Cities

28 cities of South America: a traveller’s ranking

South America is beginning to feel like home. But after 144 days of schlepping across this gigantic and diverse continent, my time here is coming to an end, and with departure approaching I find myself reflecting with bittersweet nostalgia on everything I have experienced here.

It’s been a swashbuckler of a journey. In those 144 days I’ve climbed mountains and canyons, trekked in jungles and on islands, bathed in desert oases and on idyllic beaches, gazed at the clearest night skies in the world, visited seven countries and 28 cities, been to the end of the world and back, been robbed and recovered, used every means of transport imaginable, eaten all manner of local food, and drunk more than I care to remember.

It’s those 28 cities on which I am going to focus now. I am a city kind of guy. I love discovering them, their history, food and culture, and meeting their people. For as long as I’ve been independent I have lived in cities, and taken every opportunity to explore new ones.

For a bit of fun, I have decided to rank the cities I’ve visited in South America based on nothing but the brief experiences they’ve given me as a traveller. As such, the rankings should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt; I’ve spent anything between one day and three weeks in each place, and my perspectives during flying visits are susceptible to influence by factors as trivial as the weather or the demeanour of hostel staff.

I thought about using some needlessly complex ranking system based on various factors, but resolved to just use my gut feeling about each place. And of course, I haven’t visited everywhere on the continent. There are many great historic cities I haven’t made it to: Bogota, Recife, Quito and Asuncion, to name a few.

One final disclaimer: robberies aside, I don’t feel I’ve had a negative experience in any city, so those ranked the lowest shouldn’t be considered bad places; they still all had something cool to offer.

So, without further ado…

Nazca28. Nazca, Peru

Nazca is the first of several cities in this list to fall into a very specific category; those which receive a high volume of tourist traffic entirely due to being located near a major attraction. Let’s call them MATTs (major attraction tourist traps).

The attraction in the case of Nazca is, unsurprisingly, the famous Nazca Lines – a series of mysterious ancient hieroglyphs in the nearby desert that can be viewed by taking a short flight over them. They were pretty cool to see, but there was a bit too much waiting around for my liking – seven hours to be precise, before a 30-minute flight.

Nazca itself was a non-event of a city. It wasn’t quite the tourist trap I expected, but nor did it have much character or intrigue; just grids of dead and dusty roads patrolled by stray dogs, centred around a dull plaza. The food was among the cheapest of our travels, but also the blandest.

In Nazca I did make one of the strangest acquaintances of our journey. A friendly young American guy was living in the hostel we stayed in, having taken such a liking to the place that he decided to stay while reading up on the history of Peru and strumming a mini-mandolin. We stayed for two nights, which was already waaaaaaay too much.

Puerto Iguazu27. Puerto Iguazú, Argentina

The second MATT in the list, Puerto Iguazú is the Argentina-side city by the stunning Iguassu Falls waterfall system. Having spent several weeks traversing Argentina in the chills of early spring, the sticky jungle heat in Puerto Iguazú was welcoming to emerge into after a long overnight bus.

The city itself, though, was devoid of much obvious appeal, its existence established entirely around the falls. Every other building around its compressed centre was a souvenir shop or overpriced restaurant.

We did manage to spend a couple of captivating hours in Jardin de los Picaflores (garden of the hummingbirds). Run by a charming old woman, the tiny garden was filled with hordes of the amazing little birds in all sorts of colours.

Foz do Iguacu26. Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil

A short hop over the border is the other MATT set up for Iguassu Falls; the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu. Incredulously, to make the six-mile journey from Puerto Iguazu took us four hours and three different buses. It seemed that the dog we saw trotting casually across the border had a much easier time of it.

We found a city twice the size of Puerto Iguazu but with little more to offer, although we only spent an overnight there before heading to the falls. Our accommodation was among the most memorable of our travels – Tetris Container Hostel, fashioned entirely from giant storage containers painted in bright colours.

Had our stay in the city been longer, as a poker fanatic I would have taken the chance to visit Casino Iguazú, which recently hosted the BSOP 100 Tournament of Champions. Brazilians have been going crazy for poker in recent years, and this was the biggest event of its kind to be held in South America to date.

Punta Arenas25. Punta Arenas, Chile

Like Ciudad del Este in Paraguay (see below), Chile’s Punta Arenas is a shopping haven, but the similarities end there. The largest city in Patagonia, Punta Arenas is a hub for some of the best scenery-spotting in the region, with boats regularly setting off from its port into the Chilean fjords. People do not tend to hang around the city either side of excursions, though, as there’s really not much to do.

