Call me clichéd, but Paris is one of my favorite cities. I love its preservation of Parisian history, but I like its cultural edge in a contemporary world even more.
When I arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I was floored to see how much BA’s art and culture reminded me of Paris. It was only after I excitedly told my friends about the similarity between the two cities that I learned BA’s nickname is “the Paris of South America.”
Okay, so I wasn’t the first to make that comparison. Maybe my travel thoughts are clichéd.
People compare the Argentinian capital to Paris because of the cutting-edge fashion, the cafés lining every street corner, and the architectural similarities. There’s an obvious aesthetic parallel here; many of the buildings were influenced by 18th-century European styles. But just as Parisian architecture represents diverse styles from the Middle Ages to the 21st century, Buenos Aires is also eclectic. In fact, the same building may have art deco, art nouveau, and neoclassical styles incorporated into it.
I’m only a casual fan of design, but even a layman like me felt swept away by the architectural majesty on every street corner.
One of my favorite artistic destinations was more beautiful on the inside. El Ateneo Grand Splendid is a bookstore that was converted from a theater. Stepping onto the balcony and looking down at the levels of bookshelves, I felt like Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The only disappointment was that I couldn’t find any books in English to buy for myself.
A less sophisticated construction in Buenos Aires — yet equally compelling artistically — is La Boca neighborhood. Here, splashy primary colors consume the humble infrastructure. Not one building was uniform in color; red, canary yellow, pastel blue, and
sea foam green paint alternated between the walls, with no discernible pattern. On walls, artists painted caricatures of people such as a pot-bellied man offering a leggy, big-bosomed woman a flower.
At first, La Boca felt like a lively celebration of bohemian art. After a few hours, though, the festivity eventually slowed. The tackiness shouting from every overpriced souvenir magnet sold in the shops began to wear on me. Even so, the unabashed gaiety of bright colors and cartoon paintings is a welcome respite from the polished cosmopolitan buildings downtown.
But the most breathtaking sights in Buenos Aires for me were in La Recoleta cemetery. This cemetery hosts above-ground tombs for wealthy and notable Argentinians, such as former presidents and cultural icons. I walked through rows of mausoleums and saw baroque, neo-gothic, and art nouveau structures. The experience was more immersive than the cemeteries that I know with tombstones and below-ground graves, and it felt surreal.
The most famous tomb was Eva Perón’s. Though the grave is unspectacular compared to many of the others in La Recoleta, it’s by far the most visited one. Evita was a champion of the little man in Argentina during the mid-20th century. Though she passed away at age 33 of cancer, her legacy is still present in the culture. Everything I saw in Argentina — from enormous murals downtown, to a live tango show, to our walking tour guide — paid homage to the icon. Though I was only in Argentina for a month, I felt honored to have visited her tomb, as well.
Most of the time on tour, I only have about a week to spend in a city. This time, I was lucky enough to spend three weeks in Buenos Aires. In that time, BA easily became one of my top ten favorite cities in the world. I was spellbound by the way Buenos Aires embraced its 18th- and 19th-century European influences while savoring lively, modern-day Latin American culture. Even though I spent most of this blog post gushing about the architecture, the cafes, live music, and dancing made Buenos Aires a romantic experience for me.
After a tough 3-week work schedule in BA, I had ten days off before starting work again in Santiago, Chile. I split that week and a half break between a few days revisiting a few of my favorite parts of BA and exploring new sites in Santiago.
I was happy to find the Chilean capital was equally as engrossing as Buenos Aires. Although there was less of a hodgepodge of cultural elements, Santiago has plenty of historical monuments and museums presented in clean, neoclassical buildings downtown. At one point, I hit four museums in one day by simply walking around downtown for several hours.
The most poignant museum for me was the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. This human rights museum explored the dictatorial coup in the 1970s that displaced thousands of victims. Though I barely knew anything about Augusto Pinochet’s military regime, the museum provided enough context for me to delve into the stories of the victims.
A museum like this struggles because finding concrete objects from a period when the regime kept their activity secret is hard. However, the objects that the curators could recover — such as museums from orphaned children, torture devices used by the regime, and small trinkets that prisoners kept for themselves — were enough to evoke a response from me. I hadn’t been that emotionally invested in a museum since the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum about the atomic bombing in World War II.
Outside of the museums, I found the natural beauty in Santiago exciting. In the center of Santiago I hiked up the Santa Lucía Hill. Its history is fascinating; originally it was used as a fort and an ammunition depot before it was transformed into an elaborate park with
fountains and statues during the 19th century.
The layout of the hill kept surprising me. Because of the ascending walkways, I would stop at a monument and think it was the main area. Just a bit more hiking, though, and I’d find a different open area of fountains and statues, where young couples competed for available love-seat benches in what must have been the make-out point of the city. Eventually, I reached the top of the hill, where an all-encompassing view of Santiago brought dozens of tourists elbow-to-elbow for a chance to recreate an iconic photo. And really, what great city doesn’t have a wonderful lookout point?
As beautiful as the hiking in Santa Lucía was, though, my favorite part of Chile was skiing in the Andes mountains. I’m from upstate New York, so I’ve grown up skiing. I’m used to skiing on hardened, icy snow with trees bordering all of the trails, so I can’t see much from the top of the mountain. At the Valle Nevado ski resort in Santiago, though, everything was different. The snow was a soft, fluffy powder, so I was amazed at how responsive my skis’ edges were cutting into the mountain. And more surprisingly to me, there were barely any trees. The unblocked views I had while skiing down the mountain made the experience feel surreal, as if I was floating on a cloud next to the cliffs.
FINAL THOUGHTS FROM SOUTH AMERICA
Before I had a chance to travel with my job, I hadn’t put too much thought into visiting South America. Like I admitted before, some of my travel opinions are tied up in clichés; I was more interested in western Europe and Asia tours because they had more famous cities.
However, I met coworkers who would fawn over South America and cited it as their favorite tour. I’m now lucky enough to have traveled to Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. (For my highlights from Brazil, check out this blog post.)
I found some of the most impressive natural wonder in South America, including Iguazu Falls and the Andes mountains. And I was blown away by the cultural spirits of these countries, from the splashy neighborhood of La Boca and the sophistication of the Recoleta district in Buenos Aires to the bohemian feel of Brazil.
Sometimes, the cities I find on tour aren’t what I expect — and sometimes, I don’t have any expectations. But most of my time in South America surpassed my expectations because these cities were so multifaceted and exciting.