Better places just off the tourist trail.
The “Gringo Trail”, as veteran travelers call it, has surpassed the saturation point! It seems every place on the trail you go, you find other travelers with the same guidebook in hand, heading to the same destinations. In their drive to satisfy the droves of travelers that beat their cobblestone streets, these well-worn destinations are losing their idiosyncrasies that originally made them feel more alive. They also have become so popular that the more economical options have been pushed to the wayside in favor of fulfilling the perceived desires of foreigners.
The good news is that you don’t have to stray too far off the trail to find alternatives that carry all the punch of their famed counterparts.
What often attracts me to alternative destinations is their multifaceted personality: vibrant ethnic culture, natural beauty, deep human history, great cuisine, museums and other attractions. Plus, these alternative destinations still have the feel of a real town, not just a polished façade for the tourists.
Although many of the alternative cities I’m about to propose are also covered in the guidebooks, they are less visited and much more laid back. They are nonetheless full of treasures, less expensive, and not so touristy.
So let’s take a look at ten alternative destinations in South America – or you might call these “Why Not There Instead of Here.” And yes, as our motto goes, you can get there by bus!
Santa Marta – instead of Cartagena
Santa Marta is the oldest Spanish settlement in Colombia. It has one thing that Cartagena does not: fantastic beaches! But there’s so much more beyond the beach. Santa Marta, at the foot of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and at the edge of the Guajira peninsula, is steeped in history, culture and natural beauty.
Great beaches, scuba diving, and other water sports are found in town and in the neighboring villages El Rodadero (more popular with Colombians) and Taganga (a favorite with international backpackers). At Rodadero’s Ensenada Inca Inca is Acuario y Museo del Mar, a Caribbean aquarium and pirate musuem.
Near Santa Marta are several ancient cities of the Tayrona culture, including Ciudad Perdida (the Museo de Oro Tairona downtown is a good introduction to them). Santa Marta’s founder, Rodrigo de Bastidas, is interred in the Catedral. On the city’s outskirts is Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino where the South American liberation hero, Simón Bolívar, died. Other museums, historical buildings, and cultural centers also await you.
Other nearby villages to visit are: Ciénaga (where the 1928 banana massacre occurred that Gabriel García Márquez mentions in One Hundred Years of Solitude), Aracataca (García Márquez’ hometown where his former home is a museum) and Minca (a small, coffee-producing village on the northwest slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta).
Around Santa Marta are breathtaking national parks, and you can pick up more details at the national parks office near the Cathedral. The tropical paradise of Tayrona National Park is great for camping, snorkeling, and hiking to the Tayrona ruins of El Pueblito. Parque Nacional Natural Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a UNESCO Human and Biosphere Reserve, is perfect for birdwatching, hiking trails; and both camping and lodging at the San Lorenzo ranger station. Finally, Santuario de Flora y Fauna Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta/Isla de Salamanca, also a UNESCO Human and Biosphere Reserve, is the place to go for boating tours, hiking, hot mud springs, and lodging.
Lodging: Full range of prices, from hostels to luxury hotels; apartment rentals in El Rodadero (inexpensive in the low season); camping (El Rodadero, Taganga)
Gastronomy: Seafood and fish, crema de arroz, multitudes of street vendors in the evenings along Avenida Bastidas and the camellón (sea front promenade)
Festivals: pre-Lenten Carnaval, Virgen del Carmen (July 16), Santa Marta (July 29), Fiesta del Mar (may occur in June, July or September)
Villa de Leyva – instead of Bogotá
Just four hours north of Bogotá is Villa de Leyva, another Colombian town where you may find you just want to stay longer. Note: Villa de Leyva is very popular with Bogotanos on holiday weekends, so it is better to plan your trip to avoid those times.
Villa de Leyva is replete with white-washed colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, and offers a banquet of attractions. In the village itself are several museums and Independence historical sites. The countryside provides for several all-day walking or bicycling expeditions, including to see primordial sea creatures at El Fósil museum, and Parque Arqueológico de Monquirá (El Infiernito), an ancient indigenous site used tracking the calendar and for fertility rituals.
