Go-to vacation destinations most often include glamorous European cities such as London or Paris. These destinations, however, can become a bit too overwhelming with crawling tourists determined to capture the iconic photo moments in a red phone booth near the Big Ben or hundreds of feet from the Eiffel Tower.
European cities are known for creating a memorable experience for family and friends, yet exploring the lesser-known parts of a forgotten region like Latin America can be just as magical. These cities are not necessarily the most famous within their respective countries, but they are filled with the same vibrant culture and remarkable history.
1. Huacachina, Peru
Engulfed by the surrounding sand dunes, Huacachina is a picturesque desert oasis in southern Peru. This Peruvian village is home to a small population of 100-permanent residents and its unique geographical layout attracts thousands of tourists passing through the neighboring city of Ica.
Encircled by verdant trees, Huacachina’s main attraction is its glistening lagoon. According to local legends, the lagoon formed when a beautiful princess about to bathe saw the reflection of a male hunter in her mirror. Fleeing for her safety, the puddle of water left behind burgeoned into the large lagoon and the folds in her robe transformed into the sand dunes. Locals believe that the princess still lives in the oasis as a mermaid and visitors of Huacachina slather the mud and water of the area all over themselves, as it is deemed to have healing powers that aid ailments such as arthritis and asthma.
The journey to Huacachina typically begins in Lima, the capital of Peru. After a five-hour bus ride from Lima, tourists reach the nearby city of Ica where they can hop in a taxi for a short 10-minute ride to the desert paradise.
Unlike the seemingly never ending travel, moving around within Huacachina is fairly simple as everything is within walking distance. Tourists can cruise along in the lagoon on rented paddleboats or rowboats. Although swimming in the lagoon is not prohibited, it isn’t encouraged because the water is not purified. Hotels sprinkled throughout the town, however, create opportunities for water fanatics to cool off from the blazing sun in their filtered, chlorine enriched pools.
With an abundance of sand dunes, Huacachina is a favorite destination of adventures souls daring enough to ride a dune buggy. Arranged by multiple agencies in the area, these two-hour dune buggy rides are much like rollercoaster rides with a combination of ups, downs, swerves and turns. Visitors can also rent a board and go sand boarding. The less athletically inclined can plop onto their stomachs and ride the board through the sand as a sled.
The adventures of Huacachina come to a close when the sun begins to descend, enabling a medley of colors to fill the sky. For the most breathtaking views of the Peruvian sunset, tourists can climb 25 minutes up the tallest dune and marvel at the sweeping views.
2. Valparaíso, Chile
While this colorful, quaint Chilean town is home to the country’s primary commercial harbor, Valparaíso is hailed as the “Jewel of the Pacific.” More commonly referred to as Valpo among the locals, this charming seaport city is Chile’s second largest metropolitan area after the capital, Santiago.
Historical roots of Valparaíso trace back to the latter half of the 19th century when its ports functioned as the major layover for ships traveling between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Nestled into the surrounding hills, the Historic Quarter of Valparaíso consists of five neighborhoods that exhibit characteristics of urban and architectural development in Latin America during the 19th century. In 2003, the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) declared the Historic Quarter as a World Heritage Site in an effort to preserve its cultural and physical significance.
Featuring captivating views of the sea and nearby hills, Valparaíso is known for its stunning backdrop that has inspired artists, poets and writers. One of the city’s most well known residents is revered artist Pablo Neruda, whose house known as La Sebastiana is firmly perched on top of a hill trekked by dozens of tourists. Seeking a glimpse of his former dwellings, visitors can explore the multiple levels of the house and absorb the calming views of the harbor. Before hiking down the hill, tourists can reenergize as the Centro Cultural La Sebastiana. This adjacent complex displays a small collection of Neruda’s masterpieces alongside a café and souvenir store.
