South America is blessed with incredible natural beauty as well as some interesting historical sights. There are also many fascinating cities and towns which can be explored by the tourist. Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks as well: some countries are somewhat unstable politically, and safety is a definite consideration when traveling here. Poverty also abounds.
Here are my favorite travel sights on the continent, in order according to my ranking.
1. Macchu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu, Peru, is an Incan ceremonial and perhaps administrative city, located high (2,350 meters or 7,700 feet) in the Andes, 120 kilometers (70 miles) northwest of Cusco (see below), which was only rediscovered for the world in 1911. It probably dates to the 1400’s but archaeologists are unsure. The ruins of this “Lost City of the Incas” are now one of the most popular tourist sights in South America. Throughout any visit to this place, tourists should make note of the precision stonework, always done without mortar.
The majority of visitors reach the site by taking a train from Cusco to the village of Aguas Calientes, the closest town to the attraction, then taking a bus. The adventuresome can walk the ancient “Inca Trail”.
The “farming” section of the ruins is usually the first thing the visitor sees. There are the remains of several buildings and terraces. At the high end of one of the terraces is the Watchman’s Post, which offers the typical view of Machu Picchu seen in postcards and photos. Nearby Funerary Rock was probably used for the preparation of mummies and perhaps also had an astronomical purpose.
In the “Urban” section of the city, visitors will find the Street of Fountains (no longer spouting water), the Temple of the Sun, the main solar observatory of the site, which also contains the Royal Tomb and the Priest’s Enclosure. Also in this region are several housing ruins, one known as the Royal Group and another called the Superior Group. Near the latter is what remains of the Main City Gate. Also in this vicinity is the Quarry, a pile of stones which were awaiting their incorporation into future buildings and other structures.
West of the Quarry is the Sacred Plaza which contains the Main Temple and the Temple of Three Windows. Climb the stairway to Sacred Hill, then down another stairway to Sacred Rock. Beyond this is the Main Plaza, the largest open area at the site and probably the site for various religious rites and gatherings.
Another worthwhile place to explore is the Temple of the Condor. There are also several walks, popular with visitors while at the site. One of these leads to the Incan Bridge and another, more strenuous walk leads to the top of Huayna Picchu, a mountain overlooking the city which rewards climbers with perhaps the best view of the entire site, but allow 2-3 hours for the latter and realize that the trail may be treacherous after a rain.
2. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galapagos Islands, which lie approximately 600 miles (almost 1000 kilometers) west of Ecuador, are the legendary home to some of the most bizarre creatures on the planet. They are famous as the open-air laboratory of Charles Darwin and were extremely instrumental in his development of the Theory of Evolution, which he published in his landmark work, Origin of Species, in 1859.
The best way to get to the islands is by air from Quito, Ecuador (see #38 below), which offers daily flights, then joining a boat-tour which offers accommodations aboard. There are 13 major islands, although Darwin only visited four of them. Visitors must adhere to very strict rules, as a result of monumental conservation efforts by the Ecuadorian government to protect and preserve this sanctuary. The animals are not afraid of man, probably because of the remoteness of the islands, and their trusting behavior, allowing people to approach closely, is one of the reasons that they must be protected.
The largest island, Isabela, is known primarily for its population of Giant Tortoises, those plant-eating, long-lived curiosities which so-fascinated Darwin.
On Santiago Island there are hundreds of inky-black Marine Iguanas, which loll on the rocks of the coast, then dive into the water to feed on algae.
One of the reasons that the islands exhibit so many examples of evolution is because there are significant ecological differences among the islands which have created a wide variety of habitats that the creatures have adapted to. Consider the famous finches. Darwin surmised that one species of finch which arrived, by accident, from the mainland evolved over time into 13 different species, with different beaks, different food sources, etc.
These islands are home to 6 species of mammals, some 28 species of birds, and almost 20 species of reptiles which are found nowhere else in the world. Some of them, besides the ones already mentioned, include the Blue-footed Booby, the Waved Albatross, and the Galapagos Sea Lion.
