Impressions and Lessons from Uruguay and Chile

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(Postcard from Valparaiso, Chile, my favorite city of the trip)

I’ve spent the past two weeks in Uruguay and Chile. They are both terrific countries that I recommend visiting.

Below are high level impressions and lessons from Chile and Uruguay (and a bit of Argentina), followed by other high level travel thoughts. (More informal play-by-plays are over at my travel blog. I already posted big picture thoughts on Argentina.)

1. Uruguay and Chile Are Alike; Argentina is Different. These are the three countries of the Southern Cone. Their commonality is climate. Each has four real seasons. Otherwise, put Uruguay and Chile in one box and Argentina in another. Whereas Argentina is politically and economically rocky, Uruguay and Chile, for all their historical challenges, at present are in remarkably good shape. Montevideo and Santiago are safe and clean. Try to bribe a police officer there and you’ll go to jail. You can take out more than a couple hundred dollars at a time from the ATM. There is a decent amount of national pride.

2. My favorite foreign countries have been Switzerland and Japan. Perhaps Chile gets added to the list. That should tell you all you need to know about my personality and tastes.

3. Beauty. Argentinean women and men are beautiful. This commenter nailed it: where the Argentine beauty shines is not in the 99th percentile but in the 40th percentile: "Cross below the mean in the US and you are dealing with someone seriously overweight and offensive. Cross below the mean in BA and you have a woman who is in shape, dressing well, doing her best but just not blessed with perfect bone structure."

Chilean men and women are not as beautiful. Cool, handsome young Chilean men don a mullet hairstyle. Yuck. I’m always intrigued when I find styles of beauty that do not conform to the usual Western expectation. Mullets in Chile certainly qualifies here.

4. Santiago Public Transit. Litmus test for how much a developing country has its shit together: the effectiveness and efficiency of their public transit system. Santiago's metro is a-ma-zing.

5. Walkability of Cities. In Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Santiago I walked around more or less aimlessly. They all are quite walkable. When cities don't have "must see" attractions (like the Effiel Tower in Paris) walkability becomes critical to enjoying the place — you want to be able to meander down sidewalks, pursue side streets, stop in parks, etc.

6. Paying for Safety. How much are you willing to pay for not feeling like you need to look over your shoulder when passing someone on the street? How much are you willing to pay for smoothly paved roads? For trains that are on-time? For cops that aren't corrupt? Chile is the second most expensive country in South America (after Brazil). You pay for safety and stability on all these fronts. For some it's not worth it. They'd rather have USD $2 dinners in Lima and battle illegal taxis and corrupt cops.

7. Status Obsession and Signaling. In Montevideo, I heard third hand about a guy who advised an American businessman that in order to do business with rich people in Uruguay he’d have to live in a certain neighborhood and drive a certain type of car. He simply had to live in rich neighborhood X or else people wouldn't take him seriously. This kind of dependence on status signaling is very inefficient.

8. Culture and Fun. Everyone says that Chile is “boring” and Argentina is home to more “culture.” It’s true that Chile is more conservative – divorce only became legal a few years ago, and the Catholic church exerts its loving influence over everything social and sexual. Still, I saw more dancing, street festivals, and of course making out and kissing sessions in Chile (in every metro in Santiago there’s a couple getting it on) than in Argentina. Probably dumb luck. Anyways, there’s plenty to do and see in Chile: world-class museums, fine food and drink, and enough nightlife for any sane person with weekday professional ambitions. Buenos Aires has a European charm, sure, and probably 10% more dance clubs, but what does that matter for mainstream non-nocturnal people?

Other big picture travel thoughts:

1. "Ha ha! My accent is funny!" This rhythm of conversation can sustain some hostel-goers and gringo-trail-trekkers for weeks. An American or Brit goes to a hostel and laughs with locals about how funny their accent is, or how strange some cultural difference is. I find this kind of stuff fun and exciting….to a point. Then it gets old.

2. Jobs That Don't Need to Exist: You come across so many jobs in the third world that don't need to exist; an endless number of service "professionals" seeking tips by providing random services. The guy opening the doors of taxis at Aeroparque airport in Buenos Aires; the guy who must pump your gas in Uruguay (no self-serve); the guy who had to hand me toilet paper in the bathroom on the border of Argentina and Chile instead of just putting the toilet paper in the bathroom stall.

3. Endless ways to increase efficiency in transportation. Why is it that in every third world country public buses stop wherever and whenever there's a passenger waiting on the side of the road? Seriously.

4. Lifestyle arbitrage: Since the start the recession laid-off Wall Street financiers have flocked to Buenos Aires in order to keep up their crazy party lifestyle at half the cost. But lifestyle arbitrage can be an even better approach if you need to spend several months coding or writing or reading. You can get a nice apartment for super cheap and dine at fine restaurants for cheap, too. I say better because, if you're going to be indoors most of the time anyways, it doesn't much matter how decrepit the outside infrastructure is or how uneasy the security situation might seem.

[Like in Argentina, my travels through Chile and Argentina were made possible by the extraordinary genrosity of friends and readers. Big ups to Christina DesVaux, Carl Wescott, Adrian Dorsman, Lucia Dammert, Andy Cummins, and JK for all their help showing me around and hosting me.]

9 Responses to Impressions and Lessons from Uruguay and Chile

  1. Alejandro says:

    A few comments:

    “Santiago’s metro is a-ma-zing.”

    But good luck if you are going to somewhere not close to the metro (90% of the city?). And good luck if you happen to live in another city.

