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).
BA, Cartagena, Valparaiso, Colonia, and Mendoza I know and love, but I also have a thing for Montevideo, which I first got to know in the early 1990s as the city where time stood still. Also got to know Habana in the early 1980s, which belongs in the top 3 at least based on my experience. Bob H.
I'm fond of Montevideo too, but can't quite put it in my top five. Maybe my top ten, but I'll have to save that for a future entry.
While in Punta Arenas, don't miss the local cemetery with its tombstones inscribed with the roll of shipwrecked crews, and even a German monument to the Graf Spee and his men that died in the Malvinas / Falklands battle during WWI.
For a mid-sized city, it's certainly one of the most interesting cemeteries, dominated by the crypt of the Menéndez dynasty, who transformed Patagonia into a wool Leviathan (for better or worse)
Listicles always have an interesting slant, obviously informed by whomever is writing them - usually with some agenda in mind. I suppose if I were putting a similar list together it would be based on food... and I'd probably end up with BA, Ushuaia, Santiago, Lima and Chiclayo on my current top 5 - though my travels have been less extensive than yours.
I've not investigated it in-depth, but at some point in my time here in BA I was given a fairly detailed explanation of the "Paris of the South" moniker. It was not, originally, intended as either a compliment or something promotional. In the late 19th century, Juan Antonio Buschiazzo, one of the country's most famous architects, worked with BA's first mayor, Torcuato de Alvear, and Argentina's then president, Julio Argentino Roca, as they mounted a campaign to modernize the city and create a whole "Beaux Arts" feel to the central corridors of the city - the remnants of which can be seen along Av. de Mayo and in parts of the more upscale section of Recoleta. In one of the major newspapers of the time, I think it may have been La Prensa, an op-ed was published decrying the two leaders' attempt to destroy the unique character of the center of the city by turning it into some sort of re-imagined Paris of the South. The term caught on briefly as an anti-government theme, but then more or less petered out. At some point in the mid-20th century the term was rediscovered by someone(s) who thought it would make an excellent promotion for tourism in the capital, and it has just chugged along as a subtitle to the city as one travel writer after another has simply adopted it as a necessary reference.
I'm ambivalent about listicles but, given the traffic this item generated, I may do some others. As for the "Paris of the South," your account of its origins is plausible enough, but the cliché still tempts me to go ballistic when I hear or read it. Santiago still has some similar architecture but, ironically, its seismic vulnerability may have rescued it from the worst.
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