Comparing Major Cities of South America

South American Cities Comparison - Featured Picture

 I have just completed a trip of South America and, as I love cities, I made sure to spend some time in most of the major cities of the continent. South American cities are uniquely different from one another for their distinct vibes, architecture and culture.

 If you are going to be travelling South America,  chances are you’ll have to stay in at least one of the South American cities (whether you like it or not). There are many blogs and travel guides written on these cities. In my experience, however, they don’t even begin to describe what it feels like to walk around in that place, what it smells like, how it is to be a foreigner in that place. If you want to know what the South American cities are really like, this is for you.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Overlooking the city 💙 the best things in life are free! 📍 Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 🇧🇷

A post shared by Travel. Explore. Live. (@nonstopwanderer) on

Rio is one of the craziest cities I have been to, and is like what my boyfriend often describes as a small town which grew bigger but never smarter. And in a certain way, this is what happened with the huge slave populations that arrived to the city which later formed into what is today one of the biggest slums in the world (source).

Estimated population 2017:

6.5 million

Condition:

The city is a strange mix between a tourist hot-spot and major socioeconomic issues causing severe poverty. Of course, there are a few nice areas with fancy hotels and hostels where the tourists can stay, but most of the city is comprised of run-down buildings and squats. I myself did not stay in a hotel or hostel (as I was doing Couchsurfing), so I got to see the severity of this more than perhaps most visitors to the city do.

Safety:

 Because we had heard so much about Rio being dangerous, we were very cautious when we were there. We carried our backpacks on our fronts and walked around quickly and purposefully. We never took out our phones in public, we never went out with more belongings than we actually needed. It also helped that we had a local friend to show us around some of the sites. I can’t say that I had a bad experience personally, but you definitely get the vibe that it’s not totally safe.

People:

Most of the people we met were extremely cheerful and friendly, especially those we met in the Lapa, the city’s party central. There were a few people who did try to take advantage of us, seeing that we were foreigners. So I would say talk to them, have fun with them but do not trust them straight away!

Language:

Portuguese is the main language of Brazil, and it was very difficult to find English or Spanish speakers, even at the airport. As I describe in my post about learning Portuguese in Brazil, Brazil is largely monolingual. If you are learning Portuguese prepare to be thrown in the deep end, and if you’re not, well… might be best to stay on the tourist route unless you have some Portuguese-speaking friends.

Culture:

I didn’t see much in the way of stunning historical architecture, but this is certainly a hotspot for street art and cool things to look at almost everywhere you go!

Sights:

Rio is probably the most famous of the South American cities, and for good reason. There is no shortage of vantage points from which to view it and all it’s glory. I recommend doing a day hike to really see it from the height. I did Pedra da Gavea, but there really are so many different hikes available given that the city is surrounded by mountains. Apart from that, there is the ever-famous Cristo Redentor (Christ the Saviour) and the coast which consists of a vast line of beach, which is a great place to relax!

Time needed:

I would recommend at least a week in Rio, but you could easily spend a month here and not run out of things to do!

Sao Paulo, Brazil

#southamericatravelcountdown⠀⠀ Hey guys, I'm back from my South America trip now, and now that I have had time to sort through all the photos (and all the thoughts!), and I still have soo many photos leftover, I'm going to try something a bit different. I'm going to showcase to you my top places from each country I visited, in the form of a countdown! Most of the places I will mention are less known about places, some that I just happened to discover, and most of them haven't featured on my page before at all! I hope you'll like it. First up, BRAZIL🇧🇷 – special mentions:⠀⠀ ⠀⠀ Vila Magdalena is a bohemian neighbourhood of Sao Paulo city. It was so pretty and well looked-after, I was surprised after all I had heard about SP! Everywhere you look there is a beautiful building or some awesome street art! If you go to Sao Paulo, make sure you check it out!⠀⠀ ⠀⠀ 📍Vila Magdalena, Sao Paulo⠀⠀ ————————————–

A post shared by Travel. Explore. Live. (@nonstopwanderer) on

Sao Paulo is the largest of all South American cities. It is the leading city of the Americas and the Southern Hemisphere by population. This is not a fact that is easily ignored when visiting this metropolitan giant. (source)

Estimated population 2017:

21 million

Condition:

 Sao Paulo, like everywhere in Brazil unfortunately, also has a large population of impoverished people. However, overall it is much more developed than Rio, with a comprehensive metro system, cleaner, better buildings and more advanced infrastructure. Sao Paulo state is the best performing economic state in Brazil, and it definitely shows here.

Safety:

Sao Paulo doesn’t have such a terrible reputation as Rio for crime, and we did not have any issues at all. The metros are safe as they are all fitted with cameras and the security is quite good. Of course, there are still desperate people around so it pays to be careful.

