What are the best cities to visit in South America? I lived in South America for more than two decades, and have had the privilege –and luck- of being able to travel all around it, both for work and leisure. As any other region in the world, South America has a wide variety of great, gorgeous, awe-inspiring sceneries for you to enjoy, from crystal-clear seas and lakes, to some of the highest mountains on Earth.
In this article, in particular, I will look into 13 cities in South America that you need to see before you die. These cities are not just beautiful, at times beyond imagination, but also incredibly interesting culturally. Previously we covered the best travel destinations in South America.
Warm people, nice weather, great food, great drinks, astonishing views, tons of fun things to do, hundreds of museums, and an incredible nightlife are just some of the attributes of these unique –and very different- South American cities.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
A must see; Buenos Aires seems to have it all. Eclectic as few others, it’s just huge. More than 3 million people live in the city alone, and roughly 13 million in all of the metropolitan area (the city and its suburbs); so you can figure, there’s a lot going on.
Some of you might know a few things about this city: barbecues (asados, grilled meats, the best! And great wine too!), Tango, nightlife, lovely women and men… But there’s much more to it. Its architecture can astonish even the most-travelled, and remind of Paris or Rome at times. Hundreds of museums can fulfill the most voracious of cultural appetites; thousands of bars, pubs, and nightclubs will prevent you from getting bored; and tons of other cultural events (theatre plays, art exhibits, concerts, etc.) will surprise you every day.
A little extra tip: bring some extra money to check out the thriving restaurant scene; you won’t regret it!
La Paz, Bolivia
If Buenos Aires can remind you of Paris, Rome or even New York, at times, La Paz can take you back to Bangkok: its streets are crowded, traffic is constantly jammed, and street vendors are really good (yet insistent). “My friend, my friend, cheap, cheap” is replaced by “Amigo, amigo, baratito, lleve” (my friend, this is cheap, take it).
There is nothing remotely similar to La Paz in the U.S. or Europe; this is a city with loads of culture and history, which keeps in touch with its native Bolivian roots. Awe-inspiring, interesting, different, old but current… You really have to check this out (and while you’re at it, visit Lake Titicaca, which is often said to be the highest navigable lake in the world, with a surface elevation of 12,507 ft.).
Unlike what you might expect, Colombia’s capital is not tropical at all. Situated amongst mountains, its climate is slightly chilly, yet pleasant. Another thing that might surprise you: streets are NOT dominated by drug dealers (and most Colombians do not like to talk about this subject, neither to they like “narc-tourism,” as they call it).
Bogota is an amazing city with a blooming culinary scene, plenty of culture, and history all around. Make sure to visit the Botero Museum, have some coffee, eat an Arepa, and, whether you believe it or not, try the pizza they sell on the streets.
Sao Paulo, Brazil
There are a few cities in the world were everything is going on, and Sao Paulo is one of them. Urban culture, street art, a crazy nightlife, millions of people…it’s just the perfect recipe. However, unlike other South American cities, Sao Paulo’s architecture is not gorgeous. Still, the city stands out for other attributes, which make it a unique place in the world –and probably, the place to be right now.
A visit to Sao Paulo would not be complete without checking out the nearby beaches and islands.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro needs no sales pitch whatsoever. Since the Girl from Ipanema, millions have enjoyed its beaches and unique lifestile. Caipirinha (the local drink, made with limes and Cachaca), bikinis, white sand, a lovely, warm sea, soccer all around, seafood, and, of course, Christ the Redeemer.
There’s really three things you need to check out in the Peruvian capital: food, food, and food (actually, food, architecture and beaches; but food is sooooo good, really special).
A surprising thing in Lima is the huge Asian population. In fact, Asian immigration has influenced tremendously on Peruvian food; you will easily notice the resemblance between “tiraditos” and Japanse sashimi, or between “Chaufa” and Chinese Chow Fan. By the way, under any circumstances should you miss Lima’s world-known Ceviche.
Cartagena de Indias, Colombia
Probably one of the most magical places on Earth, Cartagena is a 16th century city; one of the best preserved. Walking though the colorful streets of its Old Town is like going back in time: 500-year-old houses, horse-drawn carriages, women carrying around baskets of fruit on their heads, bands playing Salsa and Bachata…
Cartagena has its own version of the Ceviche: in this case, the seafood is marinated in lime (same as in Peru), but tomato sauce is added, so the flavor is completely different. Make sure to try the fruit, too.
The beach is not really nice, but you can arrive at a Caribbean –paradisiac- island, Isla Baru or Islas del Rosario, in less than an hour.
If your budget is tight, you can stay just beside the Old Town, at the Getsemani neighborhood, which is younger and more “bohemian,” so to speak.
Visiting Cusco is also like going back in time. Once the capital of the Inca Empire, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Astonishing architecture, remarkable food, and incredible nightlife are just some of the best things to check out in Cuzco.
Cusco got really popular for being the place from where people start their journey to Machu Picchu; so be sure to have a few days to go visit some of the best-preserved, pre-colonial ruins in the world.
Bariloche looks very different from other South American cities. Situated in the Argentinian Patagonia, it can remind you of Greenland or Switzerland. Crystal-clear lakes (cold water, though), huge mountains, large extensions of forest… Bariloche is just the gateway to the famous Patagonian region, which has some of the largest glaciers on Earth (and you can even walk on them).
Although Bariloche is technically a city, it still preserves a “town” vibe: people are friendly and usually relaxed, and everything closes for “siesta” (nap) time. An interesting contrast can be found in the civic center. The old architecture almost clashes with the dozens of skaters taking advantage of its stairs and ramps.
Four more cities in South America that you should check out before you die:
Santiago de Chile, Chile