Tourist traffic passes through Punta Arenas frequently, as it is a convenient stop-off point for those travelling from the south to Torres del Paine national park. The city is home to Zona Franca, a tax-free shopping area that draws people from miles around to escape the astronomical prices of Patagonia.

We saved a fortune by stopping at Punta Arenas on the way to Torres del Paine, stocking up on snacks and last-minute equipment purchases before we took on the W Trek. It felt a bit like the Milton Keynes of Patagonia. With our shopping done and dusted there was little else to do, so we were content to move on.

Uyuni24. Uyuni, Bolivia

Most tourists who set foot in the small Bolivian city of Uyuni are there to visit the famous nearby salt flats, and so this is another MATT. With a population of just 30,000, it’s more of a beefed-up village, and difficult to see how it’s classified as a city at all.

Like most passers-through, we spent a single night in a Uyuni, with most of our time whiled away in tourist agency offices haggling prices for our salt flats excursion. But once our booking was made, we did get a chance have a wander and sample some of the local establishments.

By Bolivian standards the restaurants around the main strip are a bit pricy, but a short walk up Avenida Colón we found a row of shacks with meat sizzling on barbecues outside, filled with jovial locals (always a good sign). We paid 20 Bolivianos each (a couple of quid) for a huge piece of barbecued chicken and a chorizo sausage.

Afterwards we chanced upon an establishment calling itself ‘Extreme Fun Pub’, and while I can’t wholly endorse the validity of this title, it did play metal music and sell cheap Bolivian beer, which you could enjoy at a discounted price if willing to have a picture of your bare arse taken for the selection displayed on its walls. Bizarre.

Puno23. Puno, Peru

On the western shores of Lake Titicaca, Puno was our last stop in Peru after a month in the country, and a quick one at that – we were barely there 24 hours. While it is a pretty place with colourful buildings and gorgeous views of the lake, one day was plenty enough to take it in.

We did regret that we didn’t have time to take the popular trip out to the Uros floating islands, as it received glowing references in the talk among hostel-dwellers. We did, however, make sure we enjoyed a fresh catch from the lake in the local restaurant La Casona, taking the opportunity to catch up with friends from our Inca Trail group.

We preferred our Lake Titicaca experience on the Bolivian side in Copacabana, which doesn’t feature in this list as it’s merely a small town, but if it did, it would appear a few notches higher. With its long stretch of lake-beach conveniently facing west for the sunset, dozens of eating and drinking establishments lining the sloped streets along the front, and cheap daily boat trips to Isla del Sol, we ended up staying for two extra nights of relaxation.

Ciudad del Este22. Ciudad del Este, Paraguay

Our time in Paraguay was limited to two days after having to rework our itinerary post-robbery. We had originally intended to visit the capital, Asuncion, but with time against us we settled for a walk over Friendship Bridge from Brazil into the shopping haven of Ciudad del Este.

The long walk over the bridge was one of the highlight experiences of our visit, if a little danger-ridden. The city is purported to be a hub for the trafficking of stolen goods, and so the routes in and out of it are heavily policed. Tales abound of foreign visitors being mugged or even kidnapped close to the bridge. However, with heavy winds rattling against us from upstream, the views over the River Parana were beautiful.

So lax is the border security that we could have walked across without passing through customs at all. The process of getting a passport stamp is more of an honesty policy. We did it though, and once across, we were mesmerised by the giant façade of neon flashing buildings and the insane buzz of people and vehicles all around them.

One afternoon of shopping in Ciudad del Este was enough, and not really for the faint-hearted. Naturally we stuck out like a sore thumb in our tourist garb, and vendors jostled for our attention while suspicious eyes followed us unsettlingly from the perimeter of the streets.

Having said that, the most endearing attribute of Ciudad del Este was the fact it is not set up for tourists in the slightest. Also, a few kilometres upstream and well worth a visit is the Itaipu hydropower project, one of the world’s most impressive engineering feats, and a mark of reconciliation and cooperation between Paraguay and Brazil.

El Calafate21. El Calafate, Argentina

One of the principal urban centres in the southern section of Argentina’s famous Ruta 40, the small city of El Calafate is a standard stop-off in the classic Patagonia travel route. It’s also a bit of a MATT, with tourists alighting here almost exclusively to see the Perito Moreno Glacier.

