5 Places to Visit – South America

Continuing my series of ‘5 places I’d like to visit’ (previous posts here, here & here), this instalment covers 5 places in South America, including the surrounding islands. There’s no real order of preference to these destinations and so I’ve listed them south to north.

The Falkland Islands, United Kingdom

Almost 8,000 miles from London, the British Overseas Territory of the Falkland Islands lies in the South Atlantic Ocean, 300 miles east of South America and about 750 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Comprised of two large islands (East and West Falkland) and 776 smaller islands, the islands are home to large wildlife populations and the two main islands both have mountain ranges.

One of the penguins that call the Falkland Islands home
  • Falkland Islands Museum Located at the historic dockyard on Stanley’s sea front, the Falkland Islands Museum has several collections on the natural, cultural and maritime history of the islands. Whilst the museum has an exhibit on the 1982 conflict, it is keen to point out that that is not the only history relating to the islands and there is so much more to discover. According to their website, the museum is open 1000-1600 Tue-Fri and 1300-1600 at weekends.
  • Stanley – Capital of the Falkland Islands, Stanley (or Port Stanley) is home to almost 75% of the population of the islands and is the only settlement described as a ‘town’. In addition to the Falkland Islands Museum, Stanley is also home to Government House, home of the islands’ government, a whale-bone arch, a totem pole and several war memorials. There is also the world’s southernmost Anglican cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral, along with a golf course and a racecourse, which hosts a two-day meet beginning every Boxing Day.
  • Wildlife Tour – With wildlife ranging from penguins and albatrosses to seals, sea lions and whales, the Falkland Islands is a great place to see wildlife. The wildlife of the Falkland Islands is similar of that to the Patagonia region of the South American mainland, although there are no native reptiles, amphibians or mammals on the islands, with the only native species of the latter, the Warrah, becoming extinct in 1876. There are numerous tours available with both standard and bespoke itineraries.

La Paz, Bolivia

Executive capital of Bolivia, La Paz is the highest capital city in the world at 11,975ft (3,650m) above sea level, more than 2,500ft higher than the next highest, Quito. With several colonial landmarks, numerous unique markets and vibrant nightlife, La Paz was in 2014 voted as one of the New7Wonders Cities as a city “that best represents the achievements and aspirations of our global urban civilization”.

Plaza San Francisco in La Paz – photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • Old Town – Home to many of the city’s remaining colonial landmarks, the old town of La Paz is a must see. In particular there are two squares, Plaza Murrillo and Plaza San Francisco that are home to some of the city’s main sites:
    • Plaza Murrillo – Home to the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, the Bolivian National Congress & the Presidential Palace, Plaza Murrillo is the central plaza of the city. An interesting, but what I feel is also disturbing, sight here is the clock in the spire of the National Congress, which runs anti-clockwise.
    • Plaza San Francisco – La Paz’s ‘Plaza Mayor’, the Plaza San Francisco, along with the adjacent Plaza Fabril make up the largest open public space in central La Paz. Plaza San Francisco is home to the Basilica of San Francisco and the popular Lanza Market.
  • Jaén Street – With its design preserved from the days of Spanish rule, Jaén Street is home to 10 of La Paz’s different museums. Including a museum of ceramic dolls, the former home of independence martyr Pedro Domingo Murillo and the Museum of the Litoral Coastal Region (the region of coast that Bolivia lost to Chile in 1879), Jaén Street really has something for everyone to enjoy.
  • Mi Teleferico – La Paz’s extensive cable car network is the longest aerial cable car system in the world and also provides a reliable connection to the city’s neighbour El Alto. Described perfectly on TripAdvisor “for the locals it is an efficient public transport system, for visitors it is one of the best ways to discover La Paz from above”. A single ticket costs just 3 bolivianos, which works out at about 32p.