Other small villages to include on your itinerary are Ráquira, known for its pottery, and Santa Sofía.
Besides walking through the countryside, you can also take in the region’s natural beauty at Desiertos de Candelaria (near Ráquira), Pozos Azules (near Santa Sofía) or Santuario de Fauna y Flora de Iguaque.
After a day of explorations, stop off at one of Villa de Leyva’s wineries, like Viñedo Guaraní on the south side of town.
Lodging: Full range of prices, from camping to hostels to luxury hotels.
Gastronomy: Wide variety of national and international cuisine; sancocho de gallina, and dishes made of cordero (lamb) and chivo (goat).
Festivals: Astronomy Festival (January), Virgen del Carmen (patron saint, gastronomic fair; July), Kite Festival (August), Festival de las Luces (fireworks and nativity scenes; December)
Trujillo – instead of Lima
Hop on a ten hour bus trip north from Lima to enchanted Trujillo, where you will find mysterious ancient cities and colorful colonial architecture embraced by a warmer and sunnier climate. Both Trujillo’s historic center and the nearby archaeological ruins of Chan Chan are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Among Trujillo’s many museums is the Museo Arquelógico which specializes in Peruvian history from 12,000 BC to the arrival of the Spanish. The museum provides a good understanding of the dozens of Chimú and Moche ancient pyramids in the area, including not only Chan Chan but also Huaca del Sol y Huaca de la Luna and El Brujo.
Just 14 kilometers (9 miles) north of Trujillo is the fishing village Huanchaco where caballitos, the traditional totora reed boats, are still used. This laid-back village is also a surfing mecca with several schools ready to teach you how to ride the waves.
Lodging: Full range of prices, from camping (in Huanchaco) to hostels to luxury hotels.
Gastronomy: Seafood, cabrito de leche (goat cooked in milk), arroz con pato (rice with duck) or shambar (wheat soup with beans and pork).
Festivals: Festival de Marinera (Marinera Dance Festival; January-February), Festival Internacional de la Primavera (International Spring Festival; September)
Oruro – instead of La Paz
226 kilometers (140 miles) southeast of the nation’s capital La Paz and about a fifth of its size, is Oruro, a laid-back place to take in Bolivia’s altiplano, or high plateau.
If you can’t make it for Oruro’s famous Carnaval – recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity – then check out the fantastic carnival mask museum at the Museo Nacional Antropológico. Another great celebration is the feast days of the Virgen de Sacován, the patron saint of miners; her holy site is the Santuario de la Virgen del Socavón, which includes a museum. Other museums, including the Museo Etnográfico Minero, focus on the importance of mining in the town’s history and economy.
From Oruro, you can travel by train through fascinating landscapes to additional interesting destinations: Uyuni, Tupiza, and Villazón on the Argentine border. Besides being a jumping off point for Salar de Uyuni, Oruro is also the closest city to Parque Nacional Sajama and its delicious hot springs.
Lodging: Full range of prices, from hostels to luxury hotels
Gastronomy: api orureño (a warm breakfast drink made from purple corn flour and cinnamon), charquekan (dish with llama meat, corn, potatoes and other sides), tostadito (a lamb dish)
Festivals: Virgen de Socaván (2 February), Carnaval (moveable feast: February / March)
Arica – instead of Iquique
There’s much debate among travelers about which city is better, Iquique or Arica. Personally, I prefer Arica for its deep historical, cultural and culinary facets. From 10,000-year-old mummies (best seen at Museo de Sitio Colón 10 in the downtown area, or Museo Arqueológico San Miguel in the Valle de Azapa) to the decisive battle of the War of the Pacific (check out the museum at the top of El Morro, the bluff hovering over the city). Arica is so steeped in history, and it was twice destroyed by tidal waves, so the course of its rebuilding brought three Eiffel buildings (including the cathedral) to the city. Along with its history came a wondrous mix of ethnicities – Aymara, African, and European – all of which proudly share their music and dance with visitors.
If you love the sea, Arica is the place to be! Kilometers-long beaches to the north and south, birdwatching at the Desembocadura de Lluta nature reserve, boat rides around the bay or along the coast, and the Museo del Mar (in downtown). Surfing is a big sport here, with two of the world’s most challenging waves to ride.
