South America is one of the most diverse places in the world with an eye-watering range of landscapes, climates, ethnicities, and cultural treasures. Strap in for a whistle-stop tour of all of this eclectic continent’s capital cities, taking a look at the staple facts and must-sees we recommend when your vacation includes South America’s capital cities.
Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, is home to nearly 3 million, known colloquially as porteños. They are friendly and feisty people, generally descending from Spanish, Italian, and other European roots.
It’s often known as the ‘Paris of South America’ due to its fusion of European-influenced architecture and contemporary Latin American passion. Vacationers to Buenos Aires might seek out the intricate mausoleums of the Cementerio de la Recoleta, the pinkish hues of the palatial Casa Rosada, and the plethora of fascinating museums.
Known for its thriving culture, vibrant street art scene, and fantastic steakhouses, it is also the birthplace of the tango. The tango originated in the old bordellos, but now it is a cultural symbol of the city and can be found in milongas (dance salons) and venues all over – you can even have a go yourself in many places.
Suriname’s capital city Paramaribo is the sparsely populated country’s only city, with about 250,000 people. The former Dutch colonial city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a glorious melting pot of ethnic diversity.
Paramaribo is found on the banks of the Suriname River only 15 km from the Atlantic Coast. Sip Djogo (local beer) by the waterside, wander through the rich tapestry of colonial architecture or use it as a base to explore Suriname’s rainforest.
Bolivia really is a tale of two cities – La Paz and Sucre. Sucre is the official capital, with around 300 thousand people and the Supreme Court of Bolivia. La Paz is much bigger with a population of around 835 thousand. It’s the de facto capital and political and commercial center of Bolivia. Both cities are high up so fairly cold, but they have very different vibes.
La Paz is found in the west of Bolivia, in an extraordinary canyon location gouged into the Altiplano mountains. Although not the greenest of cities, the jaw-dropping view of Mount Illimani in the background makes up for it by far. It’s the much easier of the two cities to get to, and very much a cosmopolitan and modern hub of activity.
Sucre is much smaller but often considered the more refined of the two. In central Bolivia, Sucre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, credited with well-preserved churches, monasteries, and stunning architecture, and known for its beautiful white buildings. Warm people, a relaxed pace of life, and a mild climate are amongst the myriad reasons to consider a vacation to Bolivia.
Brasília, home to about 3 million people, has a surreal, futuristic feel to it – straight out of a sci-fi movie. This is because Brazil’s capital city used to be Rio de Janeiro, a title that was moved to the purpose-built city of Brasília in 1960. Buildings, constructed in grid blocks, are dominated by styles of the 50s and 60s and attract many architecture enthusiasts. The extensive network of multi-lane highways can be difficult to navigate by foot, so renting a car is often a good move, although in the residential areas leafy avenues are shaded and cool for pedestrians.
The nightlife is buzzing here – but not in the center! Because of rigid town planning, the center is utterly dead after nightfall. Head north or south of the city center for bars, restaurants, and clubs humming with life.
Asunción is the capital of Paraguay, sited on the banks of the Paraguay River. Although the city itself is home to only half a million people, its surrounding metropolitan area is much bigger, making it Paraguay’s largest city.
One of South America’s greener cities, it lies off the beaten path and is not a well-known travel destination. A bit of a hidden gem! A huge restoration effort in 2011 has returned many of its rich historical sites to their past glory. Asunción is a balancing act between its peaceful cultured core and its thriving, stylish nightlife scene.
Chile’s largest city and also its capital, Santiago is often thought of as South America’s safest city. It is the country’s political and cultural hub, rapidly expanding, with a metropolitan population of nearly 7 million. Its central location – between the coast and the Andes – makes it a great base for any vacation to Chile.
Santiago is sophisticated and cultured, with some fantastic museums (the Chilean Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, La Chascona, Museum of Memory and Human Rights to name a few), restaurants, and vineyards to visit. Take to the cycle-friendly streets with a hired bike, or marvel at the beautiful city views, peppered with parks, on the historic funicular.
Bogotá is a huge city of about 8 million people, and the capital of an under-the-radar travel destination: Colombia. It’s one of South America’s highest cities, poised on an elevated plateau in the middle of the country called the Bogotá Savannah.
It is a city of contrast, with 300-year-old churches juxtaposed next to flashy skyscrapers. In the south of the city, working-class barrios sadly have a reputation for drugs and crime, while the wealthier north harbors affluent restaurants, nightclubs, and shopping centers.
Bogotá is a diverse and ever-developing city with an exciting cultural scene. Travelers should prioritize a trip to the Gold Museum which houses the world’s largest collection of gold artifacts, and a hike up Monserate Mountain for incredible views.
Quito is Ecuador’s capital – the land of the equator! In fact, just 45 minutes outside of Quito there’s a place where you can stand with one foot in each hemisphere. There are many who would argue that Quito is quite literally the center of the world, with its dramatic setting, nestled between mountain peaks high in the Andes at the foot of the Pichincha volcano.
The city’s highlight is its UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town, which remains one of the best-preserved historic city centers in the Americas. Picturesque cobbled streets and charming plazas, churches overflowing with decadence (for example Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus), and buzzing markets. Make sure you take the cable car to the woozy heights of the overlooking volcano for spectacular views.
With a newly-built, modern international airport and privileged location any tour of Ecuador, whether Galapagos, Amazon, or the highlands, will surely include some time in Quito.
Guyana’s capital city, Georgetown, sits at the mouth of the Demerara River on the Atlantic Coast and has a fairly small population of just over 200,000 – although is by far the largest of the country’s cities. Although not as packed full of bucket-list sights as some other capitals, it is nonetheless an interesting city and makes a unique and tourist-free destination.
Despite a crumbling exterior with dilapidated buildings and unmanicured public spaces, Georgetown is a lively and colorful place to visit, that oddly feels more Caribbean than South American. Drink fresh coconut from Bourda market, poke your head into the iconic wooden St George’s Cathedral and meander along colonial Main Street.
The third-largest city in the Americas, Lima is Peru’s capital with around 8.8 million people. Worldly, cultured, the heart of Peruvian cuisine, and with an edgy art scene, there’s little wonder why Lima is one of South America’s best-loved cities.
It’s found in the converging valley of three rivers, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, but remains one of the driest cities on the planet. Museums of pre-hispanic and colonial history tell the story of an ancient country that has a fascinating past. Any trip to Peru will require passing through Lima as it is the major international gateway to the rest of the country.
With about a third of the country’s population (around 1.3 million), Montevideo is Uruguay’s capital and biggest city, and the furthest south of all the capitals of the Americas.
Found on the southern coast of the country on the banks of the Río de la Plata, Montevideo has a humid subtropical climate. It is an eclectic and international mecca to the arts with distinctive districts and a high quality of life.
Venezuela’s capital city is called Caracas and is one that is often avoided by travelers for its reputation for danger, high crime rates, civil unrest, and poor healthcare. In a central population of nearly 2 million, poverty is pervasive and Caracas’ overpopulated streets and high levels of pollution don’t endear it to many outsiders.
However, there are some redeeming factors that would make it a pity to avoid altogether. Tourist areas are deemed safe if you exercise your common sense, and its rich cultural diversity and fantastic culinary scene are not to miss. It also has a favorable climate, due to its higher altitude and proximity to the Caribbean Sea.
At Rainforest Cruises we specialize in South American vacations, so no matter which – or how many – colorful South American capital takes your fancy, we can create the perfect South America itinerary for you.
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