    “an endless number of service “professionals” seeking tips by providing random services.”

    Absolutely true. Being a Chilean living in the US for the last two years, I made the same observation some time ago.

    “the guy who must pump your gas in Uruguay (no self-serve)”

    From time to time they put a self-serve gas station in Chile. The price is marginally lower. They don’t last much time. People is not use to put gas in their cars.

    “the guy who had to hand me toilet paper in the bathroom on the border of Argentina and Chile instead of just putting the toilet paper in the bathroom stall.”

    Sadly, without that guy, people would steal the toilet paper.

    “Why is it that in every third world country public buses stop wherever and whenever there’s a passenger waiting on the side of the road? Seriously.”

    Because the driver income depends on how many tickets he sell.

  2. Donny Katz says:

    My research focus area is on public transportation in developing countries. I wanted to write my answer to your question of why public buses stop wherever and whenever they want, and what I assume to be as a comparison to developed nations.
    The system you refer to is typically called a “jitney” system. You’re right in that most developing countries have some sort of system like this. Many of course have expanded from this point with train metro transit or bus rapid transit, as you saw in Santiago. The jitney system as you saw works though, and provides cheap frequent service to the people. The number one reason this doesn’t show up in developed countries is the aversion to being crammed into vehicles. Passengers in developed countries expect more from their transit services, in both comfort and safety. If the South American experience is like Africa or Asia, these services also are privately owned and have little oversight. The fall into disrepair and frequently do not operate safely.
    Perhaps the South American jitneys are in good condition and the argument above is moot. The second reason that developed countries don’t jump all over jitneys is safety. From my experience, these buses operate incredibly elsewhere because they own the road. Swerving to catch passengers, stopping as they please, and often riding with their doors open to decrease curb dwell time do not bode well for highway safety. Although you may never see a casualty yourself, these systems are not without their good share of collisions, both with pedestrians and other vehicles. How scratched up did the jitney buses look? If the answer is even “mildly”, think about how each one of those hits would have required a police officer and an insurance check in a developed country. That is rare in a developing nation’s traffic enforcement system.
    Lastly, when one can afford a personal vehicle, they almost always will trade their public transportation riding in for the freedom of an automobile or motorbike. This is both in the developed and developing world. Since those who can afford such luxuries are much higher in the developed world, ridership for a public system would be much less. Thus, the profitable private business of operating a jitney system in the developing world, has much less value in developed countries. Without the high number of potential passengers, one would end their route near empty.
    I think jitney systems are great. I would even call them amusing, and I have great tales that have come from my time spent on them. Getting them adopted in the developed world would require intense oversight and planning. I’m glad you commented on it though, and I hope to see what you saw someday and compare it to what else I’ve seen.

  3. Devin Reams says:

    I think the transportation issue with buses (definitely experienced in Cartagena) is that the general transportation system is so spotty. You can’t assume that the bus will be at the corner of Y and Z at 10. You don’t know if it’ll even get there. So… you walk. You walk until you see it and then hop on.

  4. Erich says:

    EconTalk had a podcast on Santiago’s transportation and how their bus system went from private to public, though I don’t know its current state.

  5. Some side-notes on Argentina:

    I think Argentine women and men seem generally beautiful because of the predominant Italian genes. Although the national language is Spanish, about 60% of the population is of Italian descent.

    (I’ve never seen so many beautiful people anywhere else as I did all over Italy).

    The Argentines, especially porteños, are fashion-forward, but the hipster element and the working-class Tomáses are definitely hair-style challenged.

    Cross below the mean in BA and you have a woman who is in shape, dressing well, doing her best but just not blessed with perfect bone structure.

    I was struck by how many of the younger Argentine women, and teenage girls, have midriff-bulge and don’t mind exposing it between their hip-hugger jeans and short tops.

    It was a bit of a gross-out that blatant nose-picking in public doesn’t have the same social stigma that it does here in the US, Henry Kissinger notwithstanding.

    You can’t get a good overview of such a sprawling city as BA by walking aimlessly. You could even get into serious trouble doing that in La Boca. You have to use the subte or taxis to reach the different barrios, and then do your sight-seeing or perambulating.

    Montserrat, Palermo, Recoleta, Retiro, and San Telmo are all well worth exploring, but you really should use a guide book (Lonely Planet is good for Argentina and BA) to make the best use of your time and to discover their many touristic and not so well-known treasures.

    And watch out for the dog shit.

  6. This is a nice post… but when did you start saying “anways?” Augh! Make it stop! :)

  7. Ian says:

    You refer throughout your article to Chile, Uruguay and Argentina as “third world countries.” I don’t think either of them qualify as third world countries, especially not Chile, which is a member of the OECD. In fact, in many regards, especially since 2008, Chile has been outperforming many European countries in various quality and standard of life indices.

    • Jose Carlos says:

      you are very wrong, third world means under development, and its still is.
      just verify OECD website and compare it to real first world countries like US, Australia, NZ and so on, you’ll have your answer there.
      Chile and Uruguay aren’t developed countries!

  8. Jose Carlos says:

    I´m sorry for disagree with you but Chile transportation system is not even close to other really developed countries. They need to improve things, and chilean people drive bad as hell! They are very angry people when inside their cars and can kill you easily…

    I’m living in Chile about just a year so other parts of your research I’m OK with that, it corresponds to real life here. We can’t forget its a south american country, not Europe neither US, maybe will never be, but its a fine country compared to Brazil, really much more safe…

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