Shame in South America. Mine.

Santiago by day and night.

Our recent trip to South America made me ashamed of myself. My biases. My skewed worldview shaped by years of exposure to United States misconceptions and stereotypes.

For example, when we flew west across the Andes to Santiago, Chile, from the gleaming city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, I prepared to overlook a lot.

  • There’d be dusty streets.
  • Rows of high-rise apartment balconies draped with drying laundry.
  • Tangled webs of wires stealing power from utility poles on the sidewalks. (I’d read this was a common practice in Latin America, and had witnessed it years ago on a cruise’s dismal offshore bus excursion through one of the poorest sections of Caracas, Venezuela. So naturally I assumed we’d see it everywhere else beyond Buenos Aires, which is right up there with New York, Paris and Rome in cosmopolitan cool.)

Boy, was I wrong.

Much to my surprise in Santiago, and later in Valparaiso, on Chile’s western coast, I didn’t have to overlook a thing. All I wanted to do was breathe it all in. Both cities are beautiful. The people are, too.

A view fit for a Nobel Prize-winning poet.

Pablo Neruda’s bedroom overlooking the Valparaiso harbor.

The streets are awash with color and art.

The historic architecture has style and unpretentious elegance.

Old and new mix harmoniously.

And unlike so many American cities, people, i.e. pedestrians, seem to take priority over cars.

History is respected here, too. The good and the bad.

Chile has a dark past. The main historical fact I knew about the country was the takeover of its government by the right-wing Pinochet regime in the 1973. I’d read about how thousands of artists, musicians, writers, indigenous people and ordinary folk who disagreed with the dictator were “disappeared” or imprisoned in internment camps around the country.

What I didn’t know is that there is a “never forget” museum in Santiago that commemorates the atrocities in a way that is every bit as powerful and well-designed as the 9/11 memorial in NYC.

I think the name is beautiful in its simplicity: the Museum of Memory and Human Rights.

At the museum, photos of the disappeared tell the human cost of Chile’s brutal authoritarian regime.

The museum isn’t tucked away somewhere far away. You can access it at one of the city’s main subway stops.

Human rights are more than a museum piece in Chile.

Santiago is also a city that flies the rainbow flag among the other colors on display in the Plaza de Armas, the city government center in the heart of Santiago.

What a feeling to stand in this government plaza under the rainbow flag. Wish we could do the same at the Georgia State Capitol.

We felt right at home on the outdoor furniture at a little restaurant in one of the busiest parts of the city. Our guide was Freddy from Pride Tours.

Ted and I have developed pretty good homophobia radar.

Sometimes it hums gently; sometimes it’s more assertive in telegraphing alarm signals.

In recent years it clanged loudly at a scary, and brief, Saturday night meal with a group of gay friends at a restaurant in Cornelia, Georgia; at an encounter with an obnoxious German fellow at a gas station in South Africa; and at a Sunday night supper at a lovely rural bistro in France’s Loire Valley, where our table of four gay males drew a disconcerting amount of side-eye from the older straight couples in the room.

But everywhere we went in Chile, and in Argentina, for that matter, we felt not only safe, but also welcomed. That was a nice surprise. Our guides through Pride Tours, a tour company in Santiago catering to LGBTQ+ travelers, confirmed our conclusion that we were visiting a gay-friendly place. Chile’s Congress approved same-sex marriage equality in a landslide vote in 2021, making it the eighth Latin American country to make gay marriage legal.

When we went for haircuts, my Chilean barber asked if Ted was my friend. “Tu amigo?”

I answered: “Mi esposo.” My husband.

“Ah,” he said, and smiled. I loved it.

Here we are freshly trimmed with our barbers.

The nightlife is awesome, too. So many bars! So many restaurants! So many hot men!

Other scenes I treasure from our visit to Chile:

The outdoor pool at our VRBO on the 25th floor of an apartment building in Santiago’s Providencia district.

The cool mix of old and new … here it’s Santiago’s Metropolitan Cathedral next to a modern office building.

The winery tours outside the city.

Tasting the malbecs and sauvignon blancs and Carménères (wow!) with people from all over the world.

Having a leisurely lunch among the olive groves afterward.

There is easy access from Santiago into the Andes, where a day hike was happily doable for two old retired guys.

We also loved the delightfully funky street art in Valparaiso. It’s everywhere. And it’s proven to curb graffiti on city homes and other buildings.

We found a maze of colorful avenues to get lost in.

And slide down.

Our great tour guide Francisco helped us navigate Valparaiso, his home town.