Sandwiched between the main hiking centres of El Chalten to the north and Puerto Natales to the south, El Calafate is an ideal place to stop for some rest or lighter activity in beautiful surroundings, with perfect blue lakes yawning out towards the towering Andean mountains to the west.

As you might expect, the city focuses its economy on tourism, with the central zone mainly consisting of excursion agencies, gift shops and supermarket with prices higher than Argentinian averages. On Avenida San Martin, we did find a gem of a restaurant for lunch much cheaper than its rivals – La Zorra. For just 120 pesos (about a fiver) the Patagonian lamb stew, served with a roll of warm and crusty bread, was delicious.

Puerto Natales20. Puerto Natales, Chile

The final MATT in the list, Puerto Natales is the navigation point for trekking in Torres del Paine national park, one of the most astoundingly beautiful places in the world. The classic routes are the W and O Treks, so named because of the shape they carve on the map. After much deliberating we took on the W self-guided, an experience that was one of the highlights of our entire travels.

In the mould of the likes of El Calafate and El Chalten, Puerto Natales is a pleasant place set up to serve hikers’ needs before and after their escapades, so you’ll find outdoor equipment shops, spas, and restaurants aplenty. After conquering the W Trek we treated ourselves to a BBQ lamb special at El Asador Patagonicos, washed down with local craft beer – it was divine.

We stayed at Lili Patagonicos, which provided one of the best hostel experiences we had in South America. The staff go out of their way to give helpful advice about hiking in Torres del Paine, and with breakfast (including eggs!) served from 6am, we could eat before taking the bus into the park.

Mendoza19. Mendoza, Argentina

Tourism in Mendoza revolves around one wonderful thing: wine. Home to two thirds of the wineries in Argentina, the city produces some of the best red stuff in the world, and what better way to enjoy it than hiring a bike to tour the bodegas? It’s hard to cycle in a straight line after a while, though.

The road grid set-up of Argentinian cities can make them a bit plain and predictable, and Mendoza is no exception – pleasant enough, but everywhere looks the same. Its best feature is the huge General San Martin Park, bigger than the city centre itself with its lakes, activity centres and sport stadia. The hills on the north side of it offer great views of the city.

We stayed at Hostel Lao, which was about the half the price of most nearby hostels, and brilliant value. The guy from Derby who runs it hosts an asado night once a week – essentially a great hunk of meat cooked slowly on a BBQ – and this was our introduction to Argentinian steak. As you will see, there was to be plenty more where that came from.

Salta18. Salta, Argentina

The north-west of Argentina is an endless maze of ancient rock formations, vast vineyards and quaint little towns. We took a five-day roadtrip around the region pivoted from its principal city, Salta.

In contrast to the Peruvian and Bolivan cities to which we had become accustomed, Salta had a distinctly European feel to it, with its colonial architecture and high-street stores. Hidden among these busy streets we found a handful of offbeat book shops, a great escape for hours of exploration.

As with so many cities on the continent, the top free activity is a walk up a big hill for a panoramic view. Cerro San Bernardo is a beast to walk up, but if you don’t fancy the hour-long winding climb, you can take the teleferico (cable car).

Sucre17. Sucre, Bolivia

Historic Sucre, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Centre, contrasts the bustle and colour of other Bolivian cities with its clean streets and white castle-buildings. Although nice for a stroll, it lacked the character of the likes of La Paz and Potosi.

With more than a couple of days in Sucre you would quickly run out of things to do, but it’s a relaxing place and worth a stop. As the country’s judicial capital it has an interesting history that can be discovered by taking a walking tour with Condor Trekkers, a local non-profit organisation that supports development and social projects in the city.

And of course, you can walk up a hill for a city panorama. The climb isn’t too strenuous though, just 20 minutes or so to the east of the centre, and at the top there is a small craft market and a nice café for coffee and cake to accompany the view.

Arequipa16. Arequipa, Peru

Arequipa is Peru’s second-largest city and the most heavily influenced by Spanish colonialism, evident in the pale pie-crust architecture that adorns its streets. The Plaza de Armas is the central example of this, with imposing white arched buildings lining its perimeter. A row of restaurants run along one side with upstairs balconies overlooking the square, all offering special breakfast discounts – worth investing in for the setting.