For a respite from the desert, make excursions into the Azapa and Lluta river valleys, winding like thin green ribbons across the Atacama Desert. Here you’ll find ancient geoglyph (earth carvings) on the hills and small villages. Arica is also the gateway to several national parks and reserves nestled in the Andes near the Bolivian border: Lauca, Las Vicuñas and Salar de Surire.
Lodging: Full range of prices, from hostels to luxury hotels; and camping in Playa Las Machas and Playa La Lisera.
Gastronomy: Seafood (try the jaiba y queso, crab and cheese empanadas), olives, goat cheese.
Festivals: Carnaval Andino Intichallampi (January-February), Fiesta de San Pedrro y San Pablo (June 29), World Surf Championship (August), Fiestas Patrias (September 18-19)
Valdivia – instead of Santiago
Take a night bus from Santiago and wake up in the morning in Valdivia, which offers a wide variety of activities and a respite from the capital’s infamous smog. At the confluence of the Calle-Calle, Valdivia, Cruces and Cau-Cau Rivers, Valdivia is another Chilean city that has a fascinating history, gastronomy and mix of ethnicities. The Spanish city, originally founded in 1544, was destroyed by the indigenous Mapuche nation. Through an astonishing network of fortresses – including Corral, Niebla and Isla de Mancera, which all can be visited – the Spaniards recaptured the site in the mid-18th century. The city was almost totally destroyed in May of 1960 by the largest earthquake in modern history (9.5 magnitude).
These Spanish, Mapuche and later German roots all lend to Valdivia’s broad array of dishes that reflect the region’s ethnic diversity. But culinary delights aren’t the only things awaiting you here. You can boat to the Spanish fortresses, or upstream along the tributaries to villages like Punucapa. The city also offers over half a dozen museums plus several theaters. In season, you can ride on El Valdiviano, a steam train expedition to Antilhue.
Lodging: Full range of prices, from hostels to luxury hotels; camping (Isla Teja)
Gastronomy: Seafood, craft beers, crudo (steak tartar), homemade sausage with spätzel and chucrut (sauerkraut), chocolates, game meats (jabalí and venison)
Festivals: From Spring to Fall, (September-February), Valdivia has many festivals, including: Feria de Chocolate (January), Bierfest (January-February), Expoarte y Cultura Mapuche (November)
Rosario – instead of Buenos Aires
Rosario offers all (and even more) that Buenos Aires does, but in a much more relaxed atmosphere that is bathed by a gentle breeze wafting across the Río Paraná. Located just 300 kilometers (186 miles) northwest of Argentina’s capital, Rosario earns its fame well as Ciudad de la Cultura (City of Culture), with over a dozen museums. My favorites are the Jardín de los Niños, with replicas of Leonardo DaVinci’s inventions, and Museo del Paraná y las Islas, about the art and life of the river. Rosario is also the birthplace of Argentina’s flag, so check out the Monumento Nacional de la Bandera, the walking tour of sites associated with the legendary revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and listen to Argentina rock-n-roll that is rooted in Rosario. In the evening, see a performance in the opulent Teatro El Círculo, go tango dancing at a salón or dance the night away at a boliche (nightclub).
Then there is the Paraná River: Stroll along its banks, join the fishermen in hooking the night’s dinner, or go kayaking or parasailing. Boat trips through the canals of the river (the Delta del Paraná is a UNESCO Human and Biosphere Reserve) go to the Islas Alto Delta where you can picnic, camp or stay at a quaint hide-away hostel.
Once you decide to depart Rosario, you can travel by train to Buenos Aires, Córdoba or Tucumán!
