Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico city… All magnificent cities with unique character. Read Planning your trip to South America if you like the buzz of cities, and plan your perfect trip to South America.
Dazzling cities in South America
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Called the “Paris of the South” and for good reason. Buenos Aires is almost more of a European city than a South American city. Many of the streets of Buenos Aires could easily mistaken for a Parisian street with its European Architecture and bustling café scene.
The city also has more theatres than anywhere else in the world and so it’s hotspot for live entertainment. The Teatro Colón is Buenos Aires’ most grand theatre and is a most for a live entertainment enthusiast.
The Central area of Buenos Aires actually doesn’t have the best restaurants and cafes and in fact northern suburbs like Recoleta and Palermo (or even more trendy Palermo Soho) are where you’ll find Bueno Aires’ cool set hang out. There are lots of boutique shops and unsurprisingly most of Buenos Aires’ best restaurants.
The portside region of Puerto Madero also has a vibrant restaurant area but within much a more modern setting, not dissimilar to Sydney’s Darling Harbour, London’s Canary Wharf or Auckland’s Viaduct.
Just south of the Central Area is the working class portside suburb of La Boca, the famed birthplace of the Tango. The colourful buildings and quaint neighbourhoods are well worth a look although do be cautious about when you go as the area isn’t the safest of Buenos Aires’ suburbs.
Almost undoubtedly South America’s food capital (although people from Sao Paulo, Brazil may dispute this) and historically one of South America’s most important cities (considered to essentially be the capital of South America in the early stages of Spanish colonisation).
The history in Lima is immense. There are a number of world class pre-Colombian (pre European colonisation) museums and ruins in Lima featuring festinating exhibits from the Incas, Nazca, Moche, Chimu and Peru’s other varied and extensive cultures. Aside from that Lima was one of the first and largest cities founded by the conquering Spanish Conquistadors. As such there is a long and rich Spanish history in the area and extensive colonial architecture is one of the most obvious legacies of this period.
There are also a number of museums and exhibits that focus on the Spanish occupation, none more interesting than the Museum of the Inquisition – essentially an extension of the Spanish inquisition although it didn’t finish until considerably later than Spain, making it the last place on the planet for the Spanish Inquisition to finally finish. As a result of going for longer than in Spain the museum has a considerable number of relics from the inquisition period. Most of the Colonial architecture and museums are concentrated in the (not so touristy) Central Area of Lima.
Towards the Pacific Coast are the suburbs of Miraflores, Barranco and Larco Mar. These suburbs essentially sit above the cliff tops that raise Lima itself from the beaches on the Costa Verde below. As a result, some of Lima’s best hotels sit atop these cliffs, offering extensive views along Lima’s Costa Verde (Green Coast).
Miraflores (and not so beachside neighbouring San Isidro) have in modern times become the business and international hotel suburbs of Lima. Larco Mar isn’t so much a suburb as a major hotel and shopping district at the beachside (or more appropriately, cliffside) limit of Miraflores. Miraflores is still very much the cultural and entertainment district for the Lima elite and houses many of the world class restaurants that Lima has become famous for such as Astrid y Gaston and Central. If you’re interested in Peruvian food then consider traveling to Lima in September, when the Mistura Peruvian Food festival is held on the Costa Verde, directly below Miraflores.
Barranco is probably Lima’s best up and coming hotel area. A bohemian beachside area filled with art galleries, hip bars and small cafes, this Colonial and Republican era area is fast becoming a key location for new hotels and restaurants.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
One of the world’s iconic cities and for good reason. With a harbour to rival Sydney, beaches to rival the Caribbean and a party atmosphere to match New Orleans, Rio is certainly a city with sex appeal and a must visit in South America.
Rio also has a dark side and its numerous favelas (shanty towns) have resulted in the city having a reputation for being one of the most dangerous in South America. That said safety has improved in recent years and particularly in tourist suburbs such as Copacabana and Ipanema.
And it’s Copacabana and Ipanema that are the real attractions in Rio. Like many other South American cities the Central Business district is best avoided as it holds very little value for international tourists (although the adjoining port areas are currently undergoing some amazing urban renewal).
Copacabana is one of the densely populated suburbs in the world. Buildings, squashed into narrow streets almost seem to be stacked on top of each other in the back streets of Copacabana. For this reason it’s strongly recommended that you shell out and pay the extra to have a beachside hotel if staying in Copacabana. These can cost more than double the price of hotel in the backstreets but Copacabana Beach itself is a colossal public space and looking out onto it from a beachside hotel paradoxically gives you a feeling of spaciousness in one of the world’s most crowded locations.
Overcrowding in Copacabana may not sound particular positive and from a town planning and government administration perspective it probably isn’t. But the by-product of this overcrowding is a vibrant and exciting beachfront on Copacabana. With almost no public spaces spare the beach itself, locals spend huge amounts of their space time on the beach. This means that almost any time of day you will see people playing beach football, volleyball, just going for a swim or socialising whilst having a few Capirinas (Brazil‘s national drink) with friends. As a result Copacabana has to be one of the world’s most interesting and vibrant beachfront areas.