The city is a three-hour drive from the Colca Canyon, the second-deepest canyon in the world. We took a two-day trip into the canyon, but be warned: despite what the tour information may say, the walking is tough. On the second day we had to get up at 4am and climb 1,400m in three hours. The views waiting at the top are a fair reward, though, and the previous day we had the chance to see condors in flight.

Back in the city, the Santa Catalina Monastery is billed as the top attraction, containing a miniature city in the 20,000 square metres within its walls. At 40 Peruvian soles (about a tenner) for entry without a guide it’s not cheap, though, and so with our spare day we opted instead to take the free city walking tour.

Sao Paulo15. São Paulo, Brazil

The largest city in the southern hemisphere, São Paulo is the very definition of concrete jungle. Its municipal area covers a whopping 1,500 square kilometres, much of which is a landscape of colourless buildings.

While it lacks the carnival atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro or Salvador, São Paulo still has a certain charm, and is famed for its nightlife. We stayed in the lively neighbourhood of Vila Madalena, which is the city’s take on Brooklyn or Shoreditch, filled with trendy bars and independent shops. On an eventful Friday night in the area we hung out at a poker game for a few hours and then joined a street party around the corner.

For daytime activity, the main draw is shopping, finished off with a walk in the Ibirapuera Park. Avenida Paulista is one of the world’s biggest shopping streets, and is also where you will find MASP, the São Paulo Museum of Art. We were lucky to visit during an exhibition by the Guerrilla Girls, a Brazilian movement of feminist artists.

Florianopolis14. Florianópolis, Brazil

Affectionately known as ‘Floripa’, Florianópolis is one of Brazil’s most popular beach resort destinations. The city is situated on Santa Catalina island, encircled by seemingly endless stretches of white sand.

We spent two nights on the north of the island camping near the quiet Santinho beach, a welcome getaway after two hectic days in Rio. It’s bliss to spend hours wandering along the sand, stopping for a fresh fish lunch at one of the seaside restaurants around the headland at Praia dos Ingleses.

We then spent a third day and night in a hostel by Lagoa da Conceição, a large saltwater lagoon contained within the island. A regular bus runs from here to the east side of the island. Thanks to a tip-off from the hostel, we took a 15-minute walk south from the bus drop-off point to a hidden beach and bathed in natural swimming pools formed by a rocky inlet.

Potosi13. Potosí, Bolivia

At over 4,000m altitude, Potosí is the highest city in the world. With the thin air tough to breathe while walking around its hilly streets, it’s amazing to imagine that many of the city’s residents spend their entire lives at this altitude.

The city sits at the foot of the iconic Cerro Rico, which translates as the ‘rich hill’, but is more notoriously known as the ‘mountain that eats men’. The mountain contains the silver mines that fuelled the city’s economy for centuries under the colonial period, and are still active today, with horrendous working conditions that have changed little over the years.

We took a tour inside the mines with a company run by ex-miners that pours money back into the mining community. This was the most humbling and eye-opening experience of our travels. It’s also not for the faint-hearted or claustrophobic; be prepared to clamber through tiny spaces in sweltering heat, with the constant threat of falling rocks and runaway wagons.

The city’s historic centre is riddled with narrow alleys, street markets and colourful old houses, with Cerro Rico lurking constantly in the distance. The popularity of the mines and the convenient location between La Paz and Uyuni have bolstered tourism in recent years, and there is a wide choice of places to eat; we took the opportunity to try pique macho, a classic Bolivian dish that resembles a giant pile of meat, potato and eggs.

Cusco12. Cusco, Peru

As the navigation point for Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail Cusco could be described as a MATT, but it has grown into a beautiful and compelling city in its own right. The colourful buildings sprawled along its hills are a sight to behold as you enter the city at the tail-end of a winding uphill overnight bus ride.

We stayed in the San Blas district up in the slopes north of the touristic centre. New to the altitude it’s a tough walk up the steps to the lookout points, but worth it for the amazing views across the city. The streets of San Blas are also bustling with options for places to eat, with many offering the local delicacies of alpaca and guinea pig.

To the south of the touristic centre, San Pedro market is a really cool place to shop local-style and grab a super-cheap lunch, with stalls offering giant plates of food for 5 or 6 soles (around GBP 1.50).

Macchu Pichu isn’t the only nearby attraction, either; you can also take day trips to other Incan ruins, or venture up to the Rainbow Mountain.

