Latin America has twenty countries and a population almost double that of the U.S. You’ve probably heard of or even been to Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, or Mexico City. But that leaves a lot of other beautiful cities and places to go on this continent. Whether you’re an experienced traveler looking for a new adventure or someone who wants to take a few days away from the touristy hot spots, this list is for you.
Just across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires, Uruguay’s capital Montevideo is an Old World city of cobblestone streets and shade-casting sycamores. Founded in 1811 after a war of independence against Spain, Brazil, Argentina, and Portugal, Uruguay today is a liberal bastion in South America. In 2013 they legalized same-sex marriage and cannabis, which will surely influence how people party in Punta del Este, a glamorous resort town on the eastern edge of the country. This is where the Uruguayan glitterati stay during the summer months (winter in North America). For a more relaxing stay, the UNESCO World Heritage town of Colonia del Sacramento is at the western end of the country, just across the river from Argentina. Founded in 1680, Colonia is one of the oldest European settlements in Uruguay, and is a beautiful and quiet getaway from Montevideo or Buenos Aires.
Often overshadowed by its northern neighbor Costa Rica, Panama has a major metropolis, affordable prices and worldly culture. Panama City uses the dollar as its currency, although locals call it the balboa. Depending on who you ask, their economy is the third or fourth largest in Latin America, as well as the fastest growing. Viejo Panama, just north of the capital, was a pirate refuge in the 17th century and its ruins still stand today. Meanwhile, Panama City is a hotbed of new restaurants, cafes and art galleries, where a variety of languages are spoken by expats from around the world. Recent development has made the Panama City skyline replete with skyscrapers. Because of its unique geography, it’s possible to visit both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the same day. On the way, stop by the Chagres National Park, home to lush rainforests, rivers, lakes, and artesian aquifers which give the world high grade artesian water, as well as plants and animals, some of which can only be found there.
The third largest economy in Latin America is in Colombia, home to many stereotypes and beautiful places. Cartagena is only the country’s fifth largest city, but it has a wealth of history. This Caribbean port has been a center of human activity for at least six thousand years. Today Cartagena is a sleepy town with a beautiful walled city. On the other hand Columbia’s capital, Bogota is among the world’s thirty largest cities. This city’s crime levels have fallen drastically since the early ’90s, when it used to be one of the world’s most dangerous cities. The Museum of Gold and the historical district are prime attractions. If that’s not your speed, Santa Marta is another port town, the second oldest city in South America and the oldest in Colombia. Nearby mangrove forests are great to explore during the day and follow up with a night of partying in Parque de los Novios.
Along with the city of Krakow, Quito was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site. At 9,350 feet, it’s one of the highest capitals in the world. It may take you a day or two to acclimate, but once you do, it’s well worth it. The equator runs through a village a short car ride away, meaning that you can easily move from the north half of the world to the south just by taking a short walk. Cuenca is another city worth visiting, with a rich colonial history and proximity to Las Cajas National Park, at roughly 10,000 feet, with crystalline lakes reflecting the nearby Andes. The Galapagos are one of the reasons Ecuador is one of seventeen megadiverse countries in the world, which takes into account the biodiversity of a nation. It’s roughly $250 round trip for a 45 minute flight from Guayaquil, the country’s largest city, and compared to a lengthy boat ride for about the same price, is well worth it. Ecuador’s new constitution from 2008 is the only one to recognize the Rights of Nature, which legally enforce protection of ecosystems.
Home to the second largest reef in the world, Belize is situated in the middle of the nearly thousand mile-long Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. A scuba diver’s paradise, Belize has far fewer tourists than its southern neighbors. Its wildlife reserves are home to jaguars and scarlet macaws, both native to the region. Belize is also the only English-speaking nation in Latin America, so it’s easy for Americans to get around, although an English-Spanish creole is commonly spoken. For those interested in cultural exploration, Mayan ruins exist throughout this country, especially in the south. Caracol was one of the primary regional political centers during the classical Mayan era and its ruins continue to be of archaeological importance today. Visitors to Chichen Itza may find Belize a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of tourism to the north.