The best cities in South America for history lovers to travel to
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Lozzy is a self-proclaimed history boff. She thrives off cities steeped in history, and South America has provided many opportunities for her to truly geek out and lose herself in imagining the past realities of a place. If you’re also a boff and you’re looking to plan where to go in South America for your next trip, here are our top historical cities for history lovers:
The city of Cusco oozes history, and many of the Incan traditions dating back thousands of years are still being practiced today. Immerse yourself in a beautiful mix of colonial Spanish architecture and indigenous culture in the once-capital of the Incan Empire. Here, there are over 10 museums and galleries to visit, and if you pay for one of the Cusco Touristic Tickets you gain entry to many museums plus selected archaeological sites outside the city. Cusco is of course also the nearest city to ancient site of Machu Picchu. To see how to get there, click here.
Although a very dull city all-in-all, perhaps the one thing Montevideo does do right is history, with many museums such as the Gaucho museum that explores the cowboy culture of Uruguay, and the Palacio Salvo that matches its counterpart, Palacio Barolo across the estuary in Buenos Aires. There is a museum in Cabildo Museum which documents Montevideo’s history of conquests and sieges, but a Google research out of curiosity afterwards revealed some potential biases towards the Uruguay-positive accounts of what happened. Interesting in itself!
One of the most European-feeling cities of Latin America, Buenos Aires has been morphed by its period of huge immigration (namely from Italy and Spain) in the 19th century – fun fact: the average Argentinian is actually far more likely to have Italian blood than Spanish. While the city centre is home to impressive statues and overpowering buildings with obvious European influence, the real interest for history lovers will likely be the barrio of La Boca, the colourful ghetto made mostly from corrugated iron that used to house thousands of migrants in search of a new life. From La Boca, the tango was born, and a strong culture developed amongst inhabitants. We strongly recommend you go on a walking tour of La Boca to soak up the stories of the barrio (even if you have to endure a little cringey tourism along the way).
For those with an interest in the history of religion, Arequipa is a fascinating show of how the Spanish convinced Peru’s indigenous population to begin worshipping a different god. The Spanish allowed the Catholic church to merge its symbolism and ideas with the Inca beliefs, something which is still etched into the stonework of churches and famous buildings. You’ll also find a painting of the last supper adapted to be relevant to Peru in La Iglesia de la Compañia.
Once a target for the literal Pirates of the Caribbean, Cartagena’s walled city is a thing to behold for history lovers. This was once the richest place in Colombia, in part due to its heavy involvement in the slave trade, which allowed wealthy profiteers to build architecture far grander than the rest of Colombia. Today, its fortified walls remain, with brightly painted, balconied houses covered in flowers along cobbled streets filling up every inch of space instead. Locals have well and truly cashed in on this historical vibe, with ‘palenqueras’ – traditionally dressed ladies posing with fruit bowls – ready to charge for a picture at every corner.
Despite being an absolute must for lovers of colonial architecture, Cuenca is also very important for its pre-settlement history. The free to enter Museo Pumapungo is built on the old site of a significant Incan city called Tomebamba, and the museum itself is fantastic for learning about the traditions and ways of life for the different Ecuadorian tribes, many of which are still practiced today. You can even see a shrunken human head in their exhibition about the ‘head-hunter’ Shuar Amazon tribe. Legally, the tribe is no longer allowed to do this, so instead they now shrink sloths’ heads as part of their rituals.
For those interested in more recent history, Medellín’s Comuna 13 tour is a great experience to learn about the country’s not-so-distant past related to you-know-what. A walking tour of Córdoba, Argentina, will tell you about their painful political history with a stop in at an old prison that housed some of the thousands of people still missing from the terrifying regime against ‘communists’ in the 70s. Poignant stuff!
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