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.]

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