5 Enthralling Destinations for Your First Time in Latin America

If you’re planning your first journey to Latin America, get ready for an adventure filled with vibrant cultures, gorgeous landscapes and a rich history. And because choosing the right destination is important to ensure everything goes smoothly – here are five places that are sure to make your first Latin America trip unforgettable. 

1. Cartagena, Colombia

This Caribbean gem is a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with interesting historical details, an example of which is the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, which offers a glimpse into the Spanish colonial times the city went through. 

While walking through the cobblestone lined streets, you’ll most likely stumble upon the Plaza de los Coches or the Plaza Santo Domingo – two squares brimming with life and local history. 

If you prefer to avoid the crowds, the bohemian Getsemaní district might be a good opportunity to get to know local street art, music and quaint cafés. This used to be a slightly rough neighbourhood, however it has since transformed itself into a cultural hub. 

Cartagena’s streets are filled with vibrant murals that illustrate local legends and social themes, so this is a great way to immerse yourself in the region’s culture and history. If you’d like to experience the social life and watch the locals gather to dance and celebrate, visit Plaza Trinidad in the evening. 

Another must-see if you’re looking for unique cultural experiences is the Bazurto Market, a bustling marketplace where you can buy fresh seafood or recuerdos – crafty souvenirs. 

Lastly, to take a break from the city, you can opt to take a boat trip to the nearby Rosario Islands for some snorkelling and beach time. 

2. Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca is famous for its delicious cuisine and vibrant festivals. 

If you’re someone who can’t do without a dash of colour in your life, you’ll absolutely love the streets filled with bustling markets, the amazing smell of street food and all kinds of colourful crafts. 

Some local delicacies include: mole (a saucy blend of chocolate, spices and chilies, often served with chicken/turkey); tlayudas (a large and crispy tortilla topped with beans, cheese, avocado and meat) and tamales (a corn based dough mixture wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with a variety of fillings). 

Don’t miss the mezcal: a smoky spirit made from agave, it’s a potent alcoholic beverage which will usually be locally-distilled in one of the many mezcalerías in the city. If this topic interests you, the town of Santiago Matatlán, known as the "World Capital of Mezcal," isn’t too far from Oaxaca (here you’ll find countless tours of traditional mezcal distilleries!). 

If you visit Oaxaca in July, you’ll find the streets filled with celebrations of the Guelaguetza, a traditional festival from the region's indigenous communities. During the Day of the Dead (or Dia de Los Muertos) in November, the city comes alive once again with elaborate altars, parades, and festivities in honour of the deceased.

For the nature lovers, we recommend a day trip to Hierve el Agua, a location with stunning natural rock formations and petrified waterfalls, where you can have a refreshing dip with mountains in the backdrop or go for a hike on one of the numerous panoramic trails. 

3. Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires is the perfect blend of European elegance with Latin flair, and is often referred to as “the Paris of South America” mostly due to its stunning combination of French-style palaces with structures from the Spanish colonial times. 

Its Avenida 9 de Julio is one of the widest avenues in the world, featuring the iconic Obelisk and lined with impressive theatres and cafés – a true showcase of the city’s energy. 

The presidential palace, Casa Rosada, is a must-see with its remarkable pink facade (remember the famous balcony from which Eva Perón – the former first lady of Argentina – addressed the masses? That’s the one!). 

The nearby Plaza de Mayo is a historic square with countless important government buildings as well as the Metropolitan Cathedral, the main Catholic church in the city. 

Ever heard of the Palermo Soho? This eclectic district is a haven for fashionistas and art lovers alike, where you can get lost in hip cafés and stylish shops. In the evenings, it comes alive with bars and clubs. 

Last but not least, if you’re wondering about the food… make sure to try a traditional Argentine beef with chimichurri sauce and Malbec wine at one of the many parrillas (steakhouses) around the city! 

4. Cusco, Peru

Often referred to as the Gateway to the Sacred Valley, the name Cusco might remind you of the famous Disney cartoon, but it’s actually a real place.  

Cusco is the former capital of the Inca Empire and the starting point for exploring the iconic Machu Picchu (check out our guide to visiting this iconic landmark!). This city is a mix of Incan and (surprise, surprise) Spanish colonial architecture. 

In its historic centre lies the Qorikancha temple – also known as the Temple of the Sun. Once the richest temple in the Inca Empire, it was formerly converted into the Church of Santo Domingo by the Spanish. 

Venture into the San Blas neighbourhood to discover narrow, cobblestone streets with artisan workshops, where you can find handcrafted souvenirs to take back home or just enjoy some panoramic views of the city from the quaint squares.

If taking a short trip from Cusco, you might find yourself at the ruins of the grand Sacsayhuamán, an ancient fortress built with intricate stonework (and no mortar), which just about shows the advanced skills of the Incas.

5. Montevideo, Uruguay

Montevideo is often overseen due to its bustling neighbour, Buenos Aires.

A more laid-back alternative, it offers picturesque promenades such as La Rambla – a coastal riverside walk along the Rio de la Plata. This walkway is perfect for cycling, running or simply sitting by the riverfront and taking in the views.

The Old Town (Ciudad Vieja) is filled with charming architecture and vibrant street markets. 

To savour the traditional Uruguayan barbecue and mingle with locals, head over to the Mercado del Puerto, where you’ll find yourself immersed in culinary and cultural activities. 

If you catch the Carnival celebrations throughout your visit, get ready for the energetic candombe rhythms – a traditional Afro-Uruguayan music and dance that comes alive especially during this time of the year. This is truly a fun spectacle to watch, with colourful costumes and loud drums. 

For a first-timer in Latin America, all of these five destinations will be a captivating introduction in their own unique manner. From the historical richness of Cartagena and Cusco to the mouth-watering cuisine of Oaxaca, Buenos Aires and Montevideo, each city offers a unique experience for all tastes to make sure your first trip to Latin America is absolutely unforgettable. 

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