Embarking on a South America backpacking trip is the adventure of a lifetime. A continent of vibrant colour, Latin rhythm, incredible people, atmospheric cities and epic nature, is it any wonder we can’t seem to stay away? Some travellers dedicate a whole year to dive deep into this part of the world, others plan shorter trips to explore a region at a time. But whatever your travel style, it’s fair to say that any trip to this whopper of a continent needs a bit of planning. To get your wanderlust whirring, we’ve put together a list of the ten best cities to visit in South America, with something for every type of explorer. We challenge you to not quit your job after reading this…
Rio de Janeiro – Brazil 🇧🇷
Starting the list with not just one of the most beautiful cities in South America, but one of the most spectacular on the whole planet. The Cidade Maravilhosa (marvellous city) is a must-visit for every traveller. Why? Well for starters it’s not short on iconic attractions, with the 30-metre-tall statue of Christ the Redeemer, vibrant red steps of Escadaria Selarón and unbeatable coastal views from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain all fighting for your attention. And that’s without mentioning that it’s got some of South America’s best beaches – dozens in fact – and from the buzzing Copacabana to stylish Ipanema, no two are the same.
What we love most about this city can’t be captured in a photograph though – it’s the electric energy that hits you as soon as your plane touches down. It’s the sound of samba in the air, beach volleyball on the sand and locals selling 5 real (£1) caipirinhas from a makeshift cart on a street corner. Feel the buzz at a street party in the always-lively Lapa, a bohemian cocktail bar in Santa Teresa, or (most intensely!) at a roaring football match at the city’s beloved Maracana Stadium.
Buenos Aires – Argentina 🇦🇷
Buenos Aires is a strong contender for South America’s best party city. If you want to keep up with the locals then you’re gonna need that afternoon siesta, as bars don’t get going until midnight and the best clubs (known as boliches) don’t start filling up until around 4am. The city’s tango halls (or milongas) always make for an exciting and authentic night out, but if you’re not feeling brave enough to grab a partner then check out a wonderfully extra tango show for a spectacular display of Latin passion.
It’s not just the nightlife that’s flamboyant in BA, as you’ll realise while you walk around its busy streets. The highly Instagrammed La Boca neighbourhood is known for its brightly coloured buildings, buskers and street dancers (seriously, there’s tango everywhere you turn in this city!), and areas like Colegiales and Palermo are covered in funky street art. For a dose of architecture, history and literature all in one, check out El Ateneo Grand Splendid, one of the world’s biggest and most beautiful bookstores that’s lived previous lives as a theatre and cinema. All the old details, down to the plush red curtains, are still intact! When you’ve finished feasting your eyes, feast your belly at a parrilla, where heaps of steak, chorizo, ribs and sausages are thrown onto a grill and washed down with several glasses of Malbec.
Sucre – Bolivia 🇧🇴
One of the best Spanish colonial cities in South America and certainly Bolivia’s most beautiful metropolis, prepare to have your expectations smashed by Sucre. This outrageously photogenic city is set in a deep valley surrounded by hills on all sides, and thanks to its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, its whitewashed streets, pretty plazas and historic towers are protected from development.
So, what is there to do in Sucre apart from filling up your camera roll? Start off with a steep stroll up to La Recoleta, a hilltop monastery with the best lookout point for panoramic views of the city. Take it all in and get your bearings! The Mercado Central is a bustling farmers market that’ll throw you headfirst into daily life in Sucre, with all kinds of local produce on sale and a top floor dedicated to serving up authentic Bolivian meals all day long. And just outside the city you’ll find something you don’t see every day – thousands of dinosaur footprints. Cal Orcko is one of the best preserved paleontological sites in the world, so if you’re a dino nerd you absolutely can’t miss this.
Valparaiso – Chile 🇨🇱
Valparaiso is a weird and wonderful city, with a free spirit that’s been inspiring artists for centuries. Its narrow criss-crossing streets, steep funiculars and endless staircases make it feel like it was built in the dark, but the chaos just adds to its charm. As the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once said: ‘Valparaiso, how absurd you are… you haven’t combed your hair, you’ve never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you’. Well, we love a city that’s a little rough around the edges!
As a destination that’s been the muse for all sorts of creatives, it’s no surprise that Valparaiso is most famous for its art. There’s barely a spot that isn’t decorated in street art, with the best pieces found in Museo o Cielo Abierto, an open-air gallery created by students between 1969-1973 (Valparaiso was always ahead of its time). Take one of the city’s many colourful elevators up to Cerro Alegre, a hillside covered in bars and restaurants that doubles up as a creative space where local artists perform poetry and music. If you want to get inside the literary mind of Neruda, his old home ‘La Sebastiana’ is open to the public as a permanent exhibition space.
Medellin – Colombia 🇨🇴
Medellin is known as one of the best cities in South America for digital nomads, and it’s no surprise that many full-time travellers find it impossible to leave the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ – named after its year-round lovely weather. The leafy El Poblado neighbourhood is what first sucks them in, its streets brimming with cool and unusual coffee shops. It’s a favourite spot with backpackers too, not only because it’s home to the city’s most out of this world hostels, but because by night it turns into an insane nightlife hub. Picture packed out streets, eclectic bars and nightclubs that pump until morning.
To understand Medellin, it’s important to learn about its troubled past. Take a walking tour of Comuna 13, once Colombia’s most dangerous neighbourhood, and a local guide will explain its violent history and how, like the rest of the city, it’s reinvented itself through creativity and community projects. Prepare to be wowed by incredible street art and local performers! The best example of Medellin’s innovation is its Metrocable system, a line of cable cars connecting poor hillside communities to the city centre, giving millions of people access to education, jobs and health services they were previously isolated from. They’ve transformed the city since being built in 2004 and have accidentally become a major attraction. Not surprising when they offer jaw-dropping views of the city for less than £1!
