How can travellers conquer a continent as diverse and passionate as South America? Start with these cities, which act like crucibles of each nation’s cultural offering.
Just the name evokes romance and articulating it sounds like cotton candy on the tongue. It’s a passionate capital, on par with Paris when it comes to amorous displays of affection. This is not a city where you tick off tourist targets, it is a city to stroll, eat, drink, talk, and hell, even dance with locals.
Visitors to Buenos Aires wax lyrical about the openness of the portenos. These are the locals of Buenos Aires. Bearing no resemblance to its name, the name loosely translates to person of the port, as BA is a port city.
As memorable in character as Romans, they share the same traits of extroversion, but are a lot more talkative. Get a resident talking and you had better pull up a chair, order a coffee and settle in for the long haul.
Close to 90% of Argentine’s population are immigrants, and many trace their family lineage to Italy and Spain. This means you will experience déjà vu with some customs and traditions. Such as a style of eating called picada, which is drawn from Italian antipasto.
They also share a similar morning ritual to the Romans who kick off the day with a stand up cappuccino and chocolate pastry. In Buenos Aires, the coffee is café cortado – simple espresso with milk. This is alongside medialunas, a small glazed croissant.
The best way to explore is not to see the museums and monuments, but to seek out the neighbourhoods. This is a city of European panache, with cobblestone streets, alleys, churches and squares thanks to its Spanish colonial heritage.
Unbelievably, however, the majority of the Buenos Aires we see today dates back only two centuries – a doddle when compared to Europe. It is possibly this youth that has invigorated the capital with such vitality.
San Telmo is the bohemian neighbourhood for the very fact that it was historically the working class district, cheap enough for the artisans of the city. This is visible as you walk, with walls caked with street art, from amateur to expert. It’s always evolving, from streets filled with musicians to tango dancers mixed up with avant-garde and indecipherable art. Be sure to see Plaza Dorrego. You will notice a lot of portrait graffiti; these pay tribute to lives lost in Argentina’s dirty war.
The best-known barrios include La Boca, renowned for its football team and the primary colour painted houses of Caminito. For clubs and bars, Palermo is the district to visit. Palermo’s happening area is Palermo Viejo, and inside that region it is split up into Soho and Hollywood. Choose your own glamour.
For live music, make your way to Niceto. Recoleta, meanwhile, is famed for its dead. The cemetery here is the resting place of the famous and Argentinian high society. The most frequented gravestone is that of Eva Peron. Just prepare to have Don’t cry for me Argentina stuck in your head for days after visiting.
Lima is a desert city; one of the world’s driest in fact; however it is also a beachside city, just to confuse matters. Oh, and there’s a golf course in the middle of the CBD – just in case the urge to tee off strikes during a day in the office.
The oldest city in both North and South America and Peru’s capital, it has a lineage of mixed cultures and this is contained in its cuisine. It merges native Incan, Asian, Spanish and Amazonian cuisine.
These styles are all overshadowed by the quality of the produce, however, which is rooted in Peru’s fertile land. Touted as the best culinary destination in South America by the World Travel Awards, Lima has won this accolade three years running.
So you’re going to have to try guinea pig; it is the national dish after all. Quinoa is another national dish that has taken on global superfood status in the last few years.Then there’s ceviche – raw fish flavoured with citrus that slightly cooks the flesh.
Go to the fish market at Chorillo to see the fresh fish and then watch how ceviche is prepared at a market restaurant. Wash it down with a pisco sour, made with grape liquor, the tart tang of which smacks you in the palate.
If you’re after more than just restaurant dining, there are year-round food festivals, including Mistura, which runs over ten days in September. Ferran Adria of El Bulli and Rene Redezipi of Copenhagen’s Noma have frequented this festival and it is officially the largest food festival in Latin America.
It offers a fusion of creole, barbecue, Andean, Amazonian, Chifa and Nikkei dishes. Chifa is Peruvian and Chinese fusion food. The difference between it and your local Chinese takeaway? More seafood, more spice, more sauce.
Head to Lima’s Chinatown to order Chinese that breaks the mould: langoustines and calamari overshadow any notion of duck pancakes and stir-fry. Nikkei sounds like the Japanese financial index, but it’s also Peruvian for Japanese food.
As for street food, try five flavours, which contains the carb knock-out of both pasta and rice. Taking its cues from five countries – Asia, Africa, European and local, it is a taste combination you will not have had before. Then there’s antichico, meat on a stick, and picaronas, a style of doughnut.
And the one place in the world we still know very little of, yet destroy with alarming alacrity? The Amazon. But there is a destination in Lima that allows you to taste the rainforest and the dishes tribes have cultivated from the land for centuries. Malabar is a restaurant using Amazonian giant snails, palms and cashew fruits endemic to the rainforest.
Santiago is the gateway to South America for Australians flying across the Pacific. And there’s no better introduction to the continent than the Chilean capital. It combines a Latin temperament with artistic flair, all overseen by the graceful Andes
Begin your trip by getting to know the locals. The best place? Try La Vega Central market, which started a century ago, near the central train station. With meat, fish, fruit and vegetables on display, you will end up hungry. Savvy stall operators know this, so line up for sopaipillas, a corn flour pumpkin pastry fried in lard.
Here you will be able to find a specialty sandwich called the El Lomito. It consists of a fat frico bun, larger than the size of a discus, internally stacked with thin shavings of pork slow cooked in a special broth and shouldered between avocado, tomato and a slathering of mayonnaise. Be warned, the pork takes up more space than the bun. You’re in for some heavy duty meat consumption with this one.
Chileans’ love for pork continues at El Hoyo restaurant, which means ‘hole in the wall’ and very much understates its high regard. You can order pork on the leg as well as haroyato, a meatloaf of cured pork boiled in pork skin.
In case you had any notion that Chile is a good place to be a vegetarian, think again. The national dish is a Chilean corn pie, made of minced beef, chicken, corn meal and egg, baked in a bowl.
To comprehend contemporary Chile, visit the Museum of Memory and Human Rights which commemorates the deaths of 3000 people accused of dissent under the 17-year rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet after the 1973 coup.
La Alameda is like Las Ramblas in Barcelona with its dynamic pedestrian-only zoning. Café Caribe serves what is called ‘coffee with legs’. Back in the 1950s, the locals drank instant coffee and needed some persuading to embrace espresso. What to do? Cafes decided to put good-looking ladies in skimpy outfits and heels behind the counter.
You’re probably already familiar with Chilean wine, renowned throughout the world, but what about the drink mote con huesillo? It’s a refreshing serve of barley and peaches in sweet nectar with cinnamon. You decide whether it’s food or drink – it comes with a spoon for the barley pieces.
Bellavista, meanwhile, is a city neighbourhood that was formerly the preserve of the wealthy. It is now an artistic enclave of day discussions and night distractions.
For a handle on Chilean culture, stop in at the home of its great poet Pablo Neruda, at the Casa Museo La Chascona. To experience the Latino passion, try some of the dance joints along Pio Nono and Antonia Lopez de Bello.