Elegant and artsy Buenos Aires and humid, hedonistic Rio de Janeiro are some of South America’s biggest urban draws, notching up hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. But for each city flush with tourists, there are plenty still under the radar. For those looking to escape the crowds, here are five towns and cities in South America you’re guaranteed to fall in love with.
1. Jardin, Colombia
Few guidebooks even mention Jardin, a charming Colombian town that by all accounts has changed little since it was founded more than 150 years ago, making this one of the most unique underrated cities in South America.
As per tradition, each morning locals occupy the main square to sip a cup of rich, Colombian coffee, seated on colourful chairs that are painted in vibrant hues to match the exuberant facades of the town’s colonial houses. Across the plaza, the extravagant neo-Gothic Basilica Menor, with its striking turquoise interior, offers another excuse to tarry here.
Encircled by the mountains of the Cordillera Occidental and boarded by surging rivers and streams, Jardin’s colourful streets are matched by its surroundings. A short cable car passing over lush plantations of coffee and banana – the region’s principal crops – brings visitors to Mirador Cristo Rey and the best views over town.
Colourful Jardin in Colombia © Anamaria Mejia / Shutterstock
2. Punta Arenas, Chile
The gateway to the splendid mountain landscapes of Torres del Paine National Park further north, Punta Arenas is a city that most pass through quickly within Chile - in reality, however, it's worth sticking around this most fascinating cities in South America.
But it’s the historic heart of Chilean Patagonia; a city of neo-classical mansions that belonged to the merchants at the centre of the international wool trade in the late 1800s. The extravagant Palacio Braun-Menéndez is evidence of the wealth that once poured into the region.
Situated on the shores of the brooding waters of the Strait of Magellan, the Patagonian wilderness is never far away here. For panoramic views across colourful painted rooftops and beyond, climb to Mirador Cerro. Afterwards, recover from the chill with a cup of the locals' favourite: thick hot chocolate from La Chocolatta.
Punta Arenas cityscape, Chile © Pablo Rogat / Shutterstock
3. Chachapoyas, Peru
Difficult to reach from Lima and described by many as Peru’s “best-kept secret”, Chachapoyas was once the cradle of the ancient Chachapoya civilization or “Cloud People”, later ransacked by Inca forces and rebuilt by the Spaniards. Although the town is fairly understated, it is in the depths of the surrounding cloud forest that some of Peru’s most enthralling pre-Colombian archaeological treasures are found.
Few tourists yet make the pilgrimage to Kuélap Citadel, one of the largest ancient stone monuments in the New World and making this one of the most compelling towns and cities in South America. This fortified city dates from the sixth century and is so seldom visited that the surrounding jungle seems to be attempting to reclaim its buildings.
Another reason to make a detour to Chachapoyas is to visit the sarcophagi of Karajía, the seven carved wooden figures who’ve spent centuries stoically overlooking the valley and house the remains of Chachapoyas leaders.
Sarcophagi of Karajía in Chachapoyas, Peru © Rene Baars / Shutterstock
4. Córdoba, Argentina
Few cities can match Buenos Aires’ bold cultural energy, but Córdorba, 700km northwest of the capital, is certainly keen to try. Crowned as Cultural Capital of the Americas back in 2006, Argentina’s student-dominated city has become one of the country’s coolest hangouts, yet is still one of the most underrated cities in South America.
Gentrification has been at the centre of this with Barrio Güemes, an up-and-coming neighbourhood, bearing testament to the changing urban landscape of the city. This solidly working-class district has transformed into a lively space of boutique shops, weekly artisanal fairs and trendy rooftop bars including Capitán, a hipster-inspired hangout specialising in craft beer and built in the converted buildings of an ex-police station.
Córdorba Cathedral, Argentina © Christian Kober / Shutterstock
5. Tarija, Bolivia
Few tourists venture this far south, but Tarija, the epicentre of Bolivian wine, should not be ignored. Established around two squares of lofty palm trees and ornate bandstands, you’ll be forgiven for spending long, lazy afternoons sipping wine or singani at one of the cafés spilling onto the plaza.
However, Tarija’s real draw is its high-altitude wineries, planted at elevations of more than 1900m. Although the sweet wine cultivated here is an acquired taste, few fail to be captivated by the stunning landscape. Enjoy your wine with the deliciously crisp chicharrón (roasted pork) served up in local vineyards such as the 410-year-old Casa Vieja.
Vineyards of Tarija, Bolivia © Lucky Business / Shutterstock
Top image: Córdorba, Argentina © lbertalot/ Shutterstock