This is not quite fair, since I have been living in Buenos Aires for nearly two years and only recently made my first visit to Santiago, staying only five days. I admit this is superficial and highly generalized, but it’s the best I’ve got.
Buenos Aires is more interesting than Santiago, and more architecturally distinctive, but it is also more than twice the size in population and sprawl. Santiago has mountains, Buenos Aires doesn’t. But the mountains around Santiago have the effect of placing it at the bottom of a bowl, which traps air pollution and haze, making the mountains often invisible –I am told it can be so bad that sometimes the building across the street is invisible. Buenos Aires has generally clean air, thanks to the “buenos aires” that blow steadily and strongly across the city, sending its pollution to the Pampas.
The sidewalks of Santiago are cleaner and better maintained than those in Buenos Aires, which are usually broken, pitted, holed, and hazardous. The sidewalks of Buenos Aires are dog toilets; there is much less of that nastiness in Santiago. On the other hand, dogs (although not very many) run loose on the streets of Santiago; in Buenos Aires, they are corralled and controlled by the ubiquitous dog walkers. The highway in from the airport in Santiago is in much better condition and traffic flows much smoother than the highway into the city from the international airport in Buenos Aires.
Speaking of traffic. Buenos Aires has some of the worst, most aggressive, angriest, and most rude drivers I have seen anywhere else in the world. Santiago’s drivers seem more or less normal for any large international city. In five days walking around in Santiago, I recall hearing someone honk a car horn once, and this was in the center and busiest part of the city. In Buenos Aires, drivers treat their car horns as extensions of their macho-ness, expressions of their abject anger behind the wheel; blaring car horns (honking is not an adequate term) are the most common sound in this city, blocking out all other sounds, making any attempt at conversation near any street impossible, wiping out entire sections of dialogue on televisions, even as high as twenty floors up. No one honks a car horn in Buenos Aires simply to get someone’s attention, it is a bleating tool of anger and frustration; getting attention needs no more than a quick toot, but here it is common for a driver to actually lay on the horn for five, or even ten seconds, well after the object of such anger has moved on.
Continuing with this subject, I noted that drivers, including bus drivers, were far more courteous in Santiago, and it was less an overt danger to attempt crossing a street, even with a green crossing light. The variation in driving styles between these two cities is striking, much in favor of Santiago, where people just didn’t seem to be as angry as they are here.
Santiago has a Metro (subway) system that is as nice, efficient, and clean as any I’ve seen in the world, far better than London, Berlin, or Paris, for example. There is no comparison with Buenos Aires’ Subte. Santiago has a wealthy, first-world subway system; Buenos Aires has something reminiscent of Delhi or Bombay. Singapore has the only subway I have ever seen that is better than Santiago’s Metro.
Then there’s the food. I’ve written before about how difficult, nearly impossible, it is to find decent seafood in Buenos Aires. This is a meat and potatoes cuisine. I am told there is good seafood here, but in two years of diligent searching, I have not yet found it. Santiago has seafood, a lot of fresh seafood, a wide variety of seafood, and they also have steaks, if your heart can take another one. I had one of the finest meals of the last two years during lunch one day, in a restaurant around the corner from the hotel, wandered into randomly because it was lunch time and there it was, being served the finest Chilean sea bass in my memory. Santiago and Buenos Aires are just over an hour apart by air, so why can’t fresh Chilean sea bass or fresh crab be offered in at least a few restaurants here? I am sick of beef, and I guess it shows.
Buenos Aires has pockets of outstanding architectural beauty, and its center is dramatic. Santiago’s center is plain and unattractive, almost militaristic (Pinochet residue?); I couldn’t see any reason for spending much time downtown, while in Buenos Aires, the center is where all the action is. If you like action. But the further out sections of Santiago are far more appealing than the same sort of areas in Buenos Aires. Santiago’s city barrios are cleaner, easier to navigate, and simply more pleasant-looking places to live, than any comparable part of Buenos Aires. We live in an upscale section of Buenos Aires; our hotel was in a comparable area of Santiago. There is almost no comparison between them, to Buenos Aires’ detriment.
It is easier to get around in Santiago; it is a horror trying to get around Buenos Aires. Much of that difference is due to traffic, kamikaze buses, and busted up sidewalks here, and efficient, clean, well-maintained public transportation there.
I love bookstores, and Buenos Aires wins this contest easily. I went into a few bookstores in Santiago (I could only find a few) and none of them, not one, had a section for English language books; almost all the many bookstores, even stalls, in Buenos Aires have sections for books in languages other than Spanish. Also, Buenos Aires has KEL, which sells pretty much exclusively English books. There is nothing at all like that in Santiago … a real handicap for a city expressing an international culture.
It must be clear now that in most ways Santiago is a better city than Buenos Aires. On the other hand, Buenos Aires has more character, more atmosphere, and a more distinct cultural life. A few parts of Buenos Aires are nicer and more interesting than anything in Santiago, but taken overall, Santiago is simply more livable (excepting the pollution).
Buenos Aires is an exciting place to visit. Santiago is a better place to live.
I close this highly generalized overview with some photos of a market we walked through one Saturday morning. There are plenty of nice markets in Buenos Aires, but I have never seen a market here to compare with the one in the San Domenico section of Santiago. My wife and I spent a long time strolling around this market, and then through the artisans market nearby, and kept saying to each other, the people who live next to a market like this are very lucky. (Click on the photo to enlarge to full size.)
I am not likely to ever be in Santiago again, and am certainly never going to live there, but if you have a chance to go … strongly recommended. And remember the Saturday market in the San Domenico barrio.