Cusco – Peru 🇵🇪
Cusco is a city that’s on every traveller’s radar thanks to its world-famous location – it’s the gateway to the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu. The five day trek to the top is a rite of passage for travellers to South America. It’s a challenge, but waking up every morning to unbelievable mountain views, before reaching the incredibly spiritual Machu Picchu, makes all the blisters worth it. Those who embark on the trek base themselves in Cusco before and after, so expect plenty of backpackers, amazing hostels, a chilled aura and lots of exhausted/excited looking people!
So, what’s special about Cusco itself? Firstly, its colonial cobbled streets, white buildings and ubiquitous orange rooftops make it one of the most beautiful cities in South America. Luckily there are plenty of spots to enjoy the view, like a window seat at the traveller favourite Limbus Resto Bar. The zen of the surrounding sacred valley is felt throughout the city, so yoga spots, meditation sessions and ethical vegan eateries are common. It’s also one of the best cities to visit in South America for anyone wanting to learn Spanish, with loads of local schools offering courses at cheap prices.
Montevideo – Uruguay 🇺🇾
Despite being home to half of Uruguay’s entire population, Montevideo is a low-key city that’s nothing like the other South American capitals. It’s a city that most travellers don’t know much about, so if you’re an intrepid traveller who steers clear of the obvious destinations, then you might like to hear what this enigmatic capital has in store…
The first thing you need to know is that Montevideo is one of the best coastal cities in South America, with sandy beaches and scorching summer temperatures to rival Brazil. Take a walk down La Rambla, an avenue that stretches along the whole coastline and a favourite spot for locals to rollerskate, run and cycle. La Ciudad Vieja is the Old Town, with pastel hued buildings, vintage signs and coffee shops that are an Instagrammer’s dream – a free walking tour will teach you the history behind the beauty. On Sundays, the Tristán Narvaja Street Market is the place to be, where locals sell everything from antiques to clothes, and the atmosphere buzzes. Montevideo couldn’t be easier to add to your itinerary, as it’s reached in 2-3 hours via a ferry from Buenos Aires!
Quito – Ecuador 🇪🇨
Give your lungs a workout in Quito, the world’s highest capital city nestled between the towering peaks of the Andes mountains. Thanks to its location slap bang on the equator it enjoys spring-like weather all year long, and at Mitad del Mundo you can pose for an obligatory pic with one foot in each hemisphere. Well, sort of… the monument was built before modern GPS, so the coordinates are a little off!
You’ll want to start exploring at Plaza San Francisco, a cobbled square that’s bookended by the Pichincha volcano in one direction and the whitewashed San Francisco monastery in the other. Admire the architecture and fill up on cheesy empanadas from street vendors before you embark on a Quito night out. The best ones begin in the enchanting La Ronda neighbourhood, where the street sounds of local musicians will get you ready to hit the backpacker favourite bars and clubs of La Mariscal. If you’re not too hungover in the morning, take a ride on the TelefériQo sky tram to soar above Quito’s surrounding mountains. At the top, you can hike to the summit of Rucu Pichincha – an eye-watering 4680 metres above sea level!
Salvador – Brazil 🇧🇷
Prepare to sizzle in scorching Salvador, an energetic city on Brazil’s north east coast. Home to the country’s largest Afro-Brazilian community, African traditions thrive here, and the continent’s influence can be felt in everything from the beats of Axé music in the air to the spirituality of traditional Candomblé ceremonies. It’s impossible to question Salvador’s status as one of the best party cities in South America, thanks to its wild (and frequent) street parties, festivals and annual Carnival celebrations that give Rio a serious run for its money!
Salvador is a city packed with architectural wonders, and you should start your exploration at the awe-inspiring Rio Branco Palace, before strolling around the UNESCO listed Old Town’s many churches, cathedrals and colourful buildings. It’s home to yet more incredible beaches, but hop on the bus out of the city to Arembepe to find unspoilt coastlines, sea turtles and a small hippy community that hosted the Rolling Stones for a few weeks in the 60s! Salvador never tries too hard – it’s more shorts and flip flops than flashy outfits – but for the closest thing to a hipster neighbourhood check out Rio Vermelho. A hub of art galleries, street performers and artisan markets by day, it fills up with al fresco diners and young party-goers after dark.
Ushuaia – Argentina 🇦🇷
Welcome to the end of the world… literally! Ushuaia is the southernmost city on the planet, surrounded by dramatic snowy mountains and icy plains – meaning if your backpack’s full of beachwear it might be time to re-evaluate. It’s a strangely peaceful city with a surreal atmosphere that you only experience when you’re so far from the rest of civilisation. It’s also the gateway to Antarctica for travellers who have a spare few thousand in their budget!
Luckily, Ushuaia is an adventure hotspot for budget travellers too. It’s a short bus ride to Tierra del Fuego National Park, one of the most impressive spots for hiking in Patagonia where hardcore trekkers are rewarded with views of turquoise lagoons, magnificent glaciers, dramatic waterfalls and snowy peaks. For wildlife lovers, a cruise of the Beagle Channel is a must to spot dolphins, whales and get up close to penguins with a stop off on Isla Martillo. But thrill seeking is tiring work, so spend your evenings unwinding with your fellow explorers at the bars in the centre of town. Ushuaia has a surprisingly booming craft beer scene, so you can enjoy a locally brewed pint as the sun sets over your uniquely epic setting.
Oh South America, how we love you. With so many amazing destinations to choose from, picking just ten cities feels like choosing our favourite child! Let us know which of our best cities to visit in South America is at the top of your travel plans, or if you’ve already got some faves to add to our list, tell us in the comments.