The Impressive Rise of Latin America’s 6 Largest Cities
Have you ever wondered which are the largest cities in Latin America and what’s behind their impressive rise?
Latin America is a region rich in history and culturally diverse. This diversity can be best appreciated in its largest and most iconic cities.
Keep reading to learn about the six largest cities in Latin America, their history, and present.
Discover what cities represent to society and civilizations and why it’s important to understand them if you want to understand their culture.
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What Do Cities Represent to Society and Civilization?
Cities play a fundamental role in the history of humankind. Some people even argue that “without cities, people would not have progressed beyond the Neolithic.”
According to National Geographic, the rise of large urban areas is one of the key components of a civilization, as these cities allowed people to take on different activities other than farming.
Why Is the Rise of a City Important to Understand?
In a sense, cities “remain the symbols and carriers of civilizations,” which is why I thought it important to take a deep look at the largest cities in Latin America.
Understanding why and how major Latin American cities rose will tell you much about this continent and its unique and extraordinary culture.
Top 6 Largest Cities in Latin America
This post isn’t about the fastest-growing cities in Latin America but the rise of its six largest cities. So let’s jump right in.
1. Sao Paulo, Brazil
Sao Paulo is the largest city in South America and Latin America. As of 2022, Sao Paulo’s metropolitan area has an estimated population of 22.4 million people, which is impressive considering that in 1950 it had “only” 5 million people.
Founded in 1554 by Jesuit missionaries, Sao Paulo was strategically located between the sea and the Tiete River, which made its lands fertile. As a result, it soon became the home base for the Portuguese explorers who would colonize the huge territory known today as Brazil.
During the 19th century’s boom in coffee production, Sao Paulo became an economic and political powerhouse. Then, in 1822, the son of the Portuguese king declared Brazil’s independence, and he chose to do it in Sao Paulo.
Although we could say that Sao Paulo is the most important Brazilian city from an economic perspective, it isn’t the capital of the country, as that honor falls in Brasilia.
2. Mexico City, Mexico
In 2022, Mexico City has an estimated population of 22 million people, which is double of what it had in 1976.
The history of its foundation is beautiful, and it even appears on the Mexican flag.
During the 14th century, the Mexicas or Aztecs were in search of their promised land. Their god Huitzilopochtli had told them they had to build their city where they found an eagle devouring a snake on top of a cactus.
After years of walking around, they finally found what they were looking for on a small island in the middle of a large lake. And that’s how the Aztecs founded Tenochtitlan in 1325 and why the Mexican flag has as a shield an eagle devouring a snake on top of a cactus.
In 1521, after a heroic defense, the glorious capital of the Aztecs fell at the hands of Hernán Cortés. The Spanish conquistador quickly started building a new city on top of the ruins of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City.
Mexico City has always been Mexico’s cultural, economic, political, and even geographical center. It’s the oldest, highest (7,350 feet), and largest city in North America and one of the major cities in Latin America in every regard.
Today, Mexico City is a vibrant metropolis that has hosted two soccer World Cups and the 1968 Olympic Games.
It annually organizes a Formula 1 Grand Prix, and its airport is one of the busiest in the world.
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3. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Next on the list comes the capital of Argentina: Buenos Aires. With a population of 15.3 million people, Buenos Aires is the third-largest Latin American city.
Founded first in 1536, Buenos Aires was destroyed by its own citizens in 1541.
However, Juan de Garay founded it for the second time in 1580, and since then, it has grown into one of the most important cities in South America.
During colonial times, the city grew in importance thanks to a booming business in cattle ranching and even resisted a couple of British invasions in 1806 and 1807.
Three years later, in 1810, the citizens of Buenos Aires started the May Revolution and expelled the Spanish viceroy from their territory, starting Argentina’s Independence War.
When Independence was finally achieved in 1816, Buenos Aires was made the capital of the newly independent country of Argentina.
Buenos Aires is a political and economical South American powerhouse. Home to the largest number of theaters in the world and cradle of tango music, many consider Buenos Aires as South America’s cultural heart.
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4. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Brazil’s most famous city is also its second most populated, with 13.6 million people living in its metropolitan area.
On January 1st, 1502, a Portuguese explorer discovered Guanabara Bay, and believing that it was a river, he called it Rio de Janeiro, which means “January River.”
Sixty-three years later, the Portuguese built a fortification in the area to defend themselves against French pirates.
In the 17th century, the Portuguese explorers found gold in nearby Minas Gerais, and Rio became the main port in the region, from where all that gold was shipped to Europe.
Soon, Rio de Janeiro became a colonial capital.
Later, when Napoleon invaded Portugal in 1808, the city became the first and only European capital to be located outside of Europe, as the Portuguese royal family moved there.
After Brazil’s independence in 1822, Rio was declared the capital of Brazil. It held this honor until 1960, when the government and all the federative powers were moved to the newly created city of Brasilia.
Rio de Janeiro is famous worldwide for its colorful carnival, stunning beaches, and passion for soccer. This spectacular city is also a big industrial, financial, and media center.
5. Bogota, Colombia
With 11.3 million people living in its metropolitan area, as of 2022, Bogota, Colombia, follows Rio on the list of most populated cities in Latin America.
Originally called Bacatá by the indigenous Muisca people, Bogota was founded in 1538 by the Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, who called it Santa Fe.
In colonial times it was the capital of the New Kingdom of Granada. Later, when Colombia achieved its independence in 1819, it was renamed Bogota by South American liberator Simon Bolivar.
To this day Colombians call it Santa Fe de Bogota.
Bogota has been named the “Athens of South America” due to its cultural and scientific institutions.
Additionally, since Colombia is widely considered the country where the best Spanish is spoken, Bogota is the place to visit to hear the purest form of Spanish in the world.
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6. Lima, Peru
Lima, Peru, is the last metropolis in the Top 6 major cities in Latin America. With a population of 11 million people in 2021, Lima is the sixth-largest Latin American city.
Founded as Ciudad de los Reyes or “City of Kings” by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1535, Lima was destined to become the jewel crown of the Spanish Empire.
The city became the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru due to its strategic location on the Pacific coastline. From its port, tons of silver and gold were sent to Spain.
When independence was finally achieved in 1824, it became the capital of the new South American nation of Peru.
In 1988, UNESCO declared Lima’s historic center a World Heritage Site. Additionally, it has become a renowned culinary destination due to its amazing diversity of extraordinary restaurants.
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Visit the Major Cities in Latin America and Practice Your Spanish
Brazilians don’t typically speak Spanish, but you can still learn a lot about their culture. On the other hand, in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Bogota, and Lima, you may be impressed by their rich history and unique cultural expressions while also practicing your Spanish and learning new and different accents.
Visit these six amazing cities to improve and diversify your Spanish!
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