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A Survival Guide to South American Mega-Cities

Rio de Janeiro skyline
A view of the Rio de Janeiro skyline and landscape.

South America is not only home to the world’s largest rain forest and one of the tallest mountain ranges, but also to mega-cities that are among the world’s largest metropolitan areas. While most visitors come to South America to see Inca ruins, the Amazon rain forest, and some of the continent’s many natural wonders, few visitors can avoid a stopover in one of South America’s largest cities. The metropolitan area of São Paulo has 19 million inhabitants (10.8 million in the city) and is the world’s fifth largest city; Greater Buenos Aires has 13.5 million people (3 million in the city) and ranks as the world’s ninth largest metro area; Greater Rio de Janeiro has 11.6 million inhabitants, and is the world’s fifteenth largest city. From my own experience it can be quite a challenge to get your bearings in these large urban areas in order to spend a few enjoyable days, especially when you are planning to hike in the Andes or explore the rain forest and are not well prepared for a city visit. Still, I have found that with a little bit of planning and research, visitors can have an enjoyable time in South America’s mega-cities, even if they are not the primary destination of your trip.

Getting Your Bearings

South America’s large cities are impenetrable concrete jungles, and orientation is nearly impossible without the help of a detailed map. While landmarks such as Pão de Açucar (Sugar Loaf Mountain) in Rio de Janeiro provide some visual orientation, São Paulo is an endless sea of skyscrapers without any distinguishable landmarks. The street plan is so confusing that during my first days in São Paulo I got lost several times in a maze of high-rises, viaducts, and freeway overpasses. Buenos Aires also covers a huge geographic area and is fairly flat, but the distinct neighborhoods that make up the city make it relatively easy for visitors to get their bearings. Still, none if these cities have an orderly or rectangular layout, which can make orientation difficult.  Even streets that appear to be parallel or perpendicular may lead you into a completely different direction than you desire. To avoid wandering around aimlessly and getting lost, the best strategy is to arrive with a plan, a good guidebook, city map, and a healthy sense of adventure.

The Time Factor

The less time you have, the more important it is to plan ahead. Select a few sites and attractions that interest you the most and plan the rest of your visit around them. If you are jet-lagged give yourself extra time, since you won’t be able to fit in three museums and a visit to the most picturesque neighborhoods all in one day. Factor in downtime to relax during the day. It may seem that you can save a lot of time by munching on a sandwich while in the cable car up to Rio’s Sugar Loaf Mountain, but if you plan on visiting a lot of sites in a short time, you need to be relaxed and well rested to really enjoy them.  The most common mistake city visitors make is that they plan on seeing too much, and they end up spending a lot of time getting to and from their chosen destinations. To enjoy a large city, it is important to take the time to linger and watch the world go by. You can quickly visit MASP in São Paulo, the famous museum and modernist landmark on Avenida Paulista, which houses the city’s best art collection. But this large avenue is also the center of Brazil’s banking and insurance industries and is home to the pleasantly shaded Trianon Park and the large Itaú Cultural Center. A visit to Avenida Paulista would not be complete without taking the time to stroll down the avenue to take in the intense hustle and bustle and stop for a refreshment at one of the many bars that put out tables on the sidewalk at the end of the day. Whenever possible, it is better to see fewer places and take the time to enjoy them, as opposed to rushing around to “take it all in.”

Planning Your Activities

The best way to have an enjoyable time in South America’s large cities is to vary activities. Visiting more than one museum a day is tiring, and so is walking around a crowded city center all day as it bustles with commercial activity. Read your guidebook to find ways to get away from crowded city centers by planning an easy escape for part of the day. This could be a large park, a café-lined street in a quiet neighborhood, or a quiet cultural center with exhibits, cafés, movie theaters, and bookstores. I remember strolling down Avenida Paulista in São Paulo one morning, and when I got tired of the traffic and sidewalks crowded with hawkers, I got on a bus and ten minutes later I was at the huge Ibirapuera Park with its quiet tree-lined walkways, large lawns and ponds. In Rio de Janeiro the Botanical Gardens, with a stunning diversity of plant life ,is only a half-hour bus ride from the crowded city center and offers a quiet and relaxing environment.  Buenos Aires also offers some escapes from the noisy avenues and shopping streets. From the center you can easily reach the serene Recoleta Cemetery and the pleasant Bosques de Palermo Park by subway. Cultural centers such as the Centro Cultural do Banco do Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, the Centro Cultural de São Paulo in São Paulo, and the Centro Cultural Recoleta in Buenos Aires, are also great places to take a break from exploring and sightseeing. These centers have libraries, cafés, and bookstores, and offer movies, exhibits, music, and theater performances.