3. Iguacu Falls, Brasil/Argentina
Iguacu Falls, Brazil/Argentina, is the premier waterfall in all the world. It is much larger and more impressive than Niagara, and, even though Victoria Falls in Africa is larger, it is almost always shrouded in mist and difficult to see. The falls are 1350 kilometers (840 miles) from Buenos Aires (see #19 below) and approximately 1600 kilometers (1000 miles) from Rio de Janeiro (see #4 below), so driving is not recommended. There are airports on both the Brazilian and Argentine sides of the falls and there are buses or cabs available between the two countries.
The falls complex is absolutely huge. There are actually almost 300 separate falls with an incredible amount of water dropping over 200 feet (70 meters). The length of the falls is over 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles).
The best panoramic views of the falls are from the Brazil side, in the Parque Nacional Foz do Iguacu, accessible from the town of Iguacu Falls. From the Visitor Center, take a shuttle bus and get off at the Macuco Safari stop if the thrill of riding a motorboat to the base of the falls is part of the plan (passengers may get wet!). The next stop is the Hotel das Cataratas, the most important stop since it allows access to the Cataratas Trail, a 1.5 km (1 mile) walkway, which provides incredible views of the Argentine falls. The paved walkway ends at the base of Floriano Falls, where a catwalk allows the courageous or perhaps foolhardy to experience the full power of the falls and also to get a glimpse of the Garganta do Diablo (Devil’s Throat), the horseshoe-shaped end of the falls. From the end of the walkway, there is an elevator which brings visitors to the top of the falls and to the Porto Canoas complex, which has a souvenir shop, and a snack bar with terraces overlooking the falls (fantastic place to grab a bite with a view). Other activities are also available, such as helicopter rides, hikes, etc.
The Argentine side of the falls provides a more up-close-and-personal experience. Once again, the falls are within a national park, Parque Nacional Iguazu, which, like its Brazilian neighbor, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the Visitor Center, take the Sendero Verde (Green Path) which leads to the beginning of the Upper and Lower trails.
The Circuito Superior (Upper Trail) takes the visitor a distance of approximately 1 kilometer (½ mile) along the falls, affording great views. Look for the swallows who nest on the ledges behind the curtains of water.
The Circuito Inferior (Lower Trail) brings the visitor down numerous steep stairs to the base of the falls. Note the Penon de Bella Vista (Rock of the Beautiful View). The last section of this trail affords views of the Garganta del Diablo (see above) and provides access to a pier where a boat carries the visitor to Isla San Martin, an island at the base of the falls with majestic views.
Besides the walks, visitors can take the Jungle Train (Tren de la Selva) which stops at Devil’s Throat where a platform allows visitors to peer down into the horseshoe-shaped gorge, the main falls area.
4. Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, presents an image which is one of the most recognized in the world — Copacabana Beach and Ipanema Beach, closed in by skyscrapers, with Sugarloaf Mountain looming overhead, and, behind and looking over the city at the Corcovado, the outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor). What an incredible panorama!
This calm, magnificent setting is juxtaposed with a scary reputation for lawlessness and crime, especially directed at tourists. What is a potential visitor to think? Actually, the consolation seems to be that the crime aspect is being addressed, although no one should think the problem has been solved. Also there are things a tourist can do to minimize the danger. For instance, take taxis instead of buses, try not to look affluent (wearing expensive jewelry), and certainly stick to places where there is a police presence, if possible.
First of all, attend to the views. Take the cable car to the top of Sugarloaf, which, at 1296 feet (430 meters) offers a great look, for orientation purposes, at Guanabara Bay and the city beyond. Rides leave from the Praca General Tiburico every half hour. There is a required stop at Morro de Urca which also offers excellent views, before proceeding to the mountain top.
A second classic view of Rio comes from the Corcovado, northwest of the Centro in the Cosme Velho neighborhood, and accessed by a narrow-gauge railroad or by bus. The classic view at the top of the 2300 foot (750 meter) peak is breath-taking. The 100 foot (32 meter) statue, Cristo Redentor, presiding over this glorious domain is also impressive.
