South America is a vast and varied continent, with tropical climates in the North to the windy, icy Patagonia in the South. The lively people, the interesting cultures and varied history are what make South America the perfect holiday destination. We love South America in the Back Track office, so we compiled a list of our favourite cities to visit. You’ll notice they’re not all the popular ones – sometimes to find a gem, you have to go off the beaten track!
When discussing must-see cities, Cusco came up a lot! While it is a gateway to Machu Picchu, this Peruvian city has much more to offer. The mix of Spanish and Incan influences in the architecture, food and cultural traditions make Cusco an essential stop on any Peruvian trip.
Quito is a pretty magical city. It was one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites, along with the Galapagos Islands, for its well-preserved and least-altered early Latin American architecture. It is the second-highest capital city in the world, behind La Paz (also on this list!).
Oaxaca City, Mexico
Often referred to as the “cultural hub” of Mexico, Oaxaca City is a must visit for anyone heading to Mexico. While you’re there, make sure to try the local specialty, a sauce called Mole. There are seven different kinds in the state of Oaxaca, and you can try all of them in Oaxaca City!
This coastal Caribbean city is full of colour and life, making it one of our favourites. The neighbourhoods of the Old City feature homes in a full rainbow of colours just streets from the beach. Cartegena’s complicated history as a sea port and formerly the largest slave port in the Americas has created a unique culture and plenty of history to learn about and explore.
Aguas Calientes, Peru
Aguas Calientes is the step-off point towards Machu Picchu, but it is so much more than that. This charming little town, built into the sides of surrounding hills, has a maze of quirky streets to explore before you head to the famous temples.
La Paz, Bolivia
Long-loved by backpackers for its affordability, La Paz has things to offer all travellers. It is home to a burgeoning foodie scene and some fantastic museums. Be careful though – at 4,100m, it is South America’s highest capital city, and this can surprise a few people.
Iguazú Falls, Argentina/Brazil
Iguazú Falls is of the most epic waterfalls in the world and straddles the border between Argentina and Brazil. It spans 2.7km and varies in height between 60m and 82m. We recommend spending a day in each country to experience the best of the falls and see it from all perspectives. The Argentine side has more walking trails to explore the park, whereas the big, panoramic views are on the Brazillian side!
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Getting to Mars or the Moon is a bit of a stretch for most of us in our lifetime, but San Pedro de Atacama in Chile might just come close. Visit the Moon Valley, so named for the resemblance to the surface of the moon, not too far away from the city itself. This slow-paced town will feel like a holiday compared with others in South America, but with just enough activities to keep you exploring.
Arequipa is one of the most unique cities in Peru, for one main reason. The majority of buildings in Arequipa are made form a local volcanic material called sillar, giving them their unmistakable white appearance. As if you need another reason to visit, Arequipa has a variety of delicious dishes that are local to the area. Your tastebuds will thank you!
If you love wine, food and mountains (who doesn’t?), then Mendoza should be on your list of must-travel destinations. Tucked in the shadow of the Andes, Mendoza is in the region for Malbec wine and there are three main wine regions close to the city. For those more adventurous, Mendoza is the launching-off point to tackle Aconcagua Mountain.