Bariloche11. Bariloche, Argentina

Set among the mountains and lakes of northern Patagonia, the city of Bariloche could easily be mistaken for an alpine holiday village. Its Swiss and German roots are obvious in the log-cabin buildings dotted everywhere and taverns spilling with frothy tankards of beer. Above all it is a destination for adventurers, with some of South America’s most beautiful spots for skiing and hiking close by.

We arrived at the beginning of the walking season in September, with routes and refugios just beginning to open. We took the Circuito Chico walking route to the west of the city, including a cable car up to Cerro Campanario. The following day we walked a bit further, around to Cerrito Llao Llao, where we found a breathtaking view across the lakes and mountains.

A selection of walking tours from the centre give an insight into Bariloche’s beginnings and history. We took the German Footprint tour, run on Tuesday afternoons by an eccentric trilby-hatted guide called Diego. He talked us through the various waves of German influence on the city, from the founding of its outdoor activity economy to the influx of Nazi war criminals after World War II. Definitely worth the 280-peso fee per person (about GBP 12).

Montevideo10. Montevideo, Uruguay

Changes to our travel plans meant we had to squeeze our Montevideo trip into 24 hours instead of five days, but we still managed to cram a lot into our visit. The Uruguayan capital is a fascinating place with a proud story to tell about its secular culture and high living standards. Nearly hundred years ago the country separated church from state, and as a result it has the most progressive society in South America.

The Ciudad Vieja (old city) is the place to be if you want to be immersed in the city’s history; as usual, we found the free walking tour to be a great way to find our way around, and learn about the place from someone who has grown up there. This helped us to find the famous meat market, an old building full of places to enjoy Uruguayan steak, but we actually ended up eating away from the tourist circuit at Bar 36, a parrilla joint recommended to us by the tour guide.

The path along the coastal front from Ciudad Vieja to Punta Carretas was a scenic way to walk off the lunch calories, stopping at beaches and parks along the way.

Ushuaia9. Ushuaia, Argentina

As reflected in its nickname ‘El Fin Del Mundo’, Ushuaia is at the end of the world – the southernmost city on the planet. As you might imagine for a city not far away from Antarctica, its surroundings are dramatic – mountains, glaciers and icy waters.

With its cold climate and array of painted corrugated metal buildings, we thought Ushuaia not dissimilar to Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. With the sun peeking in and out of dense grey-black clouds, the city seemed to be constantly bathed in interesting lighting.

Ushuaia is an excellent starting point for a trekking trip through Patagonia, with the nearby Tierra del Fuego National Park providing picturesque day hike opportunities. We also took a catamaran trip out to see penguins and sea lions.

In the city we visited the old prison, closed in 1947 and converted into a maritime museum. One wing of the building has been preserved in its original state so you can see the conditions in which the prisoners lived. It’s not a cheap visit at 350 pesos per person (about GBP 15), but you can easily spend a whole day there.

Iquitos8. Iquitos, Peru

We couldn’t spend five months in South America without visiting the Amazon jungle, but instead of the customary Brazilian option, we chose to experience the big river in Peru. The largest city in Amazonian Peru is Iquitos, which is connected to the rest of the country only by plane or boat.

To say that Iquitos is manic is an understatement. The primary form of transport is the tuk-tuk, noisy motorised rickshaws that swarm the dusty streets while friendly stray dogs wander around in packs. People run livelihoods out of their living rooms, with shops, cafés and bars spilling onto the streets from residential houses.

We spent a morning exploring the labyrinth that is Belén, a huge floating market, taking the advice to avoid it in hours of darkness. Later in the day we checked out the Historic Boat Museum, well worth the 10 soles entry fee (GBP 2.50) to learn about the city’s steamboat beginnings and the boom and bust of the Amazon rubber trade.

We stayed at Amazon House Hostel, which was very helpful in booking us onto a two-day jungle tour at short notice, for a very reasonable price. We payed 440 soles each (GBP 110), which included the overnight lodge, meals, guided jungle hikes, Monkey Island, meeting an indigenous tribe, mud bathing and river fishing.

Lima7. Lima, Peru

The Peruvian capital Lima was our entry point to South America, which now seems a very long time ago. Although with a population of 9 million it is the largest city in the country and the second-largest in South America, it feels more like a conglomeration of lots of individual districts. The city centre area is quite small and can be thoroughly explored in a couple of hours, or a little longer if you take a trip over to Cerro San Cristobal, the hill of multicolour houses that faces onto it.

Of the 43 districts that make up Lima, two are the focus of most tourist activity: Miraflores and Barranco. We stayed in Miraflores and took the walk along the seafront ‘Boardwalk’ to Barranco. Both districts have an abundance of eating establishments and nightlife.