The third important view of Rio is from the beach looking outward toward Sugarloaf. Perhaps the best vantage point for this famous image is from Copacabana Beach, a beautiful 2 mile (3.2 km) stretch of sand lined with a landscaped sidewalk, cafes, and hotels.
The second great beach, made famous in the song, The Girl From Ipanema, is Ipanema Beach, another incredible 2 mile (3.2 km) strand where the “beautiful people” come to play. There are volleyball and “Footvollei”, the same game but without hands, and vendors selling everything from beers to bikinis. Sundays are especially crowded when the Avenida Veira Souto which parallels the beach is closed to traffic. There is also great shopping in the vicinity.
Other worthwhile attractions in the city include the Jardim Botanico (Botanical Garden) which is on the outskirts of the city, in the Lagoa neighborhood. It offers some peace and tranquility in a fairly intense destination. Some buildings of note are the unusual Catedral Metropolitano, the Ilha Fiscal, the exquisite blue-green ceramic, castle-like custom house, located on an island belonging to the Navy in Guanabara Bay (the Navy offers tours), and the Palacio Gustavo Capenema, which is a good example of the Modernist movement in architecture.
City squares of note include Cinelandia (Praca Floriano), the location of Rio’s Opera House (Teatro Municipal), one of the city‘s most striking buildings, and Largo do Machado, which is the site of Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Gloria, an interesting looking church. (Check with hotel staff about safety in these areas before going)
For a markedly different experience in this big city, take a cab to Parque Nacional da Tijuca (Tijuca National Park), an urban rain forest which offers hiking, wildlife and an accessible waterfall.
Of course, Rio is world-famous for its elaborate Carnaval celebration whose activities, parades, etc., consume the four (4) days prior to the start of the Christian sacrificial period of Lent.
Continue north beyond Ipanema Beach and past Leblon Beach, then up into the hills to the Parque Penhasco Dois Irmaos to find Mirante de Setimo Ceu (Seventh Heaven Lookout) for another picture postcard view of the city and its environs.
A great excursion from Rio which involves a minimum of two (2) days is to the well-preserved hilltop town of Ouro Preta. The trip is about 300 miles (480 km) north from the city, and there are also buses available. The city is a marvel of elaborate Baroque architecture, and, although the streets are steep, a delight to explore by foot, as beautiful buildings await the visitor on virtually every turn. Especially magnificent are the city’s churches, many of which are adorned with the sculpture and stonework of Ouro Preta’s favorite son, artist Aleijadinho.
A few of the must-see churches include Sao Francisco de Asis, with its exquisite pulpits, altars, and baptismal font, Nossa Senhora do Rosario, the simple and unusual “slave church”, and Matriz da NS do Pilar, with its numerous gilded angels and other figures.
5. Easter Island, Chile
Easter Island (Rapa Nui), Chile, lies far from other civilizations, about 2000 miles (over 3000 kilometers) from the Chilean mainland and about 2500 miles (4000 km) from Tahiti. It is world-famous for its many, huge, stone statues, known as the Moai, which are found scattered over the countryside near the coast or neatly in rows. The entire island and its inhabitants are shrouded in mystery. For instance, there is disagreement as to where the Rapa Nui came from. Some scholars think they are Peruvian, while others are convinced that the people are Polynesian.
No one seems to know why these monoliths were constructed, except that they probably have a ceremonial purpose. Natives use the term Ahu to refer to the flat stone pedestal on which the Moai stand, and the same term seems to mean “ceremonial site”. They are incredibly large and, considering the rudimentary tools which were available when they were erected (probably between 1400 and 1600 AD), must have been extremely difficult to carve and then to move to their desired location. The figures are an average of 13 feet (4 meters) tall and weigh about 14 tons. Archaeologists have counted as many as 887 of them around the island.
Another mystery surrounds the virtual extinction of the island people. Theories suggest that the population rose to approximately 10,000, exceeding the carrying capacity of the small island. These events plus their frenzy to build more and more Moai, caused the tribe to deplete the forests and other natural resources, which, in turn, caused them to resort to cannibalism in their attempts to survive. Thus, a civilization which immigrated to this uninhabited island in about 400 AD was reduced to a population of about 200 at the turn of the 20th century.