Cuzco & Puno, Peru

Located in the southeast of Peru, the regions of Cuzco and Puno are in the centre of the former Incan empire. Sitting high in the Andes, these regions are home to some of Peru’s most famous and mystical sites having been the centre of the Incan empire in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The world famous Machu Pichu
  • City of Cuzco – Capital of the region of the same name, the city of Cuzco was, for three centuries, the capital of the mighty Incan empire until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. With a mix of Incan and colonial buildings, it is no surprise the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Whilst the Incan city was greatly damaged by Spanish explorer Pizarro in 1535, the foundations of the Incan ruins are stronger than more modern buildings, meaning they are surprisingly well preserved in earthquake prone Peru. I certainly want to visit the two most complete Incan temples in the city, Qurikancha (the Temple of the Sun), and the Temple of the Virgins of the Sun.
  • Machu Pichu – Possibly one of the world’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the first for Peru when it was inaugurated onto the list in 1983, the Incan citadel of Machu Pichu sits almost 8000ft above sea level on a ridge high in the Andes. More than 1.4million people visited the site in 2017 and UNESCO is considering putting Machu Pichu on the ‘World Heritage in Danger’ list due to the combined effects of unsustainable tourism including plans to construct a cable car to the site. Whilst I want to visit Machu Pichu, I want to do so in a sustainable way, ensuring that future generations can also visit.
  • City of Puno & Lake Titicaca – Peru’s most eastern city and capital of the region and province of the same name, Puno lies on the western shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. Puno has lots of colonial buildings to discover, whilst it is also the western terminus of the world’s highest rail ferry which connects the city with Guaqui in Bolivia. Lake Titicaca is home to more than 530 aquatic species including a number of threated species. I think getting the train to Puno and then across the lake, enjoying the scenery and wildlife sounds amazing!

The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

Located over 900km from mainland Ecuador, The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago of 21 islands that straddle the equator in the Pacific Ocean. Famous for their large number of endemic species that were studies by Charles Darwin, the islands and their surrounding waters form the Galápagos National Park, Galápagos Marine Reserve and were also the first UNESCO World Heritage site.

One of The Galápagos Islands famous residents
  • Garrapatero Beach – With 97% of the islands being part of the National Park, there are lots of restrictions on what you are able to do and where you are able to go without a guide. Garrapatero Beach on Isla Santa Cruz is on the south-eastern coast of the island and, with permission, can be used for camping. Whilst I’d normally opt for a more permanent structure to stay in whilst away, waking up on the white sand surrounded by nature sounds like absolute bliss.
  • Laguna Concha Perla – On the southern coast of the largest island, Isla Isabela, Laguna Concha Perla, or Pearl Shell Lagoon is one of the prime snorkelling locations around the islands. Surrounded by a mangrove forest, the lagoon is home to penguins, sea turtles, manta rays, sea lions and a plethora of fish, all of which can be swam with safely here.
  • Jacinto Gordillo Breeding Centre of Giant Tortoises – Located on San Cristobal, this pretty much does what it says on the tin and provides plentiful opportunities to see the tortoises that the Galápagos Islands are famous for. Given the breeding programme there are also baby tortoises, and best of all its absolutely free.

Cartagena, Colombia

Located on Colombia’s northern, Caribbean coast, Cartagena is a major port city founded in 1533. Less than 20 years later, the city had already grown to prominence as it became a main port for Spain’s overseas empire and was a hub of activity for politics, the economy and the church. The city’s colonial walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Cartagena – photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • Walled City – As one of Spain’s strategic colonial ports, it was important for the city to be defended and so in 1594, Spain sent military engineer Bautista Antonelli to Cartagena to draw up plans for a walled city. This walled city is home to many pieces of Cartagena’s colonial heritage including the Cathedral of Santa Catalina de Alejandria, Palace of Inquisition and a number of churches and convents.
  • Castillo San Felipe de Barajas – Along with twenty small fortresses in the walls of Cartagena, a large fortress to protect the city was key to Spain’s colonial strategy. Construction began in 1536, with the fortress also being expanded in 1657, with the main triangular structure being surrounded by a number of gun batteries. The fortress is also home to a large maze of tunnels inside the hill and is considered the most formidable defensive complex of Spanish military architecture.
  • Barrio Getsemani – Just to the south of the walled city, the Getsemani district of the city was once a crime hotspot. However, having been reclaimed away from the drug lords, the area is now one of Latin America’s newest ‘hot spots’ full of entertainers, street food and boutique hotels. The area’s narrow streets are designed to be explored on foot and the walls of the colonial buildings are covered in colourful murals focusing on the city’s history as well as more current topics such as gentrification and increasing tourism. As someone who likes to wander and discover, Getsemani sounds like somewhere I could easily let hours slip by as I explore.

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