Overflowing with multi-coloured alleys and colonial squares teeming with Latin flair, South American cities excite and astound. Try your hand at tango on the streets of Buenos Aires, meet the llamas of Peru, or have your fortune told by witches in the world’s highest city. The array of vibrant cultures, pioneering gastronomy, and breathtaking views lure in millions every year. So with over 80 large South American cities to choose from, which five get our heart racing?
Our list of the Top Five South American Cities
1. Buenos Aires, Argentina
The swagger of this Argentine city is truly unique. Literally translated as good air because of its sailing winds, Buenos Aires was one of the richest cities in the world. The yesteryear riches of this once commercial hub have left an indelible mark. Grand avenues sit alongside quaint neighbourhoods where locals tread the cobbled streets following the smell of asado (Argentine barbecue).
Start your adventure with the birthplace of tango in the squares of San Telmo. After, head to La Boca on the mouth of the river. Not only famed for its coloured houses, but this intriguing part of Buenos Aires is also the stomping ground for one of Argentina’s biggest clubs, Boca Juniors. If you crave a slower pace, meander through trendy Palermo. Its beautiful terraces, and street corner bars, serve as perfect hideouts for people watching. Grab a glass of Malbec, recline, and watch daily events unfurl in this enchanting neighbourhood.
The Argentine capital is also home to a myriad of cultural delights. Museo Xul Solar, Museo de la Pasión Boquense, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, and MALBA, easily feed the appetite of the hungriest culture vulture.
2. La Paz, Bolivia
Dirty, loud, brash – the capital of Bolivia is not for the faint of heart. The dizzying altitude of 3,640m above sea level, only adds to its rough reputation. In spite of this, many fall in love with the gritty streets and warmth of the Paceños (residents of La Paz). Although known as a polarizing city, we think the world’s highest capital is merely misunderstood.
Start with a jaunt around the centre for an intense introduction to Andean life. Raucous buses whizz through traffic, while locals hike the slopes forking out from the main avenues. Visit the outrageously cheap markets for stalls overflowing with tropical fruit. Later, rub shoulders with locals in the market’s restaurants for fish from Lake Titicaca. Get to know Bolivia’s more bohemian side in Sopocachi. The cafes, boutiques and jazz bars of this trendy hub fill are a world apart from the hectic centre.
If you’re in a daring mood head to the even higher neighbouring city of El Alto. The best and quickest way to get there is by cable car. Peer out the window at the snow-capped peaks of Illimani looming over La Paz while you ascend. Touch down to dusty roads dotted with blue metal shacks, which are in fact the homes of Bolivian witches. Don’t worry they are a friendly bunch, and make a living telling fortunes. Unfortunately they usually only speak Spanish and Aymará, so you may need a translator.
3. Cartagena de Indias, Colombia
Cartagena is a masterful blend of sleek skyscrapers and colonial squares. Yet, it’s beautifully maintained historic centre is undoubtedly the main attraction. Fenced in by over 13 km of stone walls, the UNESCO protected site is alive with bright yellow churches, romantic balconies, and smiling street vendors. During the day seek refuge from the searing temperatures in one of the many magnificent cocktail bars. Due to the tropical humidity, the city waits until dusk to spring to life. Therefore, watch the sunset from perfectly placed bars before taking an evening stroll. Traverse the cobbled streets teeming with street performers whilst enjoying the cooler night air. End the evening with fresh local seafood and mounds of patacones (fried plantain).
Sitting on the Caribbean coast, this dazzling city is also a stone’s throw away from tropical paradises – perfect for those looking to mix a city break with some of the best beaches in the world.
4. Lima, Peru
Lima is an explosion of Andean colour, culinary delights, and pre-Inca ruins. The heart of Peru’s capital buzzes with street vendors and hectic traffic, whereas the areas nearer the sea embrace a slower pace.
For a taste of Lima leisure, head to the rather ritzy neighbourhood of Miraflores. A myriad of middle-class hangouts of bars and cafes pepper this leafy, modern suburb. Stroll along its coast to see the swathes of surfers catching Pacific waves. After, follow the shoreline to the quaint neighbourhood of Barranco. This vibrant part of Lima strikes a perfect balance of trendy and traditional. For an authentically delicious helping of Peru’s national dish, look no further that the Canta Rana. Located in an old Casona (mansion), this exquisite restaurant is famed for its exceptional ceviche. Enjoy this piquant delight, while smartly dressed waiters zigzag through walls clad in football memorabilia. The word bizarre doesn’t do it justice, but we wouldn’t change it for the world.
Walk off that lunch and get up close and personal with Peru’s ancient past. A wander around the pyramids of Huaca Pucllana and Huaca Huallamarca, provide a fascinating insight of life before Spanish rule.
5. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The samba infused city of Rio de Janeiro has been seducing visitors since the 1940s. Set in rolling hills of lush forest and fringed with tropical beaches, this final addition to our list embodies the captivating allure of Brazil.
The beautiful beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema serve as playgrounds for locals. Surfing, football and picnics are the name of the game when heading to the Brazilian seaside. Mingle with beachgoers through a game of volleyball or grab a zesty caipirinha, recline and watch the party rev up as the soon goes down.
This coastline city is not just a beach haven. A range of outdoor activities are available: cycle near lakes, hike through the Tijuca rainforest or even hang glide over the colourful houses that dot the green hillside. The samba infused streets beat to an incessant rhythm throughout the year. However, the tempo hits full swing during Carnaval. The world’s greatest party doesn’t disappoint. The alleys and grand streets of Rio are splashed with colourful parades, beating drums and spellbinding dances from Friday to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
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