Getting to the island is somewhat difficult due to its remote location, but there are daily flights from Santiago, Chile. Easter Island is, fittingly, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Getting around the island, since the Moai are spread out, may also be a challenge.
5. Torres del Paine, Chile
Parque Torres del Paine, in the very southern part of mainland Chile, is a monument to the action of glaciers. This region has been scoured by these slowly-moving sheets of ice and snow, leaving only the most resistant rock, in the form of ash-grey towers or Torres. This incredibly scenic area of mountains and lakes of gorgeous shades of blue and green is also well-known for its wildlife. One will likely see Guanacos (similar to llamas), Nandus (like ostriches), numerous birds of prey, particularly condors, and many other creatures.
The only way to experience the park is on foot, and there are many trails available, however, quite a few involve overnight stays in the wilderness. A few of the shorter hikes include the trail to Glacier Gray, an easy walk from the lodges to a boat ride across a lake, punctuated with icebergs, to the glacier itself.
Another longer walk is part of The W which leads to the Mirador Las Torres, perhaps the finest view of the famous towers. This walk begins at the Hosteria Las Torres. Note that there are sleeping accommodations within the park, called Refugios, but these should be reserved in advance.
6. Angel Falls & Grand Sabana, Venezuela
Angel Falls and the Gran Sabana are located in the southeast part of Venezuela. They are found within the Parque Nacional Canaima. This area has an extremely unusual topography, with wide, expansive table-top mountains (Tepuis) and giant waterfalls, of which Angel Falls is the highest. These falls tumble 2,647 feet (almost 900 meters) from Auyantepuy Mesa. The entire region is known as the Gran Sabana and can be accessed by four-wheel-drive vehicles from either Ciudad Bolivar or Ciudad Guayana, an excursion which takes three to four days, or by a lengthy and difficult trek through the jungle, or by air from Caracas or either of the two towns mentioned above.
7. Cusco, Peru
Cusco was the capital of the Incan Empire which lasted, roughly, from the 11th century to the 16th, meeting its demise in the person of Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro in 1536. The city was known to the Incas as “The Navel of the World”, with the word, navel, implying center. Much of today’s city is built upon the stonework of the master Incan masons who had constructed many temples and other structures in the city.
The heart of the city can be found in the Plaza de Armas, which contains the Cathedral, a baroque masterpiece whose high altar is made of solid silver. Note also the exceptional woodwork of the retablo and the beautiful choir stalls and pulpit. Also on this plaza is La Compania de Jesus, built on the foundation of the palace of Inca ruler, Huayna Capac, which has a lovely symmetry on the outside and fine artwork inside.
Another important church, because of its association with an ancient Incan structure, is Santo Domingo. It was built on the walls of the Incan Temple of the Sun, the Qoricancha.
There are many examples of Colonial architecture in the city which can be revealed through a stroll around the city center. Be sure to wander in the Barrio de San Blas, to the northeast, which is known as the “District of the Artists”.
Walk or take a cab to the Sacsayhuaman, on a hill to the north of the city center, which was thought to be an Incan fortress but is now more likely considered to be a ceremonial site. Here there are numerous examples of the precision stonework for which the Incas are so well known.
9. Amazon River Cruise, Brasil
The Amazon River is the largest river in the world. It travels from Lake Lauricocha in the Peruvian Andes all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, a distance of almost 4,200 miles (almost 7,000 kilometers). For much of its length it is surrounded by dense Tropical Rain Forest. Its width ranges from about a mile (1.5 km) to about 35 miles (55 km) and has a depth of over 150 feet (50 meters) for much of its course in Brazil. To experience the Amazon and to get a cursory look at the Rain Forest, tourists should take a River Cruise.
Most cruises of this type leave from the river port of Manaus, in the middle of the Amazon Basin, and a 5 hour flight from either Rio de Janeiro (see #4 above) or Sao Paulo. There are a variety of boats and a variety of tour packages to choose from but most people opt for a 3 or 4-day excursion, sleeping aboard the boat. Most will include exploration of some side channels, fishing for Piranha, and Caiman-spotting.
