liveable loveable cities south of the rio grande

What makes a city liveable and loveable? This is the question Monocle magazine poses through its annual “quality of life” survey of cities around the world. Monocle describes itself as “a briefing on global affairs, business, culture & design” but the articles and ads are clearly aimed at a wealthy demographic with an interest in travel. Someone left one at our hostel in Panama City, and I’m leaving it in Costa Rica for the next traveller who passes this way.

The authors look at a variety of factors that contribute to city life: building and urban design, infrastructure, tolerance, opening hours, outdoor/green space, weather, international flights and how seamless the connections are for getting across or into/out of town, and even how many electric car charging points are located within city limits. The cities are then ranked; 25 make the main list, there are another five cities to watch that are “close to the editors’ hearts” and then a final five that warrant a “special mention” because they offer “simple living”. Vancouver checked in at number 20, up a spot from the 2011 survey (but down from 2010 when it was 16th).

Regular readers will know that over the past ten months we have sampled life in dozens of cities south of the Rio Grande; it breaks our heart to see that none made the top 25. Havana, which we’re on our way to later this week (and have visited in the past), did make it onto the cities to watch list, and Valparaiso deservedly earned a special mention – consolation prizes, yes, but maybe it will encourage their politicians and planners to try a little harder.

So Deborah and I have come up with our own list of five “liveable and loveable cities,” as we continue our live on the road.

1. Valparaiso – we agree with Monocle that this old port city has a lot of offer – ancient fish markets, old-school bars, fascinating hill-top neighbourhoods each with a different character, Pablo Neruda’s eclectic ocean view house La Sebastiana, numerous cultural facilities including a prison now cultural centre, and art-covered walls, houses, and schools. To make the top 25, Valparaiso will have to do something about the 80,000 stray dogs that are wandering the street. Sure, many are friendly or don’t pay passersby any mind, but many are visibly wretched and diseased, and more than a few are just plain angry and dangerous. Not to mention the amount of poop they are generate. The city also needs to fix the funiculars – the hillside escalators, some dating back to the 1890s, which make visiting the hills a much more exciting adventure than catching a cab. Two-thirds are closed or waiting repair, leaving only a handful serving the most touristic neighbourhoods.

2. Buenos Aires –the Monocle list is very Eurocentric – 11 of the 25 cities are within the European Union, so maybe there was simply no room for a new world city that at one time was 60 percent Italian. Just the same, it’s worth a second look with all its museums, art galleries, park spaces, murals, fascinating neighbourhoods, and an efficient although hot and crowded subway system (the first line dates from 1913 and features the original wooden rail cars). We also appreciate that there has been much effort to help citizens and visitors learn about human rights violations committed during the military dictatorship, through art exhibitions and turning former sites of detention into places for reflection and action. They just need to do something about garbage collection (every street corner is piled with garbage for days before pick-up) and all the old cars simply abandoned at street corners all over town.

3. Rio de Janeiro — it surprises us that the largest city in South America didn’t make the Monocle list – maybe the fact that a huge percentage of the city’s population continues to live with poverty, many in drug-lord controlled favelas, holds it back. It has lots of offer – and after all it is hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016, and there has been a concerted effort to kick out the drug lords with mixed results. The bus and subway system was easy to use and moved us quickly from unique area to unique area, and to and from a wide variety of art galleries and cultural spaces. And surely, Copacabana, the best beach in South America has to count for something!

4. Antigua – Guatemala is not without challenges, but tucked away in a low valley between volcanos is this earthquake decimated 400-year-old city. Once important for geo-political reasons, it is now a refuge for American ex-pats and peace corp do-gooders, a centre for Spanish language schools, and an escape from the country’s notoriously dangerous capital, none of which takes away from its charm. The cobblestone streets are labelled, a rarity in Latin America, and there are ancient ruins around every corner. There are also lots of services for tourists, our favourites included several rooftop bars that offered a view of distant but fiery lava flows that glow in the dark.

5. Puerto Viejo – admittedly, a town this small on the south Caribbean coast of Costa Rica would never make the Monocle list, but ”liveable and loveable” applies even if there is no nearby international airport, famous-architect-designed art galleries or opera houses, or places to plug in an electric car. Unpretentious, undeniably humid, and laid-back, Puerto Viejo and the beaches south of town, in many ways, offers the perfect antidote to the fast-paced pressure cookers that did make the Monocle list. Sure, there is only one paved road, there are bugs, and the water cuts out without notice, but what the heck, dos mojitos por favor!

On the subject of happy hour, we’ve had more family visitors over the past two weeks: Chris and Tiffany, and Jeremy and Jenine – it was a pleasure to share our jungle/beach house with them, and give them a small taste of life on the road, photos below.