Ipanema Beach is similar although not as crowded and a little classier generally (although not completely as sections of Copacabana like Leme are actually some of the most exclusive areas in Rio). Both major beaches have a considerably tourism police presence.
Outside of these beach areas Rio has some amazing destinations that are worth visiting, such as Corcovado, Maracanã Stadium, Sugar Loaf Mountain and Tijuca Forest. Most of these can all be visited on a day tour and it’s not recommended to stay in any of these areas.
As mentioned above, many of the once lawless favelas of Rio have been cleaned up and it’s now quite easy to visit many of them and in some cases even go to them in the evening to visit restaurants and cafes. Babilônia favela, just behind Copacabana has the rustic but amazing Bar do Alto, which although it’s quite a steep climb, probably has one of Rio’s best views of Copacabana beach.
Mexico City, Mexico
One of the world’s largest cities, Mexico City has a long, long history. The Mexican flag actually tells the story of the founding of Mexico City, when the great Aztec God Huitzilopochtli saw an eagle catch a snake in took it as an omen for the creation of a new city. At the height of the Aztec empire the city had over a million residents already, making it one of the largest cities in the world even before the arrival of the Europeans.
The discovery of the America’s by Europeans set in train the inevitable class of civilizations, which lead to Spaniard Fernando Cortes conquering Mexico City and the entire Aztec empire.
Prior to Spanish occupation, Mexico City has a fascinating city, a kind of Venice of the Americas, with interconnecting canals moving goods around the city. There were innumerable temples and other civic structures, almost all of which are unfortunately now lost to time. Then as is now, the concepts of Mexico City and Mexico as a state are almost indistinguishable (locals just call the city Mexico, and omit the “City”).
There are some pre-Colombian ruins still in Mexico City, including some in the corner of Mexico City’s most famous square – the Zócalo (also the supposed location where the above mentioned snake met his end at the talons of an eagle).
The Zócalo is still very much the cultural and popular heart of Mexico City, with its impossibly oversized Mexican flagpole and adjoining institutions such the city’s Cathedral and Presidential Palace. It’s also the main location for festivals, celebrations and protests. A kind of civic stage for whatever important event is happening in Mexico at the time.
Unfortunately the immediate Zócalo area is quit touristy and as a result the restaurants in this area aren’t particularly inspiring. That said, you only need to walk a few blocks and you’ll find some great location food options. Mexico obviously has a strong food culture and if you walk the streets you’ll soon be rewarded with a large variety of Mexican delicacies – many which you’re likely to have seen before.
If you have the time a visit out to The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Teotihuacan are well worth a day trip. These two sites although very different are in a similar are on the outskirts of Mexico City. Guadeloupe is actually the second most visited Roman Catholic site in the world (after the Vatican) and is a very important pilgrimage site for the Roman Catholics of Mexico (and wider Central America for the matter).
Beyond Guadalupe are the ruins of Teotihuacan which are expansive ruins of what was once a well-designed Aztec City. The dramatically names central “Avenue of the Dead” is quite a walk in itself and all the main sites branch of this main avenue. Most of the major temples can still be climbed and have great views from the top!
Sao Paulo, Brazil
Not only Brazil’s but also South America’s wealthiest city. A commonly quoted statistic is that it’s the city with the most personal helicopters of anywhere in the world. The means on display in some areas of Sao Paulo are like anywhere else in Latin America (save for maybe portions of Mexico City). Travelling along Paulinista Avenue you’re likely to see a strings of expensive European cars, fashionistas and haut cuisine restaurants.
Helicopters have become such a must have item for Sao Paulo’s elite that you constantly hear them buzzing overhead. Like the futuristic world depicted in the TV series “The Jetsons” the helicopters shuttle their rich passengers from rooftop to rooftop for business meetings or high society social events. The helicopters don’t only fly over central Sao Paulo either – there are even beachside houses on the nearby Atlantic coast without garages. Their owners only fly there via helicopter for retreats and have no need for a car.
Sao Paulo does suffer from a shortage of easily identifiable tourism attractions and hence why many international tourists give it miss altogether. It also isn’t helped by the fact that Rio, Brazil’s other major city, is nearby and looks much sexier in a travel brochure. Ironically within Brazil, Rio isn’t seen as such a desirable location to live – Sao Paulo it the place to be for those that have made it!
Essentially it’s the lifestyle of Sao Paulo that’s its biggest attraction. Consider it a kind of Latin New York: it’s a melting pot of cultures (there are so many cultural influences – German, Italian, Japanese and Chinese just to name a few). There are probably more diverse cuisines than anywhere else in South America, great shopping, fantastic bars and restaurants (for every budget) and even some world class museums and parks.
Eight other ways to plan your South America Tour:
Now you have read about how to plan your trip if you the buzz of cities, read one of the other ways to plan your South America Tour and make your trip unforgettable.
Contact Chimu Adventures for more information on trips to South America.