Structures built on Valparaiso’s steep hillsides conceal several levels on the back side below what appears to be the bottom floor on the front. This is one of the so-called “liar houses.”

And, of course, the people are almost always cheerful, like this baker of alfajores, one of the best cookies you’ll find anywhere.

Checking the boxes

I hope I don’t sound as if I wore rose-colored glasses all through our South American visit. I know every city has dangerous areas where tourists shouldn’t go, or at least go unaccompanied. Our tour guides steered us around those areas. Alone, we wouldn’t have had a clue.

On the other hand, Ted and I found both cities we visited in Chile checked major boxes on our list of “quality of life” indicators.

  • Accessible public transportation. Truth be told, Santiago’s metro system makes Atlanta’s MARTA looks like someone’s neglected Christmas gift from 1974. Where are the giant TV screens reporting your train’s progress from station to station? The book exchanges? The immaculate marble floors?
  • Clean, walkable streets with a blend of historical and modern sites. Especially in Chile, there didn’t seem to be the urge to start over like there is in the United States … and especially in Atlanta, where even the gorgeous Fox Theater once faced the wrecking ball. Historic buildings are kept alive and treasured. Is that tarnish on that ornamental metal work? No. It’s patina.
  • Friendly people. I wouldn’t recommend traveling to Argentina or Chile without at last a basic knowledge of Spanish. Or travel with someone who does. (Very few people speak English here. Ted’s years of study on Duolingo helped us through many tight spots.) Still, we encountered few locals who weren’t friendly or didn’t seem to appreciate our visit to their country. (Except one elderly Uber driver who claimed Ted slammed the door of his car too hard, but that’s another story. Ha!)
  • Interesting local, inexpensive food. When we travel, we seek out food we can’t get at home. Empanadas, alfajores, steaks thicker than we’ve ever seen in the U.S., blood sausage, razor clams … these were some of the signature items we enjoyed in South America. Oh, and there were tortillas de papa, a classic Spanish dish that is a cross between a souffle and a frittata … and tastes like the best scalloped potatoes you’ve ever had.
  • Lots to do. We like cities where lively retail spots are within walking distance of wherever we are staying. Coffee shops, bakeries, stores for buying groceries and other supplies. It’s also great if museums are easily accessible. In Santiago, we even toured a beautiful mid-century modern home that has been preserved as is, with a portion converted into a fashion museum. And Pablo Neruda’s house in Valparaiso? Fabulous!

The final item on the checklist? Plenty of good surprises.

We learned a lot on our trip to South America. Like the history of the Carménère grape, once the star of the red wine scene in France and now extinct there. It arrived in Chile from Bordeaux and was planted as merlot. However, in 1994, a Frenchman named Jean Michel Boursiquot discovered that the grape masquerading as merlot was really Carménère. Today, Chile is the fertile home of a variety that no one had knowingly harvested for more than 100 years. We enjoyed it there often!

Argentina was wonderful, as I describe in my blog about that part of our South America visit. But there was something about Chile that touched us. The cities we visited there were slightly lower-key, a little funkier, especially Valparaiso.

Maybe living in one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world keeps Chile’s inhabitants from taking anything too seriously. Keeps them focused on the things that are most important. Keeps them appreciating the here and now.

Or maybe the country’s dark recent history keeps them appreciating the fact that the fresh air of freedom has been restored.

Whatever the mystery, after spending a week there, I have the feeling Ted and I could settle in Chile and feel right at home.

But then, there are those earthquakes.

And it feels pretty good to be home in Atlanta, too.

At Valparaiso’s bustling seaport.

Credit line: The photo of the Santiago subway stop is from, a lovely travel website worth visiting.

13 thoughts on “Shame in South America. Mine.

  1. Wonderful account of your time in Chile. Thanks for sharing.

    Martin Martin C. Lehfeldt Former President, Southeastern Council of Foundations Writer and speaker in the not-for-profit sector

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike, I enjoyed so much “traveling to South America” with you and Ted! As always, your writing makes any person, place, or thing come alive. ❤️ CaroleJ

    Liked by 1 person

  3. On this bleak March morning in Mpls, the colors I see out our kitchen window are white( lots of it!) grey and shades of brown. Your description of the vibrancy of Chile brightened my day. Thanks Mike!


  4. Loved this. Our time in Chile was certainly more low key but we did have a positive experience as you did. Most unforgettable was our bus trip over the Andes to Argentina. I’m sorry you missed out on THAT experience!!! I was never so scared in all my life.


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