There are also lodges in the vicinity of Manaus which provide accommodations and day or night excursions either on the river or into the rain forest.
10. Cartagena, Colombia
Cartagena, Colombia, a coastal community on the Caribbean Sea, dates to 1533 and is noted for its magnificent city walls and numerous fortifications. The Ciudad Marmalade (“walled city”) should be the focus of any visit. The compact Old Town is ideal for walking. Wander through the Barrio San Diego (in the northern part of the old town) whose military storerooms, Las Bovedas (The Vaults), have been transformed into crafts shops.
El Centro contains the Catedral, with a colorful bell tower, gold-plated altar and marble pulpit, the Plaza de Bolivar, with a statue of the hero as well as the striking Palacio de la Inquisicion. Since this was the area of town inhabited by the wealthy, there are a number of interesting homes, particularly in the area of the Santo Domingo church. There are many other noteworthy sights within the inner city. The best thing to do is just wander the narrow streets as well as the walls themselves.
Just outside the old town, across the Puente Heredia, visitors will find the most important fortification in the city, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, another fort, the Fortress of San Fernando, and a hill, the Cerro de la Popa which provides wonderful views of the town and harbor.
11. Salvador, Brasil
Salvador, Brazil, is the third-largest city in the country and lies on the Baia de Todos os Santos (the Bay of All Saints), in the Bahia region on the east coast of Brazil, almost 1700 kilometers (over 1000 miles) north of Rio de Janeiro (see # 4 above). Its wealth and history are tied to the sugar cane industry, and therefore, slavery. Thus, the population of the city is largely Afro-Brazilian. This region may well be the birthplace of Brazilian culture as the world knows it today.
Salvador’s Old Town (Centro Storico), known as Pelourinho, is a 16th century enclave of historic, colonial homes and buildings, located on a cliff above the bay. This is the area known as the Upper Town and is the major place of interest for the tourist. Walking is the best way to see the city’s treasures. The Main Square is known as the Terreiro de Jesus, which is the home of the Catedral Basilica, with its gilded columns and altars. Just down from this square, on the Praca Anchieta, is the exceedingly ornate, Baroque Igreja de Sao Francisco. The Largo do Pelourinho, once the location of the pillory where slaves were publicly disciplined, has perhaps the greatest concentration of colonial architecture in all of South America. Here visitors will also find the Nosso Senhor Do Rosario Dos Pretos, known as the “slave church”.
To the south of the Old Town, in an area known as the Barra, at the point where the Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, is the Forte de Santo Antonio da Barra and the Lighthouse, built in 1580, which is the oldest lighthouse in the Americas, and marks the spot where Amerigo Vespucci landed in the year 1501. Around the point, on the Atlantic side, are the city’s best beaches.
Another must-see while in Salvador is the Nossa Senhor do Bonfim, an important pilgrimage church in the Bonfim district of the city, north of the Lower Town, which, incidentally is the site of the local market, Mercado Modelo.
The city of Salvador is beginning to truly exploit its tourism potential, through the restoration of its old buildings and improving its image, and, lately, has been competing with Rio de Janeiro (see #4 above) as the Carnival capital of South America.
While in Salvador, be sure to sample the music scene since the particular music of the region is integral to the culture.
12. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires, Argentina, is the most European city in all of South America. Its stately architecture, broad avenues, and squares evoke an earlier time. The city is known far and wide for the Tango, that sensual dance that captivates all who see it. It is imperative, while in Buenos Aires to either learn or at least watch a tango performance. One of the best places to start is at a local Milonga (Tango dance hall).
Those who are in the city on a Sunday should plan to attend the Flea Market which is held in the Plaza Dorrego. It is a veritable “block party”.
The Teatro Colon, the city’s Opera House, is worth a visit and tour of the majestic facility. If possible, catch a performance for a truly memorable experience.
