This Sliver of South American Land is Home to Progressive Politics, Alternative Culture

    Tourists flock to Cerro Allegre in the summer to marvel at its rickety architecture. (Photo courtesy of Simone Wilson)

    Unlike in Spain,
    where exchange students practically outnumber the locals, Chile
    is a long-kept secret still on the brink of being discovered by restless
    American youth dying to prove their sovereignty from our internationally mocked
    doofus of an administration. And contrary to many a mental image, South
    America’s Pacific sliver is no third-world coconut factory; while we up north
    are busy gloating the mere presence of a female candidate on the ballot, Chile
    has been running smoothly under the wing of single-mother president Michelle
    Bachelet for almost two years now.

    The country’s spindly stretch of beach, desert and mountain
    is almost a direct southern-hemispheric reflection of California — if you
    tugged at the north and south ends, bartered down the prices, turned up the
    reggaeton, plowed over all the Sunday drivers and made every hot dog about 10
    times more delicious (they’re called completos here, no doubt for the avocado
    portions you’d have to see to believe).

    A series of large, colorful works line the base of Cerro Concepción, a popular area for student housing. (Photo courtesy of Simone Wilson)

    Sure, the majority of pubs and blown-out bus radios are
    stuck in 1980s New York, and hordes of plaza punks seem to have missed the
    message that safety pins and anarchy patches are now reserved exclusively for
    12-year-old Hot Topic employees, but Chile — especially Valparaíso, a two-hour
    trip west from smoggy Santiago — is culturally and economically advancing at an
    almost blurry pace. Most North American students and travelers complain that
    prices double upon crossing the border from Argentina,
    but it’s perhaps a bit selfish to grudge a restored and thriving economy,
    especially when half the problem is our own plummeting dollar.

    Vegan co-ops, volunteer centers, art galleries and a heavy
    handful of university buildings squeezed in to liven the city’s famous hills,
    which are themselves an incredible source of manmade beauty — a cascade of
    early-century elevator contraptions and colorful architecture built atop ruins
    from earthquakes past. One could probably spend an entire semester simply
    trying to swallow the breathtaking mass of Valparaíso’s graffiti, which
    smothers every rock, wall and staircase, layering hungry gray surface space
    with a modern history of man and beast and words. Sadly, the city streets and
    beaches are also littered with more trash and stray dogs than anyone knows what
    to do with; but in the end Valpo’s neglected clutter only adds to the dark
    charm that separates it from the sparkling sidewalks of neighboring resort-town
    Viña del Mar and the workaholic high-rises of Santiago.

    Now’s a fascinating era to attend a Catholic University
    caught between intellectual broad-mindedness and traditional ideals, especially
    in a fundamentally religious country feeling stronger winds than ever from
    liberal Western culture. If you can brave the gringo jabs and begin to catch on
    (cachar) to the language — Chileans proudly claim theirs to be the fastest,
    most colloquially twisted Spanish in the world — you may get the rare chance to
    witness a built-up eruption of debate over homosexual and women’s rights,
    family values, globalization and the devastating separation of classes, all
    dangled over Chile’s particularly sensitive political history (little known
    fact: a good chunk of the country still believes Pinochet had the right idea).

    And if you’re still itching to pay loose pocket change for a
    pisco sour, Argentina’s
    collapsed economy and balls-out nightlife is always just a mountain range away.

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