To study Spanish in Argentina or Chile? It’s a tough choice to make! South America is basically the basin of all that is good in the world: stunning natural beauty, unique and lively cultures, a ridiculous amount of foreign languages, and diverse, welcoming cities. So, how in the world do you even begin to pick a place to study in South America? Today we focus on two favorites when it comes to South American cities for study abroad, which happen to be on opposite ends of the continent: Valparaiso, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Beyond both being called porteños, or people of the port, there are not many similarities between Valparaiso and Buenos Aires, so this decision should (in theory) be pretty easy for you. We all know it doesn’t really work like that though, so we’re here to help. If you’re caught between the East and West coasts of South America, we’ve created this throwdown just for you.
Vaminos! It’s Buenos Aires vs. Valparaiso, and in the end only one can be your ultimate study abroad destination in South America! To start, let’s break down the highlights of each city:
The seventh largest city in Chile, Valparaiso is one of South America’s most important seaports. This region of about 270,000 people has been home to the Chilean National Congress since 1990, and has centuries of history you probably never heard about in school. Valparaiso played an important role in the 19th century as a stopover for travelers between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Straits of Magellan. The city became known as both “The Jewel of the Pacific” and “Little San Francisco” by international sailors, which transformed the region into a hub for European immigrants.
Despite struggling in the 20th century to maintain its thriving port-based economy (#thanks, Panama Canal), the past 20 years have brought almost a renaissance to the city, attracting many artists, academics, and cultural entrepreneurs to Valparaiso’s beautiful, hillside historic districts. Its port continues to thrive for fruit and copper exports, and the region has seen a huge tourism boom from cruise ships that dock in the summer. There will always be plenty of things to do for students who study abroad in Valparaiso, Chile.
Buenos Aires (or BsAs) is the capital of the huge country of Argentina. Known as the “Paris of South America,” this city of almost three million people truly lives up to its name. Ranking as the 15th largest metropolitan area in the world, this region is home to an incredibly diverse group of people. With some of the largest populations of Italians, Germans, and Chinese in South America, Buenos Aires is definitely down with international students.
Located on the Delta Tigre and only a hop, skip, and a jump from Uruguay, Buenos Aires is one part chic and upbeat port, one part regal and majestic Parisian promenade, and one part vibrant and determined culture overcoming its painful past. Between the sometimes-great-sometimes-not rule of the Perons in the 1950s, the military coup and subsequent civil war of the 1970s, and the most recent corruption of the Kirchner administration, Buenos Aires is a city that survives, and its friendly people and stunning surroundings are proof of that.
So, which city should you pick for study abroad in South America?
In need of some tips for study in South America? Let’s start with the basics:
Both Valparaiso and Buenos Aires are in the Southern Hemisphere, which means that their seasons are the opposite of the U.S. and Europe. There are surprisingly a lot of people who don’t know that, so here is your notification in case you weren’t aware before. Don’t go to either country in July for a summer session and think you’ll be living at the beach–you’ll probably wish you brought at least a light jacket.
Valparaiso is known for its very mild Mediterranean climate. Falling at a similar latitude to San Francisco, the summers are dry with fog from the Humboldt Current during the majority of the year. Its winters are known for their occasional heavy rain, but the frequency of these storms varies a lot from year to year (so pack your rain gear and get amped to play in potentially huge puddles). Snow haters are in luck, as it occurs rarely even in the highest parts of the city.
Despite the fact that Buenos Aires is only a little further south geographically than Valparaiso, being on the opposite side of the continent does wonders for its heat capabilities. Buenos Aires has more of a subtropical climate, with very hot and humid summers and pretty mild winters. If you want to see people freak out at the sight of 50 degree weather in dead winter, study in Buenos Aires during the summer term. Springtime normally brings frequent thunderstorms, and for some reason the city still hasn’t quite figured out a drainage system, so street flooding is common (and fun for kayakers).
Valparaiso has transformed itself over the past few decades into a major educational hub for study in South America. With four sizable universities and even more vocational colleges, Valparaiso is now characterized as being a university town. The Technical University Federico Santa Maria is the city’s second oldest university and dominates the cityscape, as it is located on the front of Cerro Placeres and visible from much of Valparaiso.
It’s easy to see why this region is home to some of the most important universities in South America, as Valparaiso was also the birthplace of many private schools created by European colonies almost 100 years before. The College of the Sacred Hearts of Valparaiso, for example, has been running since 1837 and is the oldest private school in South America. Not only is the area clearly full of wicked smarties, but these schools, founded by foreigners, attract a huge international population. Nothing like studying abroad in Chile and picking up some German or Italian!
