10. Bogota, Colombia
The bustling capital of Colombia is a city full of excitement and wonder. The city has many diverse neighborhoods, many of which feel like entirely new cities. The ubiquitous street art adds some spice to the already colorful city. While I did not like Bogota as much as the other cities in Colombia that I visited, it is one of the few cities that I could actually see myself spending an extended period of time in. Bogota is one of the best places in South America to immerse yourself deeper into the local culture.
While there aren’t too many “must-do” things in Bogota, it is a great place to take it slow, and like most large capital cities has a number of hidden gems that most tourists and travelers would not know about or have time to see. Rather than explore constantly like I did with other cities, I found myself taking Bogota at a much slower pace, hanging out at cafes and just watching life go by at some of the parks.
9. Lima, Peru
I promise I’m not just going to list off every South American capital city. Lima is Peru’s largest city, but some would argue it is also the most boring. Those people would be wrong. Lima has a lot of hidden gems if one is willing to venture out into the crowded chaos of the city. As a backpacker, I can see why many backpackers overlook Lima, but they shouldn’t.
With vibrant neighborhoods that cater to every taste, Lima can feel like several different cities into one. From Barranco to Miraflores to Lima District, you can experience art, modernity, and history. The city has it all. Lima is also known as one of the gastronomical capitals of the world. I think that means their food scene is among the world’s most poppin’. Whether you’re in Lima long-term or just flying in to see the more popular parts of Peru, you can have a lot of fun in this city. It is arguably the only place in Peru where you can experience proper late-night nightlife, especially in Miraflores or Barranco.
8. La Paz, Bolivia
La Paz is one of the most interesting cities I have ever been to, and to be honest, it rubbed me the completely wrong way while I was there. Bolivia’s capital city is as chaotic as any South American city gets, but there is a lot of charm hidden beneath La Paz’s grimy exterior. The sprawling city is massive and spread out over a large area, so combined with the traffic and lack of truly awe-inspiring attractions, most travelers use La Paz as simply a stopping point between the natural wonders that Bolivia has to offer.
I mean… fair enough.
La Paz is undeniably a strange city, and some of the top attractions are a prison, the witch’s market, and women’s wrestling. If you’re willing to brave the high altitude, you’ll find that the sloping hills aren’t the only things taking your breath away. Find a nice viewpoint to hike to and the beauty and grandeur of La Paz really become apparent. Nestled in a little soup-bowl shaped valley and surrounded by hills and mountains, the congested red brick buildings of La Paz do reveal a little bit of charm that you might not have appreciated before. Although I never considered La Paz to be one of the best cities in South America before, I will admit that it has grown on me.
I paid my second visit to La Paz three years older and wiser than my first visit and quickly found that most of my dislikes were coming from the viewpoint of a green and inexperienced traveler. La Paz is one of the most exciting and unique cities that you can visit. The rate that it is modernizing also makes it one of the cities to watch in the future. From their extensive and modern cable car system to the revitalization of neighborhoods like Chualluma, La Paz is undoubtedly becoming a city of the future. Despite that, it knows its tradition and roots. The indigenous cultures that have helped build the city will play a huge part in La Paz for centuries to come.
7. Valparaiso, Chile
I went here for New Year’s, and it was one hell of a celebration. Watching the fireworks on the beach with thousands of people was a memory I wish I was sober enough to never forget. The nightlife here and neighboring Vina del Mar were easily among my favorite in all of South America. Beachside clubs, pisco sours, and friendly Chilenos make for an insanely fun time. The colorful streets and houses of Valparaiso nestled on the sloping hills and rough streets and alleyways give the city a unique character and vibe.
6. Cartagena, Colombia
Colombia’s sizzling Cartagena sits on the Caribbean coast, making it one of the most lusted after destinations by tourists and local Colombians alike. The colorful houses, the quaint old town, and the walled city still armed with cannons are among the biggest draws to tourists, but its the nightlife and warm weather that keeps them there. Beautiful beaches and islands are just a quick day trip away for anyone who wants to get out of the city. Although Cartagena is one of the more touristy places I have ever been, it is well worth the trip.