An interesting side trip from Buenos Aires involves a visit to Montevideo, Uruguay, northeast across the mouth of the Rio de la Plata. Its Old City is a cluster of small streets lined with 18th century, Colonial Spanish buildings. Take a walk on the Rambla, a palm-tree-lined esplanade which winds around the waterfront. Spend some time in the Mercado del Puerto (Port Market) and linger in the Parrilladas, bistros specializing in barbeque meat and fish.
Other sights include the Plaza Independencia, on the edge of the Old City. The square centers around an equestrian statue of Jose Artigas, the national hero of Uruguay. At one end of the square is the Palacio Salvo, admired for its architecture.
Another worthwhile excursion involves a 2-hour flight from Buenos Aires to the Andean northwest of Argentina where silver mines infused wealth into the economy and created the grand city of Salta (called Salta de Linda, which means “the pretty“).
Note the splendid, white Cabildo Historico, once the Town Hall, on one side of the main square, the Plaza 9 de Julio. Opposite it is the Catedral Basilica de Salta whose exterior is pink and whose interior gleams with gold and countless statues.
Salta is also known as the starting point of the Train to the Clouds which runs several times per month into the Andes and offers spectacular scenery.
13. Lima, Peru
Lima, is the capital and largest city in Peru. It lies on the west coast of South America, along the banks of the Rio Rimac. The city sprawls and is, unfortunately characterized by the presence of shanties and shacks, pueblos jovenes, in the hills surrounding the city. It can be dangerous in certain parts of the city and at certain times of the day.
However, its historic center (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) has a number of interesting attractions and it provides a good base for the exploration of this part of Peru. Although the city is old (1535), much of its buildings and tourist sights are more recent, because of an earthquake which occurred in 1746 and leveled almost the entire city.
The main square and gathering place in the city is the Plaza de Armas, with its bronze fountain dating to 1650. Notable buildings on the square include the Cathedral, with its intricately carved choir seats, elaborate Inmaculada chapel, and ivory statue of Christ. It also houses the tomb of Francisco Pizarro, the founder of the city and conqueror of the Inca. Also on the square is the Palacio de Gobierno (Governor’s Palace), where Pizarro’s original palace stood. There is a Changing of the Guard ceremony daily at noon.
Lima is a city of churches and museums, so there are plenty of both to explore and browse. Some of the more significant churches, besides the Cathedral mentioned above, are Santo Domingo, with its beautiful cloister and the tomb of Peru’s patron saint (St. Rose of Lima), San Pedro, with its Moorish balconies and gilded baroque altars, San Francisco, which actually survived the 1746 earthquake and dates to the 17th century, La Merced with its stone portico and extensive tile work, Santa Rosa Church and Sanctuary, which commemorates the life of the saint, and Las Nazarenas, famous throughout the country because it contains the painting, El Senor de los Milagros (Lord of Miracles), which was painted by a descendant of a black slave from Angola and which miraculously survived a devastating earthquake in 1655. A copy of the painting is carried through the city on October 18, 19, and 28 each year as part of a procession.
Because the city center has become somewhat rundown over the years, much of its activity has been transferred into the suburbs. Many of the major hotels and restaurants are found in the two most important of these suburbs, Miraflores and San Isidro. Because of this decentralization, walking is not recommended as the best way to see Lima.
A possible excursion from the city that has become more popular in recent years is a trip to see the famous Nasca Lines, 450 kilometers (250 miles) south of Lima. These lines were constructed as furrows in the desert plains around the town of Nasca and are thought to have been built as early as 200 BC. However, there are numerous theories about their date of origin, their purpose, and the people responsible for them.
Unfortunately, because they are so huge, they are best seen from the air. It is extremely difficult to appreciate their form and nature from a ground examination. Thankfully, there are a number of small plane operators who will take visitors on 35 minute-or-so flights over the area. The experience is incredible!
14. Quito, Ecuador
Quito, Ecuador, is the second highest capital city in the world at 9,200 feet (almost 3100 meters). Its historic Old City, which dates to 1534, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains excellent examples of fine colonial architecture amid its steep, cobblestone streets.
