Many of the countries and cities of Central and South America are infamous for their high homicide rates, gang violence, drug smuggling and political corruption but where is the best country to live in the region if you want to steer clear of any potential trouble? Well, there are two which top the list and it was these two nations where I rounded off my data collection trip to South America: Chile and Uruguay.
Chile, one of only two countries in South America that doesn’t border Brazil (the other being Ecuador), has one of the most recognisable outlines of any country. It is 24 times as long as it is wide, stretching from the freezing waters of the southern fjords all the way up to the driest desert in the world some 4300 kilometres away, and averaging a mere 180 kilometres in width. In between are some 1300 volcanoes and about two thirds of the way up is the capital city of Santiago. Home to 35% of the population it is one of the largest cities on the continent with 6.3 million people. I found it similar to the salubrious suburbs of Lima and much of the city is highly developed. Last year the Gran Torre Santiago was completed and at 300 metres high is currently the tallest building in Latin America. As well as modern skyscrapers there are plenty of swanky malls for perusing the windows of unaffordable designer outlets. This and the proliferation of US fast food chains makes much of the city feel like it is in the States rather than Latin America.
Chile has the highest human development index of any Latin American nation and also leads the region in terms of income per capita, low perception of corruption and economic freedom. In fact it ranks a dizzying 7th globally in terms of economic freedom. The economy relies heavily on the mineral wealth of the north, particularly copper for which it is responsible for a third of the world’s production. And it was to the north where I headed after my work was done in Santiago, to the Atacama – the driest desert in the world…
…except, for my stay of three days it was anything but dry! There are some areas of the desert where rain has never been recorded and the March average in San Pedro de Atacama where I stayed is a mere two millimetres of rain. But on arrival we had about two inches of apocalyptic rain in the space of a few hours. There were brief moments of respite but over the days the rains continued. I later found out that the government had issued a Constitutional State of Exceptional Catastrophe and I was just unfortunate to be there during the wettest period in over a century!
Leaving the soggy desert behind me I flew to the most remote airport in the world (as in the furthest from any other airport, if that makes sense!). It’s on the mystical Easter Island, a small dot some 3500 kilometres west of the Chilean mainland in the Pacific Ocean. Surprisingly, the island itself looks just like Wales, with rolling green hills and country lanes. However, the two locations differ when it comes to having giant enigmatic statues made of volcanic rock! The main reason people visit Easter Island is to see the famed Moai statues. They truly are mightily impressive and well worth the long and expensive side trip from walking the aisles of supermarkets – and they make for better photos too! I enjoyed every moment of my time on Easter Island except waking with a startle in the middle of the night to find a huge cockroach crawling across my face – that’s never happened to me in Wales!
After my time out at Easter Island, I rounded off my month long data collecting trip in South America’s second smallest country – Uruguay. Famed for its footballing exploits but not a lot else, the nation has always been overshadowed by its two giant neighbours, Brazil and Argentina. Along with Chile, Uruguay tops lists of Latin American nations for GDP per capita, peacefulness, quality of living, press freedom and low corruption levels. It’s a very liberal and tolerant nation too, being the only country in the world to legalise abortion, same-sex marriage and marijuana!
It also seems to be stuck in a musical time warp. When I was about eight or nine years old I remember my favourite song being Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now by Starship. I still like the song but it seems the Uruguayans like it even more. For some reason the song is blasted out through speakers in every shop or quietly piped out from the supermarket audio systems. I felt a little like I was transported back to my youth, especially with other classic 80’s rock ballads getting in on the act too. For your interest, this is no bad thing in my opinion!
80’s rock ballads aside I found Montevideo, the capital, to have quite a different atmosphere to other Spanish speaking nations on the continent. It feels a lot more European, organised and laid back than many of the frenetic cities I visited, particularly those in Brazil. This is no doubt down to the fact that almost 90% of the population is of European origin mostly descending from France, Spain and Italy during the 19th and 20th centuries. Although the city is of only moderate size (some 1.9 million live in the metropolitan area) it is over ten times larger than Uruguay’s second city and more than half of the country’s people live in the capital. Named by the Economist as Country of the Year in 2013, Uruguay certainly has many aspects which are the envy of its neighbours.
I’ve been using the terms ‘South’ and ‘Latin’ America throughout this post but I’d just like to clarify that they are not actually the same thing and I wasn’t just using the terms randomly. Many people presume they are the same (I certainly used to think so!) but South America is a geographical entity which includes the 12 countries from Colombia southwards. Latin America is a cultural entity which includes the 20 countries of all of the Americas which speak Latin based languages, namely, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Mexico is the most northerly of these although geographically it is considered part of North America.
Before I say adios I’ll just let you know that the mysterious bumpy yellow fruit mentioned in my previous post is in fact a variety of dragon fruit. Phew, you can sleep easily at night now knowing that!