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.

surrounded by art

One of the charming aspects of Valparaiso is the profusion of public/street art, some commissioned and sanctioned, much of it not-so-sanctioned but clearly left alone and even celebrated. Throughout the harbour area (El Plan) and up in the many hills, you can hardly turn a corner without encountering artwork on the walls, from small works to block-long murals, along with lots of tagging, political slogans, and stencil art. This fascinating and wild artistic expression covers walls, fences, buildings, sidewalks, and even the odd abandoned vehicle. Surfaces are covered in paint applied by brush or spray can, as well as in tiles and broken china.

Posted above is just a small sample of the scope and variety – there are actually several books available here that are filled with photos and descriptions. We invite you to also check out the pintada de la plantilla page form time to time – we will be posting more photos of stencil art throughout our travels.

On a slightly related topic, Don has just learned that a short film he worked on this past summer has been nominated for an award. He was part of a team of four students who were spending a week at the Gulf Islands Film and Television School on Galiano Island, learning about documentary film making. His team decided to investigate the story of a sea monster reportedly sighted numerous times in the Gulf Islands and elsewhere along the coast of North America. The 7-minute final cut was selected out of more than 140 documentary films made this summer by adult students to compete in the “outstanding achievement in adult documentary filmmaking” category at the 17th annual EyeLens Film Festival, April 21 in Victoria.

There is also a people’s choice award, based on the number or people who “like” the film and share the YouTube link – so if you have a few minutes, please have a look, like it (we’re sure you will!), and share the link through Facebook and e-mail. Here it is: In Search of Cadborosaurus, The Legend of the Deep.

under valparaiso’s spell

We fell in love with Valparaiso when we were near here (Santiago) for an Amnesty International conference in 2008. We decided then we would love to live here for 6 months of the year…. good weather times only of course. The winters here are full of rain…. more so than Vancouver and with incredibly strong winds (info from a taxi driver), so much that there is no point in using an umbrella … they all turn inside out.

Our last weather report to you was great heat day and night… things have changed. In the morning we wake up to either thick fog that engulfs the port and the city, with the upper hills in view … or … the clouds have come in and nothing is in view. Fortunately, it burns off and we get to enjoy the sunshine once again, though not as warm as last week.

We have been moved to the most sought-after apartment in our B&B with lovely views and this time a microwave. We got an incredible rate for the month, $700 (usual rate is $70 per night) so we don’t get breakfast, but as I love making breakfast it is no problem for us.  An interesting thing to note (weather again) is that the housekeeper put 2 wool blankets and a down duvet on the bed…it felt like we should be in the Alps or somewhere like that … I believe they think it is very cold outside.

One of our great remembrances of a few years ago was the Pablo Neruda house which we visited once again. Neruda was a prolific poet, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He also served as a diplomat, was elected to the Chilean Senate and ran political campaigns. At the time of his death in 1973 he owned 3 houses, all of which are now museums and cultural centres.

La Sebastiana, Neruda’s house in Valparaiso is quite incredible… views to die for, curved windows, wonderful collections of antiques and very interesting stuff.  Neruda was a man who knew what he wanted…. in 1959 he asked some friends to find a house for him… a little house in Valparaiso to live and write quietly. It couldn’t be located too high or too low,  be solitary but not in excess, with neighbours hopefully invisible – they shouldn’t be seen or heard, original but not uncomfortable, with many wings but strong, neither too big or too small, far from everything but close to transportation, independent but close to commerce. It must be cheap.

His friends, looking for a long time, finally found the house that met his requests. It was a frame of a mansion having been started by a Spaniard, Sebastian Collado, who died in 1949. He had designed the third floor to be a bird cage, thus the curved windows. Neruda, bought the 3rd and 4th floors as well as the tower, artist friends of his bought the basement, first and second floor as well as the grounds. It took Neruda 2 years to complete his home.

On September 18, 1961 the house was inaugurated with a grand party.  The invited were on a “list of unforgettable merits” those who helped transform the abandoned frame into the “La Sebastiana” as Neruda named it in honour of its first owner/builder.

Neruda and his third wife had a wonderful life there with many friends, artists and politicians alike gathering to talk and to enjoy each other. After he died, his wife never went back to the house… I believe it would have been too hard for her, too sad. Another factor was that Neruda died just two weeks after the Pinochet coup and unfortunately the house was looted.

In 1991 the house was made into a museum and restored to its past glory.  Don and I love the house; it is so cool, it is easy to imagine living there.  Of course, that would mean all of you would have to come and visit, so we could make it a place where people loved to talk and enjoy each other.

Till next time,

Felicidad todo


marking international women’s day

Today is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate victories and progress in the struggle for equality and justice for women, but also a day to take action in support of the so many women and girls around the world who still face discrimination, repression, violence, and death, just for being female.

In our travels we have seen what this struggle looks like. In the small village in northern Ghana we visited, the gender roles were well defined – the women cooked and cleaned and looked after the children, all well out of sight, while the men socialized out front under mango trees and expected to be waited on. In Cairo, women were also expected to stay out of sight, and although it was wonderful to see so many women of all ages participating in the protests last year (and being part of organizing them), women have been completely shut out of the process of rebuilding Egypt.

Closer to home, we have followed with concern the slow collapse of the deeply flawed inquiry into missing and murdered women in BC, as police and other officials dominate testimony while women and Aboriginal groups continue to be marginalized or effectively shut out of the proceedings. This is clearly not acceptable and we encourage everyone to let the BC government know how they feel about this.

Here is Chile, it has been shocking to see how bus and taxi drivers constantly honk and whistle at young women on the street as they drive by, as if they think they are paying them a compliment. Last night we attended a government-sponsored International Women’s Day event in Vina del Mar. It was odd for us in a number of ways. The MC was male, and for the first 45 minutes or so, the entertainers were men, obviously well-known to the audience. The first singer was a young man in a tight white jump suit who shook his hips like Elvis as he sang, to the delight of the mostly female audience, a strange way to celebrate IWD! The singers were followed by a government propaganda film showing the current male president shaking hands with women in various work, community, and home settings, while information on programs for women was listed on screen. The film was followed by a male guest speaker, and then, more than an hour into the event, a women was finally invited up to speak (she was also well known to the crowd). After her, yet another man was brought up to speak and that’s when we decided to find a bus back to Valparaiso as it was approaching dusk.

What we need now is to find an event organized by women’s groups to offset last night’s male-dominated government event. Some militant banners and chanting would do the trick!

In the meantime, we invite our readers to take action in solidarity with women in the Middle East and North Africa through these Amnesty International cases highlighted for International Women’s Day.




IWD - Vina del Mar