Alternatively, there are over 50 universities in Buenos Aires serving international students from all backgrounds. It’s an especially great for any student wanting to study Spanish in Argentina. The University of Buenos Aires is recognized as being one of the top universities in South America, and has even bred five Nobel Prize winners (and the sixth could be you…). In case this wasn’t great enough, it also provides taxpayer-funded education even for international students, so there’s literally nothing stopping you now (except maybe a visa, but that’s easy enough to obtain). The city is known as a major educational center for business, medicine, and specifically, psychoanalysis, but the sky's the limit during study abroad in Buenos Aires.
Ease of Travel
With so many things to do in Valparaiso, getting around town is very easy. It’s not a super big city and most places are connected by bus, trolleybus, or funicular. The buses are used mostly for getting to and from the city center and the hillsides where the majority of people in Valparaiso live. The Valparaiso trolleybus system has been running since 1952, and actually still uses some of its original vehicles; these surviving buses are the oldest ones anywhere in the world that are still in continuous operation. Who knew there could be so much history about buses of all things? For getting in and out of Valparaiso, there is a regional airport, but most international travel is done through Santiago’s airport nearby.
As a huge city, Buenos Aires has its public transportation system down. The city is a traditional grid, with buses and a subte (or underground) running along basically every road. The bus system can be a bit daunting at first simply because of how enormous the city is, but pick up a Guia T guide at any corner kiosk and you’ll have it figured out in no time (it’s much cheaper than the subway so seriously, learn it). There are a couple of different airports in the greater Buenos Aires area and tons of cross-country coach buses, so don’t think that you can’t hop on over to neighboring countries because of Argentina’s size!
Opportunities for Adventure
While Valparaiso is not a huge city, its greater metropolitan area is actually the second largest in the country with over 800,000 people. This means it’s very easy (and cheap!) to get in and out of the city if you’re looking for adventurous things to do in Chile. Recent years have brought a lot more direct and efficient highways as well as many train lines, so there’s no excuse not to see what else is out there.
Valparaiso is great in that it’s located basically in the middle of Chile, so students have access to a lot. Within about an hour, you can be in vastly different places like Santiago, the historic and bustling capital, or Vina del Mar, a resort beach town catering to the rich and beautiful (yes, you. We’re talking about you). If you want something a bit more rugged, catch a bus to Mendoza, a small city right across the border in Argentina, surrounded by the Andes and famous for its wine industry. Salud!
Even though Buenos Aires is nestled in a delta on the southeast coast of South America (so kind of removed in other words), it provides a great jumping off point to other areas simply because of its huge population demanding efficient airports and budget coach buses. Flying in Argentina is kind of expensive (they give discounts to residents, but trust us, don’t try to pretend you’re a resident. They’ll know you’re not.), but don’t let that discourage you from adventuring while you study in Argentina.
Overnight coach buses in Buenos Aires are really the way to go. They are cheap, pretty comfortable, and most provide meals and pit-stops in cool areas (and LOTS of opportunity for new friendships). Catch a bus to Mendoza, mentioned above, or head north to Iguazu Falls, which is the longest waterfall in the world (we’re talking two miles of waterfall) and the meeting point of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. If you’re up for a serious adventure, check out the vast and diverse region of Patagonia, and make some penguin friends on glaciers and stuff.
Both cities bring way more than awesome food and kick-ass adventures (and good academics, too, we suppose). Valparaíso was home to famed hispanic poets Pablo Neruda and Ruben Dario, so don’t forget to take a visit to their homes and feel the poetic and romantic ambiance of the region. Valparaiso is also the birthplace of many famous people, including (ironically) both Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet. Must be something in the water here that just creates opposite-end-of-the-spectrum presidents?
Speaking of famous people being born, let’s not forget that the current (and coolest) Pope was born and raised in Buenos Aires. Before moving over to the heavenly side, Pope Francis actually worked as a bouncer at a local nightclub. Not every day you can boogy down at his holiness’ club, right?
Both Valparaiso and Buenos Aires are fantastic options for anyone looking to study in South America who wants access to a new adventure every day that will both challenge and inspire, or just something more daring than studying Spanish in regular ol’ Spain. Narrowing down your location is only half the battle though, so be sure to read program review, and reach out to program alumni with all the dirty deets to make sure you pick the right program for you. Regardless of the location, pack your hiking boots and dancing shoes for an awesome time once you decide to study in South America!