South America is a place of wild contrasts, from the Galapagos islands, to the Salt Flats in Bolivia, the Amazon forest (which hopefully is going to be alright!) to mountains, flats, waterfalls and so much more all supplied by nature. One thing is for sure though, it is not short on huge cities.
From my singular visit to the continent I experienced several big cities – South America’s total population is over 422 million, and over 50% of the population live in the five biggest cities. That’s Sao Paulo, Lima, Bogota, Rio de Janeiro and Santiago. Buenos Aires is seventh with a population in the greater area of around 16 million. Brazil has five of the top ten cities. 6.5 million in Rio de Janeiro, up to 13 million in the greater city area.
What are these cities like? Well, I visited Lima, Buenos Aires and Rio from the top ten, and found them to be, unsurprisingly, three vastly different cities. Without a doubt, my favourite was clearly Rio de Janeiro. Although safety is without a doubt an issue in all three, for some reason I felt most relaxed in Rio.
I think this had a lot to do with the fact that this was my last stop in South America before returning home. It’s definitely the most attractive of the three cities (and sorry Lima, but you’re the least!), woven around rocky mountains, with suspended gondola rides between peaks, places to grab amazing views, history, colour, life and more. I carried my DSLR in my backpack but wasn’t particularly worried about pulling it out to take photos. And in Rio you want to take photos.
Buenos Aires was certainly the city I was most apprehensive. Ironically, this was the city I had my camera around my neck more than any other. Again, it was towards the end of the trip. In Quito and Lima I had used a small camera to take photos, not wanting to make myself a target and also I was new to South America. I probably would use my DSLR in Quito if I had my time again, it does take much better photos. As for Lima, I’m not so sure.
I had heard a story from a guy who had been robbed at gun point in the middle of the day in the middle of Buenos Aires, so I was a bit wary. Buenos Aires’ metro system is very well connected, and the city varies quite a bit depending on what area you are in. It really does boast some very impressive architecture, somewhat unique but with a strong European influence.
You really could go there with the plan to just discover buildings. Al Ateneo is this amazing bookshop, you can visit and get tours in a number of buildings such as the Palacio Paz and the Casa Rosa and see just how rich the country was at one point, 1880 through to the 1920s seem to be the high points. It feels busier than Rio is some ways, it’s taller and more business like.
Rio in contrast is more chilled. The beaches are glorious, the sand amazing, and people on roller blades abound as well. Living conditions are supposedly a lot better than they were pre-Olympics, although I’m sure that the government did plenty of dodgy things to make it seem more so. If it wasn’t for the reported crime, and one bad story can certainly ruin a destination’s reputation, Rio would be just about the perfect tourist spot in the world! The metro is not as comprehensive as the one in Buenos Aires, but having said that, public transport in both cities is much better than that in Lima.
Peru’s capital has its good points. Some beautiful churches and monasteries, amazing cliff views over the Pacific Ocean, a few glitzy spots in Miraflores, and ancient ruins.
However, it suffers from some of the worst traffic congestion I have ever seen, like Dhaka without the auto rickshaws. I was shown around, mostly by taxi and bus, and there’s no metro yet there. I found much of Peru covered in light dust/sand – there is an awful lot of barren sand and dunes in Peru, and I guess the wind just sort of ‘whips it up’. Thus it was hazy all the time.
I was using my small and cheap point and shoot in Lima, taking photos from the taxi and my hosts were worried it would be snatched from my hands. It’s a big city, there are some huge squares (city squares are what it seemed South American cities are built on) and some very impressive buildings. As I spent time in South America (I was there for nearly 2 months) I guess I grew more confident.
Cities in South America are different from cities anywhere else in the world. Okay, they are bigger than many (but not say, a whole bunch of cities in China) and you need to exercise more caution than most (but again, it’s not the same as visiting say Johannesburg) and some of them are stunning. Buenos Aires and Rio are truly beautiful – and in very different ways. And Lima has attractive parts too without a doubt.
And if you go to South America, you’ll end up having to visit a big city or two. I guess I experienced a certain level of unease – but that is to be expected. But it still didn’t diminish my appreciation and enjoyment of where I was. And two months in South America, and I didn’t have any sort of incident. Truth is – knowing where you are and what you need to be aware of helps and does 99% of the work for you. The other 1% is luck – or lack of.
Thanks for reading today – and May the Journey Never End!