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Though Santiago is home to roughly one-third of Chile’s population, there’s a lot more to the country than just its capital. Thankfully, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies program—which has brought me to Chile—has also allowed us to experience the cultural and natural beauty of other parts of the country, in addition to those offered by Santiago. Perhaps most notable was our visit to Valparaíso, Chile’s third-largest city, located about 90 minutes west of Santiago by road.
Valparaíso prospered as a port during its heyday (the 18th and 19th centuries), serving as a major stopover for ships travelling between the Atlantic and Pacific around Cape Horn or through the Strait of Magellan. It remained the country’s principal economic center until the early 20th century (hard to believe now, as Santiago is home to roughly one-third of Chile’s population today). After the Panama Canal opened in 1914, Valparaíso’s economy began to falter, and the city entered into a lengthy period of decline. It began a revival in the early 1990s as a haven for artists and hipsters, and its Historic Quarter was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. It has even recovered some of its port activity, hosting post-Panamax ships that are too big for the Panama Canal. Today, it is also a favorite of international tourists, drawn to the city’s history, culture, and the street art that permeates the colorful houses that dot its many cerros (hills).
Perhaps the only comparison I can make between Valparaíso and a U.S. city would be to call it a cross between San Francisco and Detroit (though smaller than both). Geographically, Valparaíso and San Francisco are twins—both are located on 42 hills overlooking a large bay. There are other similarities as well: both were devastated by earthquakes in 1906. However, like Detroit, Valparaíso went through a long period of decline after its main industry faltered, and also like Detroit, Valparaíso has begun a revival and has made art, particularly street art, an important part of that revival.
After Valparaíso, many of us also visited the nearby beach resort town of Viña del Mar. A group of us also managed to visit all three of Chilean Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda’s houses—a personal goal of mine, since I wrote a 12-page paper about Neruda’s Canto General in high school. Most of us also visited the town of San Pedro de Atacama, located in the extreme northeast of Chile in the Atacama Desert, the world’s driest desert. Between huge salt flats, flamingos, geysers, alpine lakes, sandboarding, and archaeological sites and museums, this was no ordinary desert, but one of the most beautiful places in the world. An avid football (soccer) fan, I also had the good fortune of going to two Copa América matches courtesy of my host family’s ability to find affordable tickets—a group stage match (which I went to with a friend from the DRCLAS program) between Brazil and Venezuela and the semifinal (which I went to with my host family) between Chile and Peru. Chile wound up winning the tournament for the first time ever (in its 99-year history), doing so at home. The streets of Santiago were a giant party afterwards, abuzz with the celebratory honking of car horns.
Despite all of its smog (which was quite bad this winter due to a lack of rain), its astounding socioeconomic disparities, lack of spicy food, and petty theft (violent crime is quite rare, but my phone was stolen as I was using it to take a picture of a celebratory crowd at the Plaza Baquedano after a Chile football victory), Santiago has been a kind host to me, and neither it nor the country have ceased to amaze me. Santiago is at once old and new; it is nearly as old as neighboring capitals Lima and Buenos Aires, but at once looks younger—its architecture a haphazard hodgepodge of old and new (not unlike a large American city like New York or Boston). It has given me a huge range of places to explore, and has given me lots of things to think about over the last five weeks. My host family has also been amazing - they have been the best host family I ever could have asked for. I can’t wait to see how the last few days of my program finish up.
Vimal S. Konduri '17, a Crimson staff writer, is a molecular and cellular biology concentrator in Winthrop House.
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