Travellers go to Latin America hoping, expecting, knowing they’ll be wowed. Home to three of the world’s Seven Wonders, the region has a wealth of both manmade and natural attractions.
Travellers also know that their journey through this vast continent won’t always be full of rainbows and kittens. Amid the bright, great wonders will be dreary days in dull towns with nary a redeeming feature. In South America, finding these two extremes side by side is almost a guarantee, as illustrated below. Tourist towns inevitably crop up close to major sights and more often than not, they’re completely and utterly charmless. Here are six underwhelming South American towns we failed to avoid on our travels.
Base for: The Galápagos
We spent three nights in Guayaquil: one night on the way out to the Galápagos and two on the way back. Our first hotel was a charmless, nameless cardboard building near the airport. We spent the evening prowling the main road looking for somewhere to eat. We finally found a local place down a sidestreet, which looked promising but served days-old rice with greasy breaded chicken and a limp salad. No matter, we said. We’re on our way to the Galápagos! Plus we’ll stay somewhere more central on the way back. Alas, staying centrally offered no improvement. Dreary streets with shuttered restaurants forced us into a McDonald’s. And you know you’re in trouble when you’re glad to see a McDonald’s.
Base for: Salar de Uyuni
We’re not sure what we expected of Uyuni but what we found was not it. Perhaps we expected somewhere a little less… lost, given that it’s the gateway to Salar de Uyuni. Perhaps it was our own fault for choosing a hostel 15 minutes out of town; it gave us a chance to see what Uyuni is actually like outside of the tourist centre. What it’s ‘actually like’ is stray dogs sniffing at bags of rubbish, featureless landscapes of dust and rust and a desolate feel that still haunts us today.
Base for: Isla del Sol
We knew this wasn’t the Copacabana of the song but would have been happy with a simulacrum of charm. Unfortunately, this lakeside town represents much that is wrong with tourism. Pushy restaurateurs force their staff to solicit potential diners on the street, ticket agents are stacked like sardines and grumpy women flog fake sunglasses on street corners. Thankfully, Isla del Sol is a boat ride away. With no cars, few people and fewer hotels, it’s a lovely respite from the thrum of South America.
(Image left: Alex Proimos, Creative Commons)
Base for: San Agustín Archaeological Park
San Agustín’s Parque Arqueológico is home to over a hundred 3,300-year-old statues carved from stone by the area’s famous pre-Hispanic masons. It’s a great day out but the town of San Agustín is a different story. Its sloping streets and whitewashed walls have an old town feel that isn’t entirely without charm, but there isn’t much to do apart from sit in the square and watch the world go by which we did… again and again. If you plan to spend more than a day here, we recommend La Casa de François which offers a great view of the surrounding hills. At the very least, you can read and relax for a few quiet days.
(Image left: Jaime Hernando Duarte, Creative Commons)
Foz do Iguaçu
Base for: Iguacu Falls
We were quite comfortable in Foz do Iguaçu. As we approached the end of our trip, we opted for a hotel nicer than our budget would allow. It was when we ventured out that we realised how underwhelming the town really is. With shops and streets indiscernible from any other mid-sized town, Foz do Iguaçu could be anywhere in the world (anywhere with noisy traffic and charmless supermarkets that is). After a trip to the magnificent falls, we saw no reason to stick around (other than to figure out once and for all if it’s Iguaçu, Iguassu or Iguazu).
(Image left: Evgenia Kononova, Public Domain)
Base for: Nazca Lines
There’s nothing offensive about Nazca; it’s just a sleepy-ish town with not much to do within its confines. We stayed at a local hospedaje and spent a couple of evenings walking up and down the main street… and that’s it. A few half-decent restaurants, a good ice cream place and the sunny weather pull it a few notches above the aforementioned towns and of course the mysterious Nazca Lines make it worth a visit.
(Image left: Shoestring, Creative Commons)
For more information on the more charming towns of South America, get the Lonely Planet Guide to South America.