Travel After Coronavirus: Underrated Beautiful South American Cities

A view across the city of Arequipa, in Peru, which sits under three volcanoes
A view across the city of Arequipa, in Peru, which sits under three volcanoes | © Nicolas De Corte / Alamy Stock Photo
Josephine Platt

Commissioning Editor

We’re all suffering lockdown fatigue – and travel has never looked so appealing. That trip you’ve always wanted to make to South America? It’s time to get planning. Here are our suggestions of places to visit far from the crowds – the lesser-known cities that have just as much to see and do, but at your own pace.

Cali, Colombia

Cali is often left off a tour of Colombia, ahead of Bogotá, Medellin and Cartagena, not least because it’s eight hours south by car from Bogotá. It does, however, have an international airport, so you could always come here first. Renowned for its salsa dancing, Cali is home to must-visit clubs such as La Topa, where you’ll mingle with locals and watch their nifty footwork. They are also tolerant of beginners, so why not take a few salsa lessons before you hit the dancefloor? Various hotels offer free salsa lessons and organise trips to the top clubs. Also worth a visit while you’re here is the San Antonio neighbourhood, a quaint pocket of the city with great cafes, boutiques and art galleries.

La Ermita, a gothic church, seen from the Ortiz Bridge in Cali

Arequipa, Peru

Arequipa is also often overlooked because visitors tend to fly into Lima, before travelling inland to Cusco to visit the Unesco World Heritage site at Machu Picchu. With fascinating architecture and natural beauty, Arequipa is a prettier alternative to Cusco – but without the teeming masses. The city’s beautiful buildings shine a light on Peruvian Baroque style of the 17th and 18th centuries. Meanwhile, Colca Canyon, one of the world’s deepest canyons and a world-renowned trekking destination, is a mere couple of hours from here; take two days to hike up the El Misti volcano where you can enjoy great views of the city. Flights from Lima take an hour and a half, while a drive will set you back about 15 hours.

View of Arequipa cathedral, with the volcanoes in the background

Bariloche, Argentina

Bariloche is well known as a destination, but not on the scale of, say, Buenos Aires or Mendoza. Plus, the vibe is rather different in this northern Patagonian city. Surrounded by the Andes mountains, channelling Swiss-style architecture, and with its own chocolate production, it feels remarkably like Zurich’s unofficial twin city. Mirroring the European beauty spot, Bariloche is the place to come for skiing, snowboarding or alpine hiking – Cerro Catedral and Cerro Otto are the most popular mountains. As for accommodation, a room with a view is a given here; opt for a lodge at the edge of the lake in nearby towns and villages. Elsewhere, the Road of Seven Lakes – stretching 190km (118mi) from Bariloche to San Martin – is one of the most scenic drives in the country.

Cerro Catedral, a mountain in Nahuel Huapi National Park in Patagonia

Fortaleza, Brazil

You’ve probably heard of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, but what about Fortaleza? Sitting on the Atlantic Ocean in the northeast of Brazil, it has been described as a city in the middle of a nowhere coast, but it brings with it a fabulously laidback attitude. It’s a city that’s big on sun and nightlife, and you can enjoy both on 25km of gorgeous white beaches. Fortaleza is also a gateway to some of Brazil’s most spectacular and remote scenery: Jericoacoara, with its aquamarine freshwater lagoons amid vast white sand dunes, is five hours’ drive away, while a further 7 hours north takes you to Lençóis Maranhenses National Park.

Fortaleza, in the northeast of Brazil, boasts 25km of sandy beaches

Cuenca, Ecuador

The Unesco World Heritage-protected Galápagos Islands are Ecuador’s most famous asset, having inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and hosting a diversity of unique wildlife. But it means Cuenca, in the southern highlands of mainland Ecuador, is often overlooked. If architecture and history pique your interest, the Museo Pumapungo, a cultural museum and archaeological site, will introduce you to open-air Inca ruins and teach you about local culture, while the blue-domed Nueva Catedral stands as a reminder of Spanish colonialism.

The Nueva Catedral in Cuenca harks back to Spanish rule

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