Several of the buildings which are noteworthy include the Iglesia de la Compania, the most beautiful church in the city, with its gold-plated High Altar, the Basilica del Voto Nacional, a neo-Gothic church whose gargoyles are animals from the jungles around the city, and the Iglesia de San Francisco with its gilded and painted wood.
Because Quito is located at the foot of a dramatic volcano, Volcan Pinchincha, its setting is idyllic and visitors may want to take a gondola, the Teleferiqo, up the volcano to an observation area, just below the summit, for incredible views of the city below. Another excellent view can be obtained from the top of Cerro Panecillo, at the southern edge of the Old City. This view showcases the city surrounded by tall peaks.
There are a number of museums in the city, but one deserves particular mention, the Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador, which contains art and artifacts from the pre-Columbian period to the modern.
An interesting excursion from Quito is to travel south to the city of Cuenca, about 220 miles away. Its cobblestone streets and colonial-era mansions with their wrought-iron balconies dripping with tropical plants and flowers have also been recognized as a World Heritage Site.
The central square of the city, Parque Abdon Calderon, with its landscaped trees, is surrounded by lovely colonial buildings as well as the Catedral de la Inmaculada, the “new cathedral”, which is positively huge, with interior arches over 100 feet (30 m) high.
There is a daily flower market in the Plazoleta El Carmen, although the major markets are set up on Thursdays and Sundays. “Panama Hats” are a specialty here.
Incidentally, between Quito and Cuenca is Ingapirca, Ecuador’s most important Inca archaeological site. Visitors can check out the massive elliptical structure with mortar-less walls which scientists believe was a temple to the sun.
15. Valparaiso, Chile
Valparaiso, Chile, a UNESCO World Heritage Site at the base of the coastal range of the Andes, is a charming town whose wealth was acquired from Chilean wheat which fueled the California Gold Rush in the mid-1800’s. Since there was no Panama Canal, shipping to the west coast of the United States involved travel around the southern tip of South America and up the coast. Valparaiso was a major port in South America at the time.
The rich merchants built their beautiful Victorian homes in the hills (cerros) above the town and, to get a true picture of the culture and its history, these areas must be visited. There are steep roads and numerous funiculars which allow access. In the past there were more than 30 of these funiculars, but today there are only about 15 or so.
The cerros provide great views, the best of which are called Miradors, and some of these elevated neighborhoods are great for a stroll. For instance, take the Ascensor Turri to the Cerro Concepcion where a well-marked one mile (2 km) walk guides the visitor through a jumble of narrow, winding streets and stairways.
A popular excursion from Valparaiso is five miles (9 km) north to the resort town of Vina del Mar, called Chile’s “Garden City” because of its Quinta Vergara, a large public park. Vina del Mar has excellent beaches and is one of the premier summer getaway escapes for Chileans.
Another great excursion is to travel south and slightly inland to the capital city of Santiago, which is set a the base of some of the Andes’ tallest peaks. Its pleasant climate, warm days and cool nights, is similar to that of California, in the United States.
Like Valparaiso above, Santiago has several hills (cerros) which provide lovely views. Perhaps the best place to go for a great view is Cerro Santa Lucia which looks out over the Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins, known as the Alameda, the entire downtown area, and the snow-capped Andes beyond.
The heart of the city is the Plaza de Armas, which contains the Catedral Metropolitana and the nearby Palacio de la Real Audienca, now a museum, which was once the city’s Customs House. Further to the west is the presidential palace, Palacio de la Moneda.
The city has a number of lovely parks. Perhaps the best one is the Parque Metropolitano, at the top of Cerro San Cristobal, which also contains a huge statue of the Blessed Mother which is lit at night. This hill also provides a great view.
Also note the main city market, Mercado Central, which is extremely interesting because of its exotic and unusual offerings. The Bellavista section of the city is great for shopping, and also has numerous restaurants and nightclubs.