People:

People in Sao Paulo were generally kind, although a bit more standoffish than the people we met in Rio. Definitely not rude, but they just keep to themselves a bit more.

Language:

As with Rio, if  you are planning to stray off the beaten bath at all, it pays to know at least some Portuguese. It is not easy to find someone who speaks a second language. This is better explained in my post about learning Portuguese in Brazil.

Culture:

 Sao Paulo is quite an old, established city so it does have some pretty cool architecture to marvel at. For street art there is an abundance of awesome artwork in Vila Magdalena district, which you can get to by metro.

Sights:

This might be what Sao Paulo is lacking and the reason why it draws in much fewer tourists than Rio. There is the Ibirapuera Park, which is really just a giant park, nothing amazing but a nice place to chill. My favourite thing I did in Sao Paulo was go up a tower and see the view, although it was so hard to find a tower that was open to visitors that I almost didn’t get to do that either (luckily I eventually found the Martinelli tower).

Time Needed:

A few nights in Sao Paulo is more than enough to enjoy the city.

Bogota, Colombia

 Bogota is the capital of Colombia and the largest city in the country. It is a unique city in that it is located at very high altitude and as such the temperature is quite mild and chilly compared to the rest of the country. Bogota is mostly a centre for professionals and university students, but it is definitely worth a visit if you have the chance.

Estimated Population 2017:

10 million

Condition:

 Bogota’s infrastructure is quite under-developed, albeit improving. For such a large population, there is no metro system, and the traffic is incredibly dense most of the time. They have a bus system with dedicated bus lanes, and the buses and bus stops are always heavily crowded and hubs for crime, apparently.

Safety:

 If you go to Bogota, you will notice that people do not mingle or wander around. Everyone walks with a purpose, walks quickly, looking straight ahead, ignoring everyone else. There is a reason for this. Meandering or dawdling can be seen as a sign of weakness or foreign-ness. Just follow the locals.

People:

 People say that Colombia has some of the friendliest and most welcoming people in the world, and in my experience this is very true. However Colombians also say that Bogota has the least friendly people of Colombia. While the big-city life definitely gets to them as it does any city-dweller, they are still kind, smiley and helpful.

Language:

 I came accross a few people who could get by in English in Bogota, however you would be hard pressed to find English speakers in restaurants, on the street, at bus stations, etc so it definitely pays to speak some Spanish. See how I learned a language fluently for some tips.

Culture:

 To be honest I found this to be the main thing that was lacking from Bogota. The central area, or La Candelaria is quite pretty and has some nice colonial buildings and quirky street art. But as you get further away from the center, the more dull the buildings become. In saying that, we visited the city during Christmas time so at night it was really beautiful with all the expansive light displays.

Sights:

 If you don’t suffer from altitude sickness, I definitely recommend going to the Monseratte by cable car and seeing the city from above. We went to the top just before sunset so got to see the day view and then, as the sun set, the dusk and night views. You get to be very high up so it’ a great experience, however beware of the Bogota weather as it could completely cloud over so you can’t see, or start raining at any time. We were lucky to get there on a relatively clear night, but even then the view was a bit obstructed by the thick smog that coats the city. Other than that, you have the usual things, like churches, museums and plazas in the center of the city.

Time needed:

 There’s so much to enjoy in Colombia so spend a few nights and keep exploring! We used Bogota as more of a stop-over point for our various trips around the country.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires is the first of the South American cities I ever visited, back in 2013. I still remember it clearly to this day. The noise, the smell, the smog, the rubbish, the salsa, the artists, the smokers, the professionals, the constant hustle and bustle, the amazing food the beautiful buildings, the endless stream of traffic. Nicknamed ‘the Europe of South America’, Buenos Aires is unique to any other South American cities. Overall it is a really cool city with lots of fun things to see and do.

Estimated Population 2017:

15 million

Condition:

Argentina is one of the better developed countries in South America, so the public transport is comparatively good (although cramped). The city seems to be extremely over-crowded, and despite its better quality of life, it has to be the dirtiest city I’ve ever been to, with rubbish piling up on the footpaths and whole rivers and green areas completely polluted with trash.

Safety:

Beware of pick-pocketers and strange men, but overall I felt no threat walking around the streets of Buenos Aires at night with friends. Buenos Aires is considered the safest of the big South American cities for crime rates. (source)

People:

 A very nice, very friendly, very flirtatious bunch. This must also be the most open city I’ve been to for public displays of affection as well. It’s not uncommon to see a gay couple heavily making out in the middle of a busy street, or couples groping each other in broad daylight.

Language:

I was still struggling with Spanish at the time that I visited here, so while a few people spoke English, it was a bit difficult to get by. Aside from the fact that the Argentinian Spanish is very strange (compared to what I’d been taught), they also tend to speak fast and very expressively.

