By Sarah Bruning
July 08, 2020
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This year’s World’s Best Awards survey closed on March 2, just before widespread stay-at-home orders were implemented as a result of COVID-19. The results reflect our readers’ experiences before the pandemic, but we hope that this year’s honorees will inspire your trips to come — whenever they may be.

When it comes to urban escapes, for T+L readers, the best cities in Central and South America tick a few specific boxes: gorgeous scenery, friendly locals, fabulous food, and dynamic culture. Though some hubs might broadly be considered stopovers on the way to bucket-list destinations like Machu Picchu or the Galápagos, World’s Best voters aren’t shy about correcting that misconception and singing the distinct praises of each of this year’s honorees.

Every year for our World’s Best Awards survey, Travel + Leisure asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe — to share their opinions on the top cities, islands, cruise ships, spas, airlines, and more. Readers rated cities on their sights and landmarks, culture, cuisine, friendliness, shopping, and overall value.

The majority of the cities recognized on this year’s list can be found in South America, but for the second year in a row, No. 2 Antigua, Guatemala, is the Central American standout. “Antigua is not only beautiful with the volcano towering over the city, but rich with history,” wrote one reader of its charms. “You will find the friendliest people, most colorful historic buildings, and food for absolutely anyone. There is so much to do that one can easily spend a week here just taking in the culture and sights.” Despite damage sustained in a massive earthquake in the 1700s, much of the town’s stunning Spanish-colonial buildings and monuments, including the Santa Catalina Arch, remain standing. These structures, along with other relatively newer ones such as the Baroque Iglesia de la Merced, make Antigua a walker’s delight.

Capital cities also fared well, with Buenos Aires (No. 4), Bogotá, Colombia (No. 6), Lima, Peru (No. 8), and Quito, Ecuador (No 10), all making appearances. One driving force? Their respective culinary scenes. In particular, many readers noted how much they loved being able to deepen their understanding of these places as they ate their way through historic cafés serving traditional fare and modern restaurants using native foods in creative applications. One visitor to Lima wrote, “It has many world-class restaurants that reflect the diversity of Peruvian ingredients.”

Of course, T+L readers also relish the opportunity to experience thousands of years of history in a concentrated area — something easily done in many of these places. Quito earned raves as “a great place for architecture and museums,” wrote one voter, who added that the “churches are beautiful and hotels are spectacular.” Multiple people praised No. 5 Cartagena, Colombia, for similar reasons. “Loved the old city and Spanish fort,” one traveler commented. Several others touted the old downtown as a fantastic place to just walk around, with one person noting that the area is “alive with activity.”

But it’s Cuzco, Peru, that once again returns as the category winner. Keep reading to find out why — and see the full list of the best cities in Central and South America, as voted by T+L readers.

1. Cuzco, Peru

Gerold Grotelueschen/Getty Images

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 87.24

For many travelers, Cuzco is first and foremost the gateway to Peru’s Urubamba Valley. But the erstwhile seat of the Incan Empire — a UNESCO World Heritage site — is a glorious site unto itself, rich in archaeological and architectural gems that date back millennia. “Our hotel was charming, the local food was delicious, and we loved the culture of the city,” one voter wrote. “It was a great place to stay for three days before taking the train up through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu.” It also ranked high for people-watching and leisurely exploration, as one reader recommended: “Sit in the main square for a while and observe. Make your own walking tour to the market and have a traditional breakfast or lunch.”

2. Antigua Guatemala

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Score: 86.08

3. Mendoza, Argentina

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Score: 83.04

4. Buenos Aires

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WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 82.46

5. Cartagena, Colombia

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Score: 82.45

6. Bogotá, Colombia

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Score: 81.38

7. Rio de Janeiro

Michel Siqueira/500px/Getty Images

Score: 81.14

8. Lima, Peru

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Score: 80.35

9. São Paulo, Brazil

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Score: 80.00

10. Quito, Ecuador

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Score: 79.31

See all of our readers' favorite hotels, cities, airlines, cruise lines, and more in the World's Best Awards for 2020.