What is the capital of Chile, Paraguay or Colombia? Are you confused about Rio, Brasília, Sucre and La Paz? Here are all the capitals of countries in South America, all the answers you’re looking for in one go-to list of South American capitals!
Population: 3,003,000 (2021 estimate)
Definitely one of our favourite cities in South America, Buenos Aires is a lively and colourful capital that takes pride in its past while resolutely looking towards the future. The Porteños (residents of Bs. As.) are cultured, curious, eclectic and resourceful – and their city is made in their image.
We love Buenos Aires for the variety of its neighbourhoods, for the Old European charm of its streets and parks, for the cheap, greasy food, and for the quantity of great museums and (free!) cultural events.
Population: 816,044 (2020 estimate)
La Paz is a colourful chaos of noise and traffic, an anthill overflowing a basin. It’s dirty, it’s lively, it’s rough around the edges. It’s probably the city we’d love to hate as Bolivians, but that we loved as visitors.
Most parts of La Paz are like a constant open-air market, full of colourful fruit and smells and unidentified items, probably used for cooking or for rituals, or maybe that’s the same thing.
Then, from the silence and the comfort of the modern teleférico, everything quiets down, everything seems to suddenly make sense.
Read our guide to La Paz
Population: 360,544 (2021)
Sucre is the second capital of Bolivia, or actually the first one. While La Paz houses the government and the executive, Sucre is the constitutional capital of the country.
An old colonial woman almost entirely dressed in white, the city seems to dwell lightyears away from La Paz. Its streets are peaceful, clean and awfully pretty. And its many churches and miradors create a beautiful skyline over the hills.
Sucre lies in between the altiplano and the jungle, far from the chaos and the dirt, a much-appreciated relief from the adrenaline that Bolivia provides.
Population: 3,039,444 (2017)
Brasília is a purpose-built city, created from scratch in 1960 to move the country’s governmental and business institutes from Rio de Janeiro inland.
Architects Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemayer (known internationally for his modernist buildings) planned it in the shape of an airplane, surrounded by a huge park and an artificial lake. The buildings are multi-story and some are strangely-shaped and futuristic.
Brasília is very different from the older, organic cities of Brazil, most of which are on the coast. It has a somewhat ‘data-driven’ feel to it. Most of the inhabitants who wear a suit are probably employed by the state or by related businesses.
Population: 6,269,384 (2017)
Santiago is an enormous, modern city, halfway between the Andean peaks and the Pacific immensity. Remove the setting, and it looks like a Northern metropolis, with smog, skyscrapers, shopping malls, impressive governmental palaces, and bars and restaurants aplenty.
But the heart of Chile beats in the details. Street sellers everywhere, musicians on the buses, the smell of humitas and sopaipillas, old men playing chess.
The city grins at the first encounter but then slowly welcomes you. Don’t be afraid of its size: the main activities (parks, museums, even bars) are all gathered around the centre.
Population: 284,630 (2012)
The harbour town of Valparaíso is hardly ever listed as Chile’s second capital. But it hosts in fact the country’s National Congress. For us, it’s a colourful, artsy city with an alternative vibe.
Of course “Valpo” is beautiful, with winding streets reaching terraces overlooking the ocean, like a many-coloured blanket slipping down the hills and into the Pacific.
But this city of sailors and students fascinates particularly with its urging sense of spontaneous creativity, reinventing itself every day with imagination and chutzpa. It offers a myriad exhibitions and performances in independent galleries, social centres and converted buildings. The only way to get to know Valparaíso is with Curiosity.
Discover what to do in Valparaíso
Population: 7,968,095 (2022)
Travellers have long avoided Colombia because of its crime rate. But today, Bogotá attracts party-goers and salsa fans alike, who want to get some Caribbean vibes for a cheap price.
It’s a chaotic city; there’s crazy traffic, buses are always packed and the smog covers it all. But the city centre, especially the colonial La Candelaria district, is a nice bubble of gentrified oxygen with hipster cafés and street musicians and walking tours.
That’s where we experience the city at its best, with its street art and street markets, high-class museums (like the Botero museum or the Museo del oro), and organised queues at bus stops.
