Recently, Condé Nast Traveler used its Readers’ Choice Awards to produce a list of the Top 5 Cities in Central & South America. In principle, I’m averse to such listicles but, nevertheless, I can’t look away completely. Thus, I’ve decided to comment on the survey and, then, produce a list of my own that will, hopefully, provided a credible corrective or supplement. I subscribe to the magazine – at about US$12 per year, that’s no big sacrifice - but the survey itself appears online.
Condé Nast’s No. 1 city is Buenos Aires (pictured above) which, of course, I cover in my own city guide and in guides to Argentina and Patagonia (additional comments below). No. 2 is Cusco which, though I haven’t visited Peru for many years now, is certainly a credible choice for its Inka and colonial heritage, and as a historic gateway to Machu Picchu. I got to know it in my backpacker days and, though it’s certainly changed now, it’s hard to dismiss it from such a list.
No. 3 is Cartagena, Colombia (pictured above and below), for which I have a special affection as the first memorable city I ever saw in South America (flying from Costa Rica, I landed in the grubby Caribbean port of Barranquilla, which I’d sooner forget, but nearby colonial Cartagena’s walled city was unforgettable). Fortunately, I was able to return a few years ago, and it was better (though notably more expensive) than I remembered it from my backpacker days. I’m bewildered, though, that the magazine would even have to suggest visiting “the old part of the city, as well as the newer areas…” since the old part is the only part worth visiting. In the newer part, you might as well be in Miami.
No. 4 is Paraty, Brazil, a surprise choice that I really know nothing about. Personally, in my limited Brazilian experiences, I would choose Bahía (Salvador). No. 5 is Antigua Guatemala, the colonial capital ironically saved by an earthquake that forced the movement of the political capital 30 miles east to present-day Guatemala City. Antigua, which I covered in an early edition of Moon Handbooks Guatemala, has a remarkable critical mass of colonial architectural treasures, even if some of them are ruins or semi-ruins, and the presence of a rich Mayan culture in and around it.
My own Top 5 differs significantly from Condé Nast’s, but then it’s not crowd-sourced like theirs, which relies on polling based on vague standards of culture, friendliness, atmosphere, restaurants, lodging and shopping. I take a different approach which, though still subjective, has parallels with the standard I use to evaluate restaurants: “Would I go eat here again?” This reflects my own experience and, over the course of three decades experience, it covers the places I most look forward to returning to. The order that follows below is random.
In this I concur with Condé Nast readers, even if I detest the “Paris of the South” cliché – which needs to be retired sooner rather than later. Buenos Aires is not a European metropolis, but rather a New World immigrant city that’s more analogous to New York. For my part, it helps that I own property there, so I have all the benefits of travel while still being able to sleep in my own bed.
From my East Bay home, San Francisco is less than 20 minutes away by the Transbay Tube, but I rarely go there except en route to SFO for a flight to Argentina or Chile. I prefer to spend time in Valparaíso, the first major Pacific port on the Round-the-Horn route to the Gold Rush and, with its steep hills, cranky funiculars, brightly painted houses and cool summer fogs, “Valpo” is South America’s San Francisco. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it also has longstanding historical links with California, as Isabel Allende (now a California resident) showed so vividly in her historical novel Daughter of Fortune.
COLONIA DEL SACRAMENTO
Barely an hour from Buenos Aires by ferry, the walled city of Colonia del Sacramento was a buffer between Portugal and Spain, and then between Brazil and Argentina, until Uruguay became an independent country. Towns of its antiquity, with its cobbled streets and low-slung houses, are unusual in southernmost South America. It’s a walker’s delight.
At the base of the Argentine Andes, Mendoza is a commercially driven world wine capital whose downtown street trees form, in the words of the late Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, a “roof of leaves woven together like the fingers of a huge circle of inseparable lovers.” Its park and plazas are a delight, while its backcountry can boast the “Roof of the Americas” in Cerro Aconcagua, the Western Hemisphere’s highest summit.
Stretching along the Strait of Magellan, Punta Arenas was Ground Zero for the “wool rush” that transformed the Patagonian steppes, in both Chile and Argentina, into massive sheep ranches that clothed Europe and made a handful of entrepreneurs rich and influential (more so in Argentina than in Chile, however). They left some memorable architecture, and the city’s also the gateway to the Fuegian fjords (pictured below).