South America 2

By Gary Walsh

South America is nothing if not diverse. On the long run from the steamy tropics and beaches of Central America to the fjords and mountains of the gateway to the Antarctic in southern Patagonia, the continent offers jungles, rivers, high-altitude deserts, mysterious archaeological sites, ski fields, vineyards and great cities. And nothing better encapsulates this diversity than the continent’s three major tourist cities – Santiago, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro.

Santiago and Buenos Aires have long benefited from being gateway cities for Australian travellers. Both have Spanish heritage, but the two are enormously different. Visit Santiago and there is no doubt you are in South America, but drop Buenos Aires into the middle of Spain and there would be scarcely a hair out of place.
And Rio de Janeiro? Well, it’s just Rio, with its wild combination of Portuguese, African and indigenous cultures, and its incomparable setting and riotous joie de vivre.
The heart of Santiago is Plaza de Armas, the city’s central square, which is surrounded by classical buildings including the cathedral and the national museum, and full of activity all day and night. Portrait and landscape artists set up their easels, chess players sit on stools over café tables and buskers keep the entertainment flowing.
The Mercado Central is more than just a fresh food market full of life and colour. It is also one of the best places in Santiago for a meal, with seafood restaurants serving up the freshest fare imaginable. For the city’s best view, ride the funicular to Cerro San Cristobal, where a huge statue of the Madonna overlooks the city, with the snow-capped Andes on the eastern horizon.
Buenos Aires is a city that flaunts its classicism. Cleaved in two by the world’s widest street, Avenido 9 de Julio, it is big and bold and beautiful. The centre is traditionally European, with boulevard cafes, grand hotels and stately 19th century buildings, and the inner suburbs have their own character. 

Palermo is hipster central, BA’s trendiest neighbourhood, while San Telmo is staid and stately, its streets lined with classic apartments, museums and high-end shops. But to get to the city’s raffish heart, head for the working class district of La Boca.

It’s best avoided at night, but by day La Boca is bursting with colour. Buildings are painted in vibrant primary hues, the streets are thronged with activity – everything from alfresco tango dancing to jugglers and magicians – and there are great bars everywhere.
Don’t miss La Bombonera, the rundown stadium where Argentina’s most famous football club, Boca Juniors, plays. Boca was home to Diego Maradona and now Carlos Tevez is back with his boyhood team. If you catch a game, with its heaving, threatening atmosphere, at least do the fascinating stadium tour, which gets you into the change rooms and onto the famous turf.
At night, Buenos Aires is a magical place, with music everywhere, and the tango takes centre stage. There are countless places to see this most exotic dance in its home city. Many of them, of course, are commercial and aimed squarely at tourists – others are more authentic (try Confiteria Ideal, Cachirulo or El Yeite). Whichever you choose, be prepared for a late night and lots of red wine.
Brazil, for historical reasons, stands apart from the rest of South America. It was colonised by Portugal, not Spain, and it also saw hundreds of thousands of African slaves brought to the country who have contributed to Brazil’s melting pot of cultures.
And Rio de Janeiro has, quite simply, the most stunning setting of any city in the world. The Corcovado, with its massive and iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer, dominates the skyline along with Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain). The views from both over Rio’s countless bays and beaches are magical, but don’t miss the cable car from Sugarloaf to the beach at Praia Vermelha. 

Beaches? Well, choose from Copacabana, Ipanema, Barra da Tijuca, Prainha and Vermelha – each has its own appeal and character, from the see-and-be-seen sands of Copacabana and Ipanema, to the more peaceful and sedate Prainha. Rent a deck chair, pull up a caipirinha, and soak up the rays and the atmosphere.
Rio, of course, is synonymous with its sybaritic carnival, which takes over the city every February. It is a spectacular, crazy time of year to be in Rio, and there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world, but probably best avoided if you value your sanity and your wallet.
Next year will see the Olympics come to Rio, two years after the football World Cup final was played there. With that in mind, it’s sometimes hard not to feel like it’s the centre of the universe. And standing on Copacabana, looking at the beautiful people and the beautiful surroundings, it’s easy to understand why.

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