As I have a good friend that lives in Lima, we were fortunate to have a local guide and advice on where to eat. You can’t really visit Lima without trying Peru’s signature dish, ceviche – pieces of raw white fish in a citrus and coriander dressing. We tried it at Punto Azul in Miraflores, and after five months of travelling I haven’t had a better dish, with the possible exception of Buenos Aires steak.

Santiago6. Santiago, Chile

Before visiting the Chilean capital, we heard quite a few uninspiring stories about it from travellers: just another big city, not worth going out of your way for, not much to do, etc. Don’t believe it.

Santiago is a huge, dynamic city with a turbulent recent history that continues to hang over it. Of South America’s military coups and dictatorships, that of General Pinochet in Chile is probably the best known outside the continent, and anyone born before 1990 grew up in the midst of it. As such, it was fascinating to be guided around the city on a walking tour by someone so acutely aware of this political climate.

On the recommendation of the guide we went to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, which is among the best museums I have ever visited, with free entry to boot. The museum focuses on the dictatorship period with the mission to educate about the atrocities and ensure that the history is not repeated.

History aside, Santiago was a great place to get out and about. In the local institution of Fuente Alemana I had the best sandwich of my life. We also popped into to La Piojera – a famous local pub – for a pint of terremoto (fortified wine with pineapple ice cream). And, naturally, we walked up a big hill to see the city from above.

Salvador5. Salvador, Brazil

No city we visited in South America was more vibrant and energetic than Salvador in the Brazilian state of Bahia. We stayed for three nights in Pelourinho, the city’s historic centre, arriving with perfect timing on a Tuesday when drumming and dancing troupes parade around the streets. Afterwards, live samba music in a bar opposite our hostel rumbled long into the night.

In Pelourinho we sustained ourselves almost entirely on authentic Brazilian street food. We took a particular liking to creamy cheesy yuca mash with pieces of meat, and acarajé, deep-fried balls of shrimp and beans. A lot of grease, but so, so tasty.

We stayed at Açaí Hostel, perfectly situated in the middle of Pelourinho, and serving up free caipirinhas on its rooftop bar every night to get the party going. The staff were also very forthcoming with advice on what to do in the city. We finished off our stay watching the sun set over Baia de Todos os Santos with a Brazilian coffee in Cafélier – perfect.

Rio de Janeiro4. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio would top a list like this for many travellers and might have featured higher in mine, had we spent longer than two days there. It has everything you could possibly wish for in a city: amazing art and music, beautiful architecture, great food, friendly people, crazy nightlife, a stunning setting, a hot climate, perfect beaches, green parks and mountains – everything.

But Rio’s problems are well known, and seem to be getting worse. Even when compared to other cities across the region, the gap between haves and have-nots here is huge, and getting bigger. Drug wars are escalating; a week before our visit, the government dispatched the army into the biggest favelas to intervene. Stories reverberate about growth of violent crime, with tourists a common target. In this climate, we spent much of our stay on edge, looking warily over our shoulders.

Even so, it’s impossible not to be captivated by this incredible city. The view over it from Sugarloaf Mountain at sunset is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. We drank way too many caipirinhas and had an awesome night out in Lapa, nearly causing us to miss our flight the next morning. We had cocktails on the beach and went for a churrascaria, the classic Brazilian all-you-can-eat barbecue cuisine. Basically we packed as much into 48 hours as was physically possible. It’s like no other place on earth, but please – take care when you visit.

Buenos Aires3. Buenos Aires, Argentina

Considering that the first thing that happened to us in Buenos Aires was getting robbed, and that we subsequently spent a really rough time there, it may surprise some to see it so high on this list. But the fact is that once we got past all of the paranoia and bureaucracy, we ended up taking a real liking to the city, to the point that by the time we left, it felt like a second home.

The affluent central districts of Palermo and Recoleta, along with the vibrant La Boca neighbourhood, are typically billed as the top places for tourists to visit in BA, but we had our best times on the streets of San Telmo. Its bars and steakhouses feel less pretentious, more authentic (the tell-tale sign being that they’re full of locals). The huge Sunday market with meat sizzling in courtyards and musicians serenading revellers is a thing to behold.

