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Is South America the next big travel frontier for gay travellers? The distances to many South American cities from Europe are no worse than they are to the USA, and the costs of travel in South America range from dirt-cheap to fairly moderate, but few destinations here presently generate popularity in the gay travel market.
Quite a few gay travellers have become aware that Brazil's sexy and scenic Rio de Janeiro (left) has a lusty and energetic gay scene, and some others have learned about the Euro-hip sophistication and nightclub prowess of Argentina's Buenos Aires, but several other South American cities are rapidly developing cachet.

Here's a quick primer on where you'll find the most happening and gay-popular scenes throughout the continent.


Few of the world's cities are more captivating
than Brazil's Rio de Janeiro.
Photo courtesy Rio de Janeiro Tourist Office
Buenos Aires, Argentina - Seasoned travel writer Michael Luongo calls Argentina's capital city, Buenos Aires, as one of the world's "sexiest and most sophisticated" gay destinations. It's the only city in South America that compares with Rio in terms of gay popularity. Luongo further describes Buenos Aires as an incredibly forward and flirtatious city, and notes that it's quite common for total strangers to strike up a conversation with visitors, whether the intention is romantic or otherwise.

This isn't a let-it-all-hang-out party place like Rio. Rather, in Buenos Aires, lesbians and gay men socialize on a fairly low-keyed level, often in the city's many trendy outdoor cafes and stylish restaurants - plus a decent number of gay bars. While you won't necessarily encounter a Castro- or Chelsea-like gay playground where same-sex couples stroll hand-in-hand, you will find that residents of Buenos Aires accept gays and lesbians as a natural component of the urban fabric. This is a city that's equally appealing among gay singles and couples, and of all ages. On the other hand, you may feel a bit out of place here if you're unable or uninterested in dressing the part - Buenos Aires takes its style cues from Milan and Paris. The gay scene can be rather fashion- and image-conscious, which - of course - suits its devotees just fine.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Rio de Janeiro is gay ground-central for many South American visitors, and it's the only real queer-visible destination in Brazil. The city is ideally suited to revelers and late-night clubbers, and it's also a better match with travelers who both enjoy and are comfortable with the tempo of a big city. Crime is an issue in Rio, although the government has made tremendous strides in recent years making the city safer.

Whereas Buenos Aires feels distinctly European, sultry Rio grooves to a fast, tropical beat - residents wear their lust for life on their sleeves. Gay nightclubs abound and pulse well into the wee hours, and the city's beaches are infested all day long with sexy and minimally covered bodies. Comments Matthew Link, author of the Rainbow Handbook Hawaii and numerous gay-travel articles, Rio "is one city that can claim to be actually grander than its postcard images, and more glamorous than the songs written for her." The scene here is spread among a few neighbourhoods. Several hotels and inns cater to or encourage the gay market, and bars and clubs abound, most of them kicking into high gear well into the evening, and more than a few of them employing a sexy stable of go-go boys.

Santiago, Valparaiso, and Vina del Mar, Chile - According to Mark Sullivan, editor of the Fodor's Chile and Fodor's South America guidebooks (and the former editor of gay newspaper the New York Blade News), gay life in Chile remains largely underground and discreet, although tourism to the country, in general, has risen markedly since the fall of dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1990. In Santiago, he notes, you'll find a smattering of gay nightlife, but bars come and go and tend to be publicized primarily by word-of-mouth.

Outside the capital, gay nightlife is limited. There are a couple bars in the cities of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar, but they're hard to find. Sullivan also notes that throughout most of Chile - even in very remote regions - the sight of same-sex couples traveling together does not typically raise eyebrows (although discretion is a good idea). As is the case in many parts of South America, there's tremendous pressure on gay men, and even more on lesbians, to remain in the closet. In Chile, home-life centers heavily on the family, and social mores depend heavily on the traditions and teachings of the conservative Catholic Church.

Bogota, Medillin, and Cartegena, Colombia - Charismatic Colombia, which fronts the Caribbean and the Pacific, is a rich mix of magnificent natural scenery, historic cities, and tremendously varied flora and fauna. Don't let the reputation as a haven of drug-smuggling scare you - crime in Bogota rarely affects tourists. This city of 6 million also claims an exciting shopping and nightclubbing district, the Zona Rosa, plus an engaging colonial district, La Candelaria.

About three-fourths of Colombia's population reside in urban areas, and because the country has several dense population centers, there are gay businesses and bars in about a dozen cities. Bogota has most of the action, and could arguably be considered the continent's third gay mecca. You'll find everything from bars to saunas to gay-popular gyms - there's no gay ghetto per se, but the northern part of Bogota tends to have most of the queer bars and businesses. Medillin is the second-largest city and has a decent gay scene, too (it and Bogota both have had gay pride parades for the past few years) - this engaging and attractive university town lies in a scenic mountain district. And every so often a gay cruise docks in Cartagena, which though charming and extremely romantic lacks a gay singles scene. Still, couples may wish to consider a trip to this safe and attractive Caribbean city.

Quito, Ecuador - Ecuador is a beautiful country, and with a well-established tourism industry - it's safe and comfortable for a same-sex couple to tour most of this nation's geographically diverse and culturally rich regions. In the capital city of Quito, you'll find a handful of gay-friendly cafes and nightclubs. Ecuador has been heavily influenced by North America and western Europe - many immigrants from Canada, France, and England live here and run businesses that cater heavily to visitors, and this in part accounts for the generally accepting attitudes towards lesbians and gays. The Mariscal district is a somewhat liberal and bohemian neighbourhood, with a definite gay presence (including a few bars and gay-friendly accommodations) - the significant numbers of college students contribute to the area's educated and tolerant vibe.

Lima and Cuzco, Peru - Although the gay scene in Peru's capital city, Lima, is quite limited, considering the population of nearly 8 million, the city does have a growing gay club scene, as well as some bathhouses. Most of the action is concentrated in the Miraflores neighborhood, an area that also draws more than its share of gay prostitutes, so be careful about whom you're flirting with.

While it lacks a significant gay nightlife scene, the culturally rich city of Cuzco is very comfortable for gay travellers. This is a pretty progressive and funky city by South American standards, and gay couples are fairly common, at least in touristy places. Famous for both unrivaled natural beauty and fascinating archeological ruins, Peru contains many of the continent's most spectacular attractions - be sure to set aside time to see Machu Picchu, as well as the luminous waters of Lake Titicaca.

Andrew Collins authored Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA, the Connecticut Handbook, and six regional gay guides for Fodor's. He can be reached at GayFodors@aol.com.

 

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