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The Best Cities of South America

Author: Michael Z.
Date of Trip: January 2001

The best cities of South America have one thing in common: they each reflect unique cultural histories and rich traditions. Each city has its own character, from Tango-obsessed Buenos Aires, to the vibrant beach culture of Rio, to the mysterious and enchanting former Inca Empire of Cusco.

Buenos Aires is Argentina’s vibrant, seductive capital. It boasts one of the greatest entertainment and nightlife scenes in the world, with theaters, tango shows, bars, and clubs all brimming with South American panache. The book readers in the outdoor cafes, the dancers in the smoky tango bars, and the passionate citizens discussing politics and soccer on street-corners add to the city’s charm. Its European-influenced architecture is reminiscent Barcelona, Paris and Rome, with wide, tree-lined avenues. And while the shopping compares to any other world-class city, you’re likely to find what you’re looking for at a fraction of the cost. Leather, fur, wind, and antiques are some of the city’s best buys. Some highlights include attending a soccer match, taking an “Argentine Tango Tour” or touring the various barrios (neighborhood) to get a feel for how much diversity there is within this metropolis. Buenos Aires is a very pleasant city to visit year-round. Savor the warm temperatures from September to April, and enjoy the mild winter months from June to August.

Rio de Janeiro is where sparkling waters, beautiful people, and historic neighborhoods and museums come together with the rich sounds of Samba and a thriving nightlife to give Rio its reputation as one of the most remarkable in the world. Brazilians are obsessed with their beaches, and with quality restaurants and hotels to support visitors, so too are tourists. The apex of Rio’s party scene is the 4-day long Carnival, which attracts thousands of people each year. This “cidade maravihosa” (marvelous city), as Brazilians affectionately refer to it, displays a unique blend of contrasts: a bustling metropolis amidst beautiful mountain ranges, rainforests and wetlands, tremendous wealth amidst crushing poverty, old traditions juxtaposed with desires for modernity. All of the thriving life and diversity of Rio de Janeiro is showcased by the outstretched arms of Cristo Redentor, the statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado Mountain overlooking the city.

Cusco is Peru’s most popular city, and after spending a few hours in this heart of the Inca Empire, it would be no wonder why. Snow-capped mountains and the towering fortress of the ancient Sacsayhuaman surround this beautiful colonial city. At over 11,000′ above sea level, Cuzco takes your breath away both literally and figuratively. Nestled in the Andes, this is the continent’s oldest continually inhabited city and a great hub for exploring the magnificent archaeological sites nearby. Cusco is filled with a diversity of people. Travelers rub shoulders with the progeny of the Incas. Peruvian Spanish mingles with the language of tourists, complemented by the Quechua, spoken by the locals making their living alongside the stepped streets. Cusco is also the gateway to the greatest, most accessible archaeological discovery on the continent: Machu Picchu. But as the former center of Inca life, the Cuzco region has many smaller ruins, offering glimpses of life during the time of the Inca warriors.

Each of these cities deserves ample time for exploration. Taking the time to sample the local flavors, culture, traditions, and get a true sense of their inhabitants will give you an idea of the ways in which each of these cities is like no other. They are true gems of South America.

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