Population: 2,800,388 (2020)
The first thing we noticed upon arrival is Quito’s special location and elongated shape.
Closely hugged by the Andes, Ecuador’s capital lies right in front of an active volcano, the Pichincha, making it with 2850 m (9350 ft) the 2nd highest capital in the world (the 1st one is also on this list). And of course, it’s a stone’s throw away from the Equator line at the Middle of the World.
Its safe and well-preserved colonial downtown with beautiful churches can be visited in a day or two. But there are many interesting museums, such as the National Museum of Ecuador and the House of the Ecuadorian Culture, which will help you understand the traditions, indigenous history and arts of a country that’s too often overlooked.
Discover the best cultural places in Quito
Population: 118,363 (2012)
The small town of Georgetown is situated in the northern part of South America, on the Atlantic Ocean. The perfect “L” shape of its long beach with palm trees seems to have been designed geometrically.
The country was first a Dutch, then a British colony, and the official language is English; but locals speak an English-based Creole language. In fact, the country got its independence only in 1966, so British colonial architecture is very much present throughout town.
Crude oil was recently discovered in Guyana, and commercial drillings started in 2019. So who knows what this small, informal city will look like in a couple of years?
Population: 9,751,717 (2020)
Densely populated Lima feels like a melting pot of various cities; a metropolis with high-rise buildings and business centres; inadequate and crowded public transportation; young and hipster urban districts with colourful street art.
Locals and travellers alike enjoy the humid heat of the colonial squares, shaded by a handful of thin palm trees; and day-long chilling at the long coastal promenade, with dramatic cliffs and intrepid paragliders.
Those who expect a bigger version of indigenous Cusco, the Inca city, will be disappointed. Lima is a modern hub, with giant malls, a string of interesting museums, and a certain degree of street insecurity.
Here are our tips to spend 1 day in Lima
Population: 521,559 (2020 estimate)
Asunción, on the bank of the Paraguay River, is one of the oldest cities in South America that were founded by the colonizers. It’s ranked the 3rd safest capital in South America (after Buenos Aires and Santiago).
Often falling outside of travellers’ radar, this city remains an authentic spot for those who want to better understand the rich history of the region.
Many of the colonial buildings have been recently recuperated, and modern high-rises complement the urban landscape. Unlike many South American cities, a significant amount of trees have been planted on the streets, making it greener and cooler.
Population: 240,924 (2012)
Paramaribo, often shortened to “Parbo”, lies in the north of Suriname, close to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. It has a laidback, small-town feeling blessed by a tropical, rainy climate.
The country gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1975, therefore most of the population still speaks Dutch nowadays.
Its colonial downtown is a UNESCO World Heritage site, yet this small city remains largely off the tourist trail. Recently though, its focus on eco-friendly tourism puts it on travellers map. So if you’re into green travel away from the crowd, Parbo is definitely a destination to look into.
Population: 1,719,453 (2011)
Forward-thinking Montevideo offers a mixed neoclassical, art deco and colonial architecture in its compact centre. It’s a down-to-earth town that feels very safe even at night and provides all the infrastructure of a Northern city.
This harbour town stretches along the Rio de la Plata, and many plazas, streets and landmarks wear the name of their national hero, José Artigas.
Careful, the Uruguayans tend to get a bit upset when they’re confused with Argentinians. Sure enough, they go around with a mate in one hand, and love their football, tango and milonga. But you’ll find here a serenity and a friendliness that are unmatched across the river.
We really fell in love with Montevideo – read why.
Population: 2,245,744 (2017)
The pulsating heart of Venezuela, Caracas is a huge chaos that concentrates in itself the whole life of the country. It’s rough and lively, mixing slums and skyscrapers, petrodollars and street food stalls.
There’s enough culture, both indoors and on the streets, to make you dizzy, and the nightlife never lets down. But with a national park overlooking the city and some wonderful beaches easily accessible, it’s easy to take a breather from the frenetic concrete jungle.
A word of warning though: like in many other South American metropolises, the safety issue in Caracas shouldn’t be ignored.
|Bolivia:||La Paz, Sucre|
Interested in one of those cities in particular?
Feel free to ask us in the comments section!