16. Pantanal, Brasil
The Pantanal, a huge flood plain in the far west of Brazil is actually the best place in the country to see wildlife. Its ebb and flow, connected to the cyclic seasonal changes in the rivers of the region, attract a tremendous variety of creatures, yet discourage farming and other activities which might favor development. This lack of people is certainly an advantage in the maintenance of wildlife populations.
The primary gateway to the region, at least in the northern section which has become the most popular with tourists, is Cuiaba. Flights are available from either Rio de Janeiro (see # 4 above) or Sao Paulo. There are numerous lodges which cater to tourists and provide transportation and tours of the Pantanal.
A favorite activity is to drive the Transpantaneira, 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the city. The road travels some 90 miles (150 kilometers) into the heart of the flood plain and has become one of the best areas for wildlife-viewing.
17. Falkland Islands
The Falkland Islands, the only territory of Great Britain in South America, is famous the world over as one of the best places to see Penguin Colonies, outside of Antarctica. There are five (5) different species of Penguin that breed on the islands. The islands are actually a haven for many types of wildlife, such as elephant seals, dolphins, whales, albatross, and many others.
The islands are accessible by air, from Chile and from England, and by boat from Argentina. A number of cruise lines make a stop and this probably accounts for the majority of people who get introduced to the region.
The island’s capital, Stanley, is the typical embarkation point and source of tourist services.
Some of the best places to observe the indigenous wildlife in reasonably close proximity to the capital are Volunteer Point, a wildlife sanctuary, Sparrow Point, and Kidney Cove.
The smaller islands are perhaps the best wildlife-viewing locations because of their remoteness. The best include Sea Lion Island, Saunders Island, Carcass Island, and New Island.
18. Potosi, Bolivia
Potosi, Bolivia, known as the Imperial City, was once the largest city in South America as a result of the discovery of huge silver deposits in the mountains surrounding the city. It is the world’s highest city, 4070 meters (12,500 feet) above sea level, so that altitude is a significant issue for many travelers.
Cerro Rico was the main source of silver and also tin in the early days of the city. Mines still dot its flanks and a mine tour is certainly one of the major tourist activities here. Particular buildings which should be noticed on a walking tour of the city include Casa Real de la Moneda, the former mint, now a museum, and several churches, including San Francisco, Santa Teresa, San Lorenzo, and Santo Domingo.
About 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Potosi is Sucre, the constitutional capital of Bolivia, a place that is revered as the origin of Bolivian and South American independence from Spain, spearheaded by the famous patriot, Simon Bolivar. Its old town center has been recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The white, Colonial buildings which date from the 18th and 19th centuries are well-preserved reminders of its past glory. Today, the city is most noted for its museums.
Note that individuals wishing to travel to Bolivia are strongly cautioned because of safety concerns. There is considerable ongoing civil unrest which may pose danger to visitors or disrupt travel in the region.
19. Brasilia, Brasil
Brasilia, Brazil, is a total change of pace from the rest of South America. Here is a thoroughly modern city in a place where almost nothing else is modern. Here is a new city, built in 1960, which has been recognized as a landmark in city planning and design. The city of today was the result of the work of several significant individuals. Perhaps the most important of these was Oscar Niemeyer, the architect who designed most of the truly significant architectural achievements.
Although the city plan is fairly simple, with one main north-south road (the curving Eixo Rodoviario), and one east-west road (the Eixo Monumental), it is huge and somewhat difficult to negotiate, certainly not a city for walking.
The must-see architecture of the city includes the following: Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida, a kaleidoscope of marble and light; Palacio do Itamarty, whose interior is airy and incredibly distinctive; Memorial JK, an unusual tribute to the President of Brazil, Juscelino Kubitschek, who was most instrumental in the execution of the idea of an inland capital for Brazil; Congresso Nacional, the country’s parliament building; and the Palacio Planalto, the presidential palace, which is off-limits to tourists.
Other city sights of interest to the tourist are the TV Tower which offers a 240 foot (80 meter) platform (free!) and has the best view of the entire city, and the Espaco Lucio Costa, a sunken memorial to Brasilia’s city planner who conceived the design of the city. The memorial includes a scale model of the city and is also an excellent first stop to orient the visitor.