The Lowdown on South America's Capital Highs

In South America, the liveliest, most interesting, not-to-miss capital cities are…. Let me guess: you are going to fill in the blank with Rio de Janeiro—beautiful, fun-filled, swinging to the samba beat, although of course not the capital of Brazil. Or, let’s bet you’ll pick Buenos Aires, stylish, sophisticated, with tango rhythms all her own. Without doubt, both lead the pack of stand-alone, one-stop urban destinations that are hot travel sellers.

Most leisure travelers, however, visit Latin American capitals as just a stopover, en-route to more famous attractions in the mountains or rainforests, by the sea, in the countryside. But look in the rear-view mirror, and definitely coming up on the fast track of go-to, stay-awhile cities are Lima, Quito and Bogota. They are the colonial capitals of Andean countries, which, with energy, imagination and investment, have spruced up and animated their historic quarters and neighborhoods, opened state-of-the-art museums, added a bevy of smart hotels, and gone gaga on gourmet dining and go-go nightlife. In others words, naturals for our annual Editors’ Hot List issue.

“Many Latin American cities have a very out-dated reputation,” says Don Forster, product and marketing manager of Goway Travel’s Latin America division, “for there is not yet an awareness of just how cosmopolitan, clean and safe cities like Lima, Quito and Bogota now are. Always historically and culturally rich, these capitals have been upgraded to offer a more sophisticated visitor market with amazing accommodations in both traditional and boutique-style hotels.” Plus, he adds, “Nowadays there is no shortage of world-class dining experiences.“ He also points out that Bogota illustrates the point of the difficulty in “up-dating” a destination’s reputation. “While definitely safe to travel to, Colombia in general is still caught in the stigma of the past. However, [continent-wide] there has been a huge improvement in safety, for my now 20-year involvement in the region—both as a guide and behind a desk—the worst incident I have encountered is bag-snatching.”

lima Forster reminds us that Lima was once a 1-night layover en-route to Machu Picchu. Now he recommends two full days as a minimum stay. And indeed, perched along the Pacific coast, the “City of Kings” reigns again, with the night-lit colonial center cleaned and restored to show off the cathedral and other colonial gems; an economy supporting stable growth; the Larco Mar shopping mall; and a dining scene not to be topped anywhere on the continent. In the capital, pre-Columbian artifacts are displayed at their best in the newly remodeled Museo Larco, spectacular with galleries of gold and silver Chimu jewelry, exquisite weavings of parrot feathers, and 40,000 ceramic artifacts including erotic Moche pottery delegated to an adults-only gallery. New to the museum scene isMuseo de Arte de Lima (a.k.a. Mali) showcasing Peruvian art from ancient to modern. Leave time for Lima’s outstanding churches and convents, including the San Francisco with its gallery of paintings and labyrinthine catacombs. Then head towards the sea for the charmingly hip Barranco quarter for lunch or cocktails at sunset by the sea, as well as a visit to the Pedro de Osma Museum, whose colonial decorative arts are housed in a lovely Beaux Arts mansion.

But the jewel in Lima’s attractions crown is simply great food, served up in an astonishing number of restaurants. All the rage—in fact making international headlines—is the country’s fusion cuisine, criollo cooking, a blend of Spanish, Andean, Chinese and African influences, and novoandina, accenting imaginative dishes based on highlands produce and introduced by celebrity chef Gaston Acurio at his flagship restaurant, Astrid y Gaston. Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino offers his own fusion take with jungle ingredients at his Malabar restaurant. And the latest culinary attraction in the capital are cooking lessons at Lima’s own Cordon-Bleu School.

One of the newest hotels in the city is The Westin Lima Hotel & Convention Center, which opened this year in the heart of San Isidro, the financial and shopping hub. Within walking distance to the city’s embassies, galleries, boutiques and restaurants, the 301-room hotel offers up several dining options, the Westin Heavenly spa and the Westin Workout fitness center, as well as the full suite of Westin signature amenities.