5. Arequipa, Peru
Arequipa was originally just a stopping point for me in between Lima and La Paz. I ended up liking it so much that I stayed way longer than planned. The city’s iconic pristine white architecture is a beautiful and clean contrast to the often slummier sides of many large South American cities. It is a peaceful and walkable city, which really can’t be said for places like Lima and La Paz. You can laze your days away or you can opt for one of the incredible adventures nearby.
Colca Canyon is one of the more popular treks in the area. You can also hike up any of the three volcanos surrounding Arequipa, or if you’re crazy like me, even mountain bike down a volcano. Arequipa is a great mix of adventure, culture, fun, and calm. My favorite memory was probably stumbling upon the city’s successful attempt to make the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest plate of stuffed peppers. I got to eat a Guinness World Record, and that’s pretty freakin’ cool.
4. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Argentina’s capital is one of the liveliest cities in all of Argentina. The many different districts of Buenos Aires provide a variety of amazing attractions for any kind of traveler. From visiting the colorful Caminito in La Boca to experiencing the exciting nightlife in the more cosmopolitan regions of BsAs, there is a lot to enjoy about this bustling city. The food, particularly the beef, is delicious. For football aficionados, there is no better city in the world to be in than Buenos Aires. For history geeks and culture lovers, Buenos Aires’ unique past is as interesting as it gets for any South American city. The Spanish architecture, Italian flair, and the timeless tango culture give Buenos Aires a vibe unlike any other city.
3. Medellin, Colombia
The city of Medellin itself lacks the big name attractions that many other South American cities possess, but the life of the city more than makes up for any shortcomings. There’s no Cristo Redentor or Machu Picchu. It has no epic mountains to hike or any stunning national parks. What it does have is an undeniable character that sucks many travelers in. The nightlife is the famous Colombian nightlife at its peak. The city might seem crazy at first, but its the characteristic Colombian chaos that you just have to acclimatize to.
Exploring the notoriously dangerous neighborhood of Comuna 13 was one of the most memorable days of traveling I have ever had. The public transportation in Medellin is also much more advanced and efficient than most other South American countries. Getting around Medellin was a breeze. The teleferico system is also a good way to take in the views of this bustling city nestled in the rolling green hills of central Colombia. The parks, churches, museums, and plazas of Medellin are also great places to explore or pass the time. Much of renowned artist Botero’s iconic artwork can also be found in Medellin. When it comes to nightlife and excitement, Medellin is definitely one of the best cities in South America.
2. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio is practically unbeatable when it comes to nightlife, beaches, and all-around fun. A friend was planning her own trip to Brazil and asked if a week would be too long to spend in Rio. I responded with “a lifetime would be too short” and still wholeheartedly believe that. Rio is paradise. It is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen, and you will agree once you see it from atop Pao de Acucar.
The beaches are world class, the nightlife is untouchable, and the culture is underrated. For any football aficionado, Rio is the city to be in. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Rio was picked as a host for both the World Cup and the Olympics. It is just a city that the world recognizes as a top global destination, and I’m sure the athletes didn’t mind spending their off-time in such a fun city. There is always something going on in Rio, not that you’ll ever get bored.
1. Cusco, Peru
To me, Cusco is the only city in South America that could possibly top Rio. It doesn’t have the pizzazz and glam that most of the bigger cities on this list have, and it is by far the least modern or cosmopolitan on this list. However, in my opinion, it is by far the one that holds the most culture and adventure. With too many incredible treks and day trip in the area to count, you can spend weeks in Cusco without even coming close to exhausting all of the possible activities. Everyone often comes here mainly for Machu Picchu, but find themselves staying much longer once they realize how much more there is to do. From Vinicunca to the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the nature surrounding this tri-cultured city is insane.
The city itself also holds a lot of exciting things to offer. The architecture is the most unique and most interesting in all of Peru, mostly because it has been occupied by so many different cultures and each part of the city could feel completely different from the last. Cusco wins the gold when it comes to the best cities in South America.
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