Leisurely strolls through the squares of Valparaíso give tourists a chance to interact with the locals and experience the Chilean culture. In Plaza Sotomayor, the towering Edificio de la Comandancia Naval (Naval Command Building) blends into the sky with its blue façade. At the center of the square, the Monumento a los Heroes de Iquique is a monument honoring the Chilean men who lost their lives at sea. Located near the Estación Puerto, a station for commuter trains, Plaza Sotomayor is home to Feria De Artesanía, a market where vendors sell all types of crafts. On the weekends, tourists can get a taste of the lively spirit of Valparaíso when crowds swarm the pier called Muelle Prat.
There may not be world famous structures in Valparaíso but it is the simplicity of the city and the energetic culture that draws tourists into the lives of those in Valpo.
3. Cartagena de Indias, Colombia
Almost a mirrored reflection of New York City, the outskirts of Cartagena de Indias shake by the blaring sound of horns and the fast paced atmosphere. With it’s own version of Miami Beach, the Boca Grande of Cartagena is dotted with classy cafes, upscale dining, and deluxe condos.
Since vacations are meant to be an escape from the everyday hustle and bustle, tourists can find peace by meandering through the Old Town. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, this portion of Cartagena is protected for its comprehensive military fortifications dating back to the 16th century. Enclosed by Las Murallas, thick stone walls, the Old Town is crowded with carefully crafted architectural structures such as the Puerta del Reloj (Clock Tower) that greets visitors at the entrance of the colonial walls. The crumbling beauty of the narrow cobble stoned streets combined with the myriad of red and yellow hues makes the Old Town of Cartagena a remarkable sight to see.
Apart from the colonial charm of the Old Town, Cartagena has a number of other attractions for tourists to explore. Reflective of the gruesome Spanish Inquisition period, the Palacio de la Inquisición is now a museum that displays the instruments of torture once used against heretics. The grand stoned archway finished with the Spanish coat of arms is the most recognizable feature of the palace, emblematic of the colonial architectural style. Exhibits within the museum also feature pre-Colombian pottery designs, paintings, and furniture.
The central market of Cartagena, Mercado Bazurto, is not always listed in tourism guides. Stalls clustered together in the winding market sell everything from fruits and vegetables to meat and fish. It may not be the safest place to flaunt expensive jewelry or the latest wearable technology, but it does showcase the mouth-watering food, incredible culture, and kind people of Cartagena.
With the perfect balance of buzzing city life on the edge of town and old world charm in the center, Cartagena is the ideal destination for the next getaway.
4. Georgetown Guyana
Not to be confused with the neighborhood in Washington DC, Georgetown is the peaceful capital of Guyana that seems almost too perfect to be real. Paved streets shadowed by lofty trees and lined with incredible Dutch and Victorian architecture leave an imprint of European style.
As one of the tallest wooden churches in the world, St. George’s Cathedral is a manifestation of Gothic architecture featuring pointed arches, flying buttresses and clustered columns. Adding elegance to the space, the colorful stained glass windows depict scenes from the Bible. Securely fastened to the ceiling in the center of the church is a large chandelier gifted by the late Queen Victoria.
Scattered across Georgetown are soothing gardens where vacationers can melt their stresses away. Once used as a public execution area, the Promenade Garden has been redesigned into a serene place to spend the afternoon. Find the perfect bench, smell the sweet fragrance of flowers, and people watch as the subtle breeze passes through and the sun beams brightly. For a more active experience, tourists can take a 10-minute car ride to the Botanical Gardens where they can sign up for bird watching tours or explore the zoo.
Closer to the Demerara River, Straboek Market is a bright cast-iron building recognized by its iconic clock tower. Constantly swarmed by locals and visitors alike, vendors beckon people to stalls stocked with jewelry, clothes, or food items. The lively spirit of Strabeok Market easily draws in visitors, but be wary of personal belongings that can be snatched by lurking pit pocketers. Possibly the farthest any traveler will get from a stressful work environment, Georgetown emits a tranquil atmosphere that will make visitors reluctant to return home.