Culture:

 This is what I loved about Buenos Aires. Lots of incredible architecture, beautiful colonial and catholic-style inspired buildings everywhere you look. The constant movement of people, ever-present street artists and street dancers also add to the city’s uniqe vibe.

Sights:

 Buenos Aires has some interesting places to see. Like the giant metallic flower (Floralis Generica) or the most famous cemetery in the world, La Recoleta. Because of the city’s location, you can also take a day-trip by boat to visit Montevideo, Uruguay!

Time Needed: 

 Spend at least a week getting to know this cultural hub of the country.

Lima, Peru

Lima is probably one of the most toned-down of the South American cities, but it is also up there as one of my favourites. It has the inherent chaos of a Latin American city, combined with a well organised and maintained metropolitan area, stunning buildings and a beautiful coast! I was so impressed by this city that I wrote an article telling you not to skip Lima if you are visiting South America.

Estimated Population 2017:

10 million

Condition:

Overall I saw it as a lot less run-down than other South American cities. Fairly good and improving public transport, and well designed and regulated parks and walkways. The only thing that lets this city down is its traffic, which is made even less bearable with people angrily tooting their horns every five minutes at the un-moving cars in front of them.

Safety:

I generally felt very safe and un-threatened walking around this city, although as usual watch your possessions!

People:

 I hate to say it, but his is what really fails Lima. The people, even in service industries are generally grumpy and sometimes can seem downright miserable. It is a shame, but as compared with the friendly, over-helpful people from other South American cities, or even Cusco, these people are quite mean and constantly hustling to make money from you. I thought it was because I was a foreigner. Then I heard other Peruvians saying the same about their city-dweller counterparts.

Language:

 In Peru, 25% of the population as well as Spanish, speak Quechua, the language of the Incas. It’s not as common in Lima as in Cusco but it is definitely a prominent language in the country. That being said, it’s uncommon to find someone that doesn’t speak any Spanish, and they are used to English in the touristy places as well.

Culture:

 Lima is abundant in flower gardens, pretty parks, coastal walkways, colonial and imperial architecture, and is generally a really beautiful city. One thing it is a bit lacking in is street culture. Street art, street vendors and dancers are not as easy to come across as most South American cities..

Sights:

 Make sure you spend some time in the Miraflores district, but also in the historical center. Do not miss the Magic Water Show at Parque de la Reserva in the evenings, and Parque del Amor is an awesome place to hang out and take pictures!

Time needed:

 At least two days to explore the different areas.

For more on Lima, click here to read 10 reasons you should not skip Lima on your trip to Peru

Santiago, Chile

When I went to Santiago they were having issues with huge fires in suspected arsenal attacks. Because the air is so still, the smoke hung around for several days, coating the entire sky in a thick black fog. It was very unusual to visit the city in such a state, but nonetheless I found it a cool place to spend a few days!

Estimated Population 2017:

6.5 million

Condition:

Very clean, very well set out, very neat and tidy… it is almost hard to believe you are in South America!

Safety:

Santiago is one of the safest South American cities and I haven’t heard of anyone having issues in this city.

People:

Friendly and welcoming people with great vibes. You will also come accross many immigrants here, mostly from other South American countries, so don’t assume everyone is native Chilean!

Language:

Spanish is spoken here, however the accent and slang is very strange and can take some getting used to! English is not a main language but if you are in touristic spots it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone who can speak it!

Culture:

Different areas of the city have very different vibes, however the Las Condes area and places close to the center are very pretty – just go and explore!

Sights:

 The city center, with its historical-style architecture, many art and culture museums, and parks to relax is a great place to start. Santiago is quite flat so a good place to just cycle around and explore. If you want a view of the city, you can ride, walk, or catch a gondola up San Cristobal hill. Santiago is also in a great location for day trips to coastal towns like Valparaiso, and to the mountain ranges.

Time Needed:

It depends if you are going to be exploring other places in Chile. If you are staying in Santiago, allow time to visit the surrounding attractions like Valparaiso and the Andes.

—-

So there you have it. I hoped this has helped you gain a better understanding of what the different South American cities are like. If you have any questions or comments about my view point, or want to know anything else about my trip, please leave a comment below!~

You may also like

No Comments

  1. “…it is almost hard to beleive [sic] you are in South America!”

    Dear Lord! Don’t you realize how awfully hurtful that sounds to South Americans?

    1. Hey Graciela, thank you for your comment. This remark was not meant to be offensive in any way, only meant to highlight the messiness, randomness and craziness of most South American cities – something that many people (including myself) love about South America. There is nothing wrong with them, they are just different. Which was the point I was trying to make.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WordPress spam blocked by CleanTalk.