Latin America has given the world some of the biggest names in contemporary art, from Fernando Botero to Frida Kahlo. Yet it can be a more difficult region than most for visitors keen on immersing themselves in the local scene. Major hubs like Mexico City, Buenos Aires or São Paulo are certainly great places to start. But if you want a Latin American destination that truly lives and breathes art, these seven lesser-known cities merit a closer look.

A street artist crouches on scaffolding painting a colourful mural on a building wall in Valparaiso, Chile, while a child watches.
A mural artist at work in Valparaiso © Mark Johanson / Lonely Planet

Valparaíso, Chile 

The salt-worn seaport of Valparaíso, 115km west of the Chilean capital Santiago, is a magnet for Latin American artists with prismatic murals that blanket entire city blocks. The works are particularly vibrant as you ride funiculars up into the city’s 42 hills, which form an amphitheater around the Pacific Ocean. 

The classic cerros (hills) for eye-popping graffiti are Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción, though if you venture further afield you’ll find more works on cerro Cárcel (home to an old jailhouse that’s now a lively cultural center) and Cerro Mariposa (where the colorful container hotel Winebox Valparaiso hosts an annual festival interlacing two worlds that don’t often meet: wine and graffiti). Over on Cerro Florida, you’ll find even more art at the open-air gallery Museo a Cielo Abierto, as well as at La Sebastiana, the eccentric home of late Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda.

Two people dressed as giants with enormous paper mache heads walk down a street lined with colourful period buildings in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Parade giants in San Miguel de Allende © Mark Johanson / Lonely Planet

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

In-the-know New Yorkers and Angelenos bypass the beaches of the Riviera Maya for this colonial-era town in Mexico’s central highlands. Why? It may have something to do with the seemingly endless supply of high-end galleries that line San Miguel’s cobblestoned streets.

This cosmopolitan city, popular with American expats, is brimming with options for visiting aesthetes, too, from the handicraft-packed Galería Atotonilco to Escuela de Bellas Artes, a fine-arts school housed in a former monastery. By day, peruse humming art markets like the souvenir-friendly Mercado de Artesanías or the more upscale Fábrica La Aurora (located in an old textile factory). By night, drink and dine at art-filled establishments like the vegan taquería Don Taco Tequila or Euro-cool Berlin.

Three boys playing football next to La Mano en la Arena, a sculpture of a huge hand protruding from a sandy beach at Punta del Este, Uruguay.
The La Mano en la Arena sculpture at Punta del Este, Uruguay © Ksenia Ragozina / Shutterstock

Punta del Este, Uruguay

It’s not hard to see why Punta del Este has earned a reputation as the “Saint-Tropez of South America.” Not only is this beach resort along Uruguay’s serene Atlantic coast among the ritziest in the region, its backstreets hold a clutch of slick, moneyed art galleries for post-sand perusing.

January is the best time to visit for the annual art fair Este Arte, a trendsetting event that features a tailored selection of contemporary works from Latin America and beyond. Of course, there are plenty of reasons to visit throughout the year, too.

Instagrammers snap themselves at La Mano en la Arena, a jumbo-sized hand sculpture protruding from the sands of Playa Brava. Serious art enthusiasts should head to Museo Ralli for the superb collection of contemporary Latin American art or Galería Sur to view the constructivist paintings of the late Uruguayan master Joaquín Torres García. Take a quick day trip to the nearby wine region of Garzón to pair glasses of Tannat and Albariño with world-class photography at Photology.

Colourful wooden Mayan masks hanging in a market in Antigua, Guatemala.
Wooden Mayan masks in Antigua, Guatemala © Fotos593 / Shutterstock

Antigua, Guatemala

Hiding behind the colonial facades of the charming Guatemalan town Antigua are more than a dozen galleries offering affordable, high-quality art. Held in highest regard is La Antigua, which displays the works of more than 70 Latin American artists in an atmospheric colonial mansion. Nim Po’t and Centro de Arte Popular are two terrific shops nearby where you can purchase ceremonial masks, wood carvings and folk art.

Learn how to weave traditional Mayan designs at Museo Casa del Tejido, located on the outskirts of town. Then, plant yourself at an eclectic restaurant like Fridas (named after the eponymous Mexican artist) or Sobremesa (where fine art meets fine dining) to keep the creative vibes flowing.

One of the works at huge open-air art museum Instituto de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim; it consists of different-coloured squares of concrete and glass, with tropical trees and plants behind it.
One of the works at huge open-air art museum Instituto de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim © Paulo Nabas / Shutterstock

Brumadinho, Brazil

Who would have guessed that the small town of Brumadinho, near Brazil’s third-largest city of Belo Horizonte, is home to the world’s largest open-air contemporary art museum? 

Launched by the former mining magnate Bernardo Paz in 2006, Instituto de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim sprawls across 500,000 acres. Its staggering collection of monumental works – including The Magic Square from Brazilian visual artist Hélio Oiticica, Narcissus Garden by Japan’s Yayoi Kusama, and Beam Drop from American Chris Burden – are housed in verdant botanical gardens with more than 4000 species of plants. 

There are also 23 physical gallery spaces and 10 restaurants onsite, making it something of a cultural Disney World set in the Brazilian wilds. Plan on at least one full day for total immersion!

One of the imposing churches in Tlaquepaque, Mexico, with white domes, a stone facade and palm trees next to it.
One of the imposing churches in Tlaquepaque, Mexico © Mark Johanson / Lonely Planet

Tlaquepaque, Mexico

Many of the things we know and love about Mexico, including tequila and mariachi bands, have their roots in the state of Jalisco. Head just outside its regional capital Guadalajara and you’ll find the handsome satellite village of Tlaquepaque, where mariachi concerts at El Parián and tequila tastings at La Cata await.

Not only that, this folksy enclave is known across Latin America for its ceramics, wood-carvings and blown-glass art. Chic boutiques, hip galleries and tasteful homeware stores all line pedestrianized Calle Independencia, while the spires of imposing churches pierce the sky above. 

Must-visit museums include the pottery-focused Museo Regional de la Cerámica and Museo Pantaleón Panduro, as well as Galería Sergio Bustamante, which is dedicated to the namesake surrealist sculptor.

The interior of the El Fogón de Los Arrieros cultural center in Resistencia, Argentina; seats face a projector with a piano underneath it, while the walls are hung with all kinds of traditional and contemporary art.
El Fogón de Los Arrieros is a Resistencia cultural center worth checking out © Mark Johanson / Lonely Planet

Resistencia, Argentina

Right on the edge of the Gran Chaco, South America’s second-largest forest after the Amazon, is the surprisingly artsy provincial capital of Resistencia. Known as “the city of sculptures,” there are more than 650 pieces of public art scattered across its streets. That’s thanks to the Bienal de Escultura, a biennial festival that brings 10 renowned Argentinian and international sculptors to town every other July.

The festival has its headquarters at MusEUM, where you can check out recent works and pick up a map for DIY walking tours of the city. 

Resistencia has a bohemian vibe that’s in sharp contrast to the surrounding fields, where cattle ranchers and soybean farmers reign supreme. Get into the spirit at El Fogón de Los Arrieros, a cultural center with walls lined in outsider art and evenings filled with tango.

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