Retaining its charm, Latin America is more confident than everby Hugh O'Shaughnessy / July 18, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
View over Caracas from the Avila Mountain
Latin America was always a storehouse of delights and, despite some recent emergencies, the region gloriously remains so to this day—richer, more self-confident and more open than ever before in its history. As an interested visitor you don’t have to master Spanish (or Portuguese) irregular verbs. Most of the region’s licensed murderers, torturers and terrorists have now fled—though a futile drug war does persist in Mexico and Central America.
Latin America is a region of natural extremes. Stand at the broad mouth of the Amazon—where there is an island the size of Switzerland between the south and the north banks—and you will see a greater amount of water in one day than passes under Tower Bridge in a year. Flying in to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, one lands in an airport 4068m above sea level, with flight attendants hovering with oxygen masks to help those with breathing problems cope with the thin air. You often have to go down from the airport through the clouds to get to the city. Travel west of La Paz across the continent and you arrive in Rio de Janeiro, the only city in the world where you can bathe on an oceanside beach at one minute, and be watching butterflies the size of tea plates beside the waterfalls in the Tijuca forest park 15 minutes later. For a few pounds you can take a shared taxi from Santiago de Chile to the Argentine city of Mendoza over the High Andes under the shadow of Aconcagua, at nearly 7000 metres the loftiest mountain in the whole of the Americas. Leave Santiago at lunchtime and be in Mendoza for tea.
Christopher Columbus, on his first voyage to the continent in October 1492, was cautious in his reporting. Back in Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had set him up with ships and cash to find the riches of the orient. His job was to work out a quick route to China: he wanted to go back and tell them he had achieved that. As he was sailing west along the coast of Cuba, it is said, he told his sailors they should testify they had indeed been to Cathay. He added that they should keep to the script or it would go badly for them.