in the Lonely Planet that Argentina’s economy had crashed in the early aughts, I had imagined rampant unemployment, abandoned storefronts and dingy supermarkets. It doesn’t help that my worldview of Latin America has been decidedly shaped by my earliest trips to the grubby streets of Nogales and litter-strewn beaches of Puerto PeƱasco in Mexico as a child.

Argentina is not a poor country. In fact, in the early 1900s, it possessed one of the world’s richest economies. The gorgeous architecture, efficiently wide street design and abundance of monuments, parks and urban forestry in both Buenos Aires and Mendoza is a testament to Argentina’s history of wealth. Since its heyday, Argentina has had significant political turbulence and economic instability. The 80s and 90s were a dark period and in late 2001/early 2002, the country officially defaulted on its $93 billion debt and plummeted into economic turmoil. You wouldn’t know it visiting though.

While locals complain about things not being the same since the collapse-for example certain products are no longer regularly stocked on supermarket shelves and the sidewalks aren’t always repaired- Argentina itself is still distinguished. The supermarkets are supermarkets just like those in the US with sorted isles, air-conditioning, grocery carts and automated registers; the highways are developed, lit and paved; the tap water is potable, even for visitors; hot water is ubiquitous and the service establishments are clean and comfortable. The Argentinians themselves are proud, well dressed, well spoken and generally relaxed. The architecture, population demographic, and cultural ambiance is very European. So much so that a fellow traveler called Buenos Aires the “most European city in the world”. When asked to clarify that is was the most European city outside of Europe. He said, “No, the most European city including Europe!”

It is very European. Except perhaps cleaner and more modern. Not to mention, a much better value travel-wise. Consider it when you go to book that next trip to Paris or Rome.

Uruguay is also incredibly European with charming architecture, inspiring street art and a pasta/pizza eating population. The three cities we visited: Montevideo, Punta del Este and Colonia del Sacramento each had their own distinct vibe. Montevideo is a quite, picturesque city along the coast. The city’s working population appears around 6pm to drink mate out of handcrafted gourds, replenishing each cup from their mobile thermos. Punta del Este is a ritzy beach resort city with strings of expensive high rise apartments and upscale restaurants crowded along the boardwalk overlooking modest strips of sand overrun by Uruguayan and Argentinean ajumas and their brightly colored umbrellas. It is expensive. Colonia is a small colonial-style town with cobblestone streets, willows and an atmosphere that feels like letting out a long sigh, ahhhhhhhh. And from there you can take a ferry to Buenos Aires.

Chile deserves it’s own update. We are currently in La Serena, heading to north to San Pedro de Atacama this evening. I will try to send out another update before we reach Bolivia.

There are new photos from Mendoza at:
Jon's blog and some sweet pictures from his Aconcagua summit are at:



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