I have tasted no meat in the world better than Buenos Aires steak, and there are literally hundreds of restaurants around the city to choose from. The city also has a great tradition for music. We didn’t get round to trying a tango night, but we did go to the Monday night improvised drumming show by the local group La Bomba. It’s an amazing spectacle, and the street party that follows goes on until the morning.

Valparaiso2. Valparaíso, Chile

A two-hour bus ride west of Santiago, the coastal city of Valparaíso is an absolute gem. Before the Panama Canal was built, the city was one of the most important ports in the Americas, a regular stop-off point for European vessels after having rounded the southern horn. In more recent times, Valparaíso has become a great cultural centre, exemplified by its abundance of beautiful street art and tradition for metal music.

The city is comprised of a network of hills, each of which contains its own neighbourhood. The hills are all covered with a colourful spread of houses, a landscape which, set against the Pacific ocean, looks incredible. Apparently the rivalries between the neighbourhoods is a very serious matter.

During the military dictatorship under the rule of General Pinochet, a street art movement grew in the city as a form of protest, led by courageous young rebels. While most political artworks created then were destroyed, the tradition has continued and is now a hallmark of the city. Murals as large as fifteen stories high tell the story of the country’s turbulent history. We were lucky enough to meet Cuellimangui, one of the city’s most prominent street artists.

We came across some cool but bizarre customs in Valparaíso. One was the annual downhill running race, when locals cram up to the top end of the city and go hurtling down the streets to the bottom. Another was the tradition for drinking a mixture or red wine and coke, known as a ‘jote’. This stuff set us up for a night in a local metal bar and ensured we headed back to Santiago with a suitable hangover.

La Paz1. La Paz, Bolivia

Towering over 3,600m above sea level, La Paz is the highest-altitude capital city in the world, its vast urbania carved into the Bolivian mountains. In this setting, the blue-and-gold city lights at night are a spectacular sight to behold. With mixed reviews among travellers we’ve met, La Paz is somewhat of a Marmite city – we loved it, of course.

Stepping into the streets of La Paz feels a bit like going back in a time machine. There are almost zero western chain establishments – the creeping tentacles of McDonald’s haven’t reached here yet. The winding hilly roads and alleys are abuzz with market stalls and women in old traditional dress – ‘cholitas’. It would be nigh on impossible to build an underground system, and so cable car is the primary means of getting around, with the added bonus of amazing aerial views. The nightlife craziness levels exceed perhaps even Rio, with some venues opening at 4am and parties going on well into the following afternoon.

There is also a pretty cool variety of things to do in and around the city. Most obviously there is a cycling trip down Death Road, the highest-adrenaline moment of our travels to date. Outdoor types have the option to climb Huayna Potosí, renowned as one of the easiest 6,000m+ mountains in the world to scale. We chose to go up Chacaltaya instead, nonetheless a challenge at 5,400m with a La Paz hangover. And you can’t visit without going to a cholita wrestling night, held every Thursday and Sunday.

For me it was the unique character of La Paz that made it the best city experience I had in South America. Other cities have their own individual characteristics, but still seem to follow a generic mould that binds them all together. On our journey, the Bolivian metropolis in the mountains stood alone.

So there we have it. One gigantic continent, 144 days, 28 cities. Until next time, folks.

9 comments

  1. Brings me back! I also had a similar experience with Santiago; it won me over so much so I kept re-routing my trip to go back! Each of the three experiences were completely different but equally as enjoyable – that city has so much to offer.

  2. This was very interesting to read about your South America experience, mostly a vast contrast to that of myself and my family. We are 15 months and 3 countries in to what will be the ultimate South America excursion. We will spend 3 to 4 years overlanding every single country in the continent. Although, we have learned to appreciate the cities, we prefer the latter. And, many of your top choices are some of the bottom of our experiences. Yet is so intriguing to see the perspective of another traveler and it is so nice to remember how unique we all are, and thus, how diverse our travel experiences are. You have given me some cities in Chile and Argentina to look forward to, as that is where are headed next. Thank you for your insight and happy travels!

    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment! Indeed, I think one of the beauties of travel is that everyone experiences it differently. I read an article last week by a couple who had travelled through South America for 5 months and cut their trip short because they had intense culture shock – their experience was so different from ours.

      Chile and Argentina were our favourite countries in our whole year of travelling the world. I expect you will have an amazing time there! If you prefer countryside and scenery to cities (which I think I understood from your comment, but correct me if not), then you will not be disappointed there, especially if you head to Patagonia. It’s the most beautiful part of the world I have ever seen.

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