Getting off the Beaten Track

The more independently you explore a city, the more unique and personal your experiences will be. But to go on your own journey of discovery you have to get off the beaten path. Among the most enjoyable ways to spend time in a large city is to visit several neighborhoods and explore them on your own without a guidebook. Only by getting lost and not having my eyes glued to the guidebook have I been able to make great discoveries, be it a quiet shaded courtyard or square, a beautiful art-deco building, or a local café with a great ambience. Buenos Aires has a great number of attractive neighborhoods popular with foreigners, such as San Telmo, La Boca, and Palermo Viejo. São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro also have attractive neighborhoods with a pleasant mix of restaurants, cafés, and cultural venues that are worth exploring. São Paulo’s Liberdade neighborhood is home to the city’s Asian immigrants and has quite a distinct flavor. Bela Vista (locally known as Bixiga) is an old neighborhood near the center, home to Italian immigrants, which still maintains its traditional small-town character. In Rio de Janeiro you should not miss a visit to the quaint Santa Teresa neighborhood by streetcar. Although these neighborhoods are popular with tourists, they are large enough to allow you to get off the beaten path and explore on your own.

The most memorable travel experiences are not necessarily the visits to famous landmarks and tourist attractions, but the often-serendipitous encounters with the locals and their culture. I still treasure those moments of personal discovery, when I photographed a beautiful historic doorway in Rio de Janeiro, had a conversation with a shoe-shine boy in São Paulo, and discussed life and the universe with a writer over a few late-night drinks at a Buenos Aires café. Visiting fairs and markets is also a great way to take a close look at local life and mingle with the locals. In these large cities there is always a fair or market to visit in one neighborhood or another, be it a book fair in downtown Rio, a handicraft fair in São Paulo, or a flea market in Buenos Aires. Check the newspapers or ask at the tourist information office if there are any local festivals going on during your visit. These are often very colorful events that provide great experiences of local culture and customs.

House in Buenos Aires
A painted apartment house in Buenos Aires.

Where to Stay

I have always found it convenient to stay near the city centers, which offer lively commercial districts and interesting historic or modern buildings to marvel at. Another advantage is that in the center you are close to public transportation that fans out in every direction and quickly takes you to other parts of the city. São Paulo has a few pleasant hotels near the center in the Asian district “Liberdade.” Buenos Aires also has several mid and low-priced hotels near the center, and Rio has a few nice hotels near the center in the Flamengo and Catête neighborhoods. Although many tourists in Rio de Janeiro stay at hotels in Copacabana, I have always preferred to stay in neighborhoods closer to the center, which liven up at night with locals gathering at outdoor restaurants for beer and snacks while retirees play chess in tree-lined squares. Staying near the center also has the advantage that it invites exploration on foot as opposed to taking the subway everywhere. This way you get a better impression of a city’s layout, and you can absorb the city’s atmosphere and street life.

Safety Concerns

Safety is an issue in every South American city, and you should be careful, no matter where you go. If in doubt, ask at the local tourist office if it is safe to visit the area you’d like to explore. Keep your valuables out of sight or keep them in the hotel safe, carry a small camera or keep your SRL in your daypack when not taking pictures. Petty theft is quite common, and the best way to avoid it is to carry as few valuables as possible.  Visiting shantytowns has become a new trend among visitors to Rio de Janeiro, but you should never attempt to go on your own. Shantytowns are often dangerous for outsiders, and you should only enter with a reputable group tour.

Buenos Aires
São Paulo skyline.


The easiest way to get around in these three cities is the subway. The São Paulo Metrô currently has four subway lines, the Rio de Janeiro Metrô has two lines, and the Buenos Aires "Subte" has five lines, all connecting the centers with various other parts of the cities. But since the subway networks are somewhat limited, taking the subway also involves a bit of walking to get to your destination. There are so many bus routes and bus companies in these large cities that getting around by bus can be something of a science. Unless you speak the local language or have clear instructions on what bus to take, it is best to avoid public buses, since it is easy to take the wrong one and end up getting lost. Taking a taxi is sometimes a more convenient option than public transportation, but it is not always faster considering the dense traffic in these cities. Also keep in mind that foreign visitors are often overcharged for taxi rides. If you have to take a cab, ask about the approximate fare ahead of time. You can also ask at the hotel receptionist or the local tourist office for approximate fares to make sure you are not being overcharged. I usually try to agree on a fixed price before the ride so that the driver then turns off the meter—though this is not officially allowed and not all drivers will agree to do so.

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