Lodging: Full range of prices, from hostels to luxury hotels; camping (Granadero Baigorria, nine kilometers (5.4 mi) to the north; also on some of the Alto Delta Islands)
Gastronomy: Fresh river fish like surubí, bagre and dorado
Festivals: Rosario hosts many festivals, including: Flag Day (national holiday: July 20, and first raising, February 27), Carnaval (moveable feast: February / March), Festival de Barriletes (Kite Festival, September), Fiesta Nacional de Colectividades (All Nations Festival, November)
Encarnación – instead of Asunción
Paraguay is often thought about by tourists as a one-city country, referring to the capital Asunción. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as southeast of Asunción and just across the Río Paraná from Posadas, Argentina (from where you can now arrive by train!), is an important, fun, and relaxing city of Encarnación, providing a window into the more authentic life of little-visited Paraguay. The main reason to come here is to visit the well-preserved 17th-century Jesuit missions, La Santísima Trinidad (28 km / 17 mi from Encarnación) and Jesús de Tavarangüé (54 km / 33.5 mi from Encarnación), both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Afterwards, cool off from the sultry climate by taking a dip at one of Encarnación’s three river beaches. Still looking for something to do? Drop into one of the three small museums: Museo Hrisuk (history and art), Museo Profesor Alberto Delvalle (sacred art, war history) and Réplica de la Estación de Encarnación (railroad). Or, if shopping is more your game, Encarnación is famous for primo, cheap shopping (especially electronics).
Lodging: Full range of prices, from hostels to luxury hotels; camping
Gastronomy: Sopa paraguaya (savory corn bread), chipa guasú (sweet corn cake), mbeju (cassava bread), tereré (cold yerba mate tea)
Festivals: Founding day (February 25), Carnaval (moveable feast: February / March)
Punta del Diablo – instead of Playas del Este
When compared to Playas del Este, Punta del Diablo is the hands-down winner for a growing number of independent travelers. This laid-back beach town, a mere 46 kilometers (28 miles) south of the Brazilian border, caters to backpacker and family crowds instead of the moneyed class. It has three great beaches. Not too far from town is Parque Nacional Santa Teresa with an 18th-century fort and Laguna Negra in which you can take a relaxing swim. If you’re looking for more active adventures, Punta del Diablo is great for surfing, with the best waves in autumn and winter, but you can also go horseback riding and sandboarding if you don’t want to get wet.
The high season is during the austral summer (December-February) and Semana Santa. In July and October, whales migrate along the coast.
Lodging: Full range of prices, from hostels to luxury hotels; camping
Gastronomy: Fresh fish and seafood, buñuelos de algas (seaweed fritters), baurú (beef and cheese sandwich)
Festivals: Pre-Lenten Carnaval (moveable feast: February-March) features drumming and dancing in the streets. Semana de Turismo with jazz festival (end of March).
Olinda, near Recife – instead of Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro is world-renowned for its Carnaval – but that city gets super-crowded with tourists jamming hotels and paying big bucks to see some samba. If you’re looking for a more down-to-earth place, more participatory (and free!) Carnaval, then head to Olinda, located 10 kilometers (6 miles) northeast of Recife in northern Brazil.
You can spend the day wandering through Olinda’s historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its 20 baroque churches and stunning colonial architecture. When the tropical downpours come, take refuge in one of the museums: Espaço Ciência Museu (Space Science Museum), Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Pernambuco (a.k.a. MAC, Contemporary Art Museum of Pernambuco), Museu do Mamulengo (Puppet Museum) and the Museu de Arte Sacra de Pernambuco (MASP, Sacred Art Museum of Pernambuco). And, like any respectable seaside town, there are beaches to enjoy.
Lodging: Full range of prices, from hostels to luxury hotels; camping
Gastronomy: Macaxeira com carne de sol (yucca and sun-dried beef casserole); queijo coalho (fired cheese appetizer); fish and seafood, including moqueca (fish stew) and jerimum recheado peixe ao coco (coconut and fish or shrimp – camarão – soup served in a whole squash.
Festivals: Pre-Lenten Carnaval (moveable feast: February-March); tourism week with concerts and fairs (end of December)
Lorraine Caputo is a travel writer, poet and translator. She has authored ten guidebooks for South America. Her literary works appear in over 150 journals in Canada, the US, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa; 18 anthologies and eleven chapbooks – including the collections of travel poetry, Caribbean Nights (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014) and Notes from the Patagonia (dancing girl press, 2017). For more than a decade, she has been traveling through Latin America, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth. Follow her travels at: www.facebook.com/lorrainecaputo.wanderer.