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Museum-Hopping in Latin America and the Caribbean

Whatever winds and whims may have blown you south of the border, any traveler in the Caribbean or Latin America will recognize the value of sprinkling one’s itinerary with a liberal dose of cultural activities. After the requisite rounds of relaxing on the beach and hiking scenic trails, consider exploring some indoor options, too. Marvel at beautiful brush strokes in local galleries or wander the halls of a museum (bonus points if you take a tour in a language other than English). If you don’t know where to start and are tempted to head out for another afternoon of reading on the beach, check out some of our recommendations. Here are the highlights of the museum and gallery offerings that you’ll find in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Most tourists who visit Puerto Rico don’t make it off the beach, but those who find themselves in need of a culture fix might consider heading to Old San Juan, while the truly adventurous will tiptoe into San Juan’s rougher Santurce neighborhood for hip galleries. But it is the island’s second city, Ponce, that is home to Puerto Rico’s finest art museum, the Museo de Arte de Ponce. Containing an outstanding selection of European and American art, the museum’s collection is housed in a magnificent 1950s building designed by Edward Durell Stone. After a morning among the artwork, head back toward the center of town to hit up Café Café, home to cheap and delicious creole food and the best coffee in town.

Although the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda alone is hardly the main draw of these island paradises, if you find yourself here and are sick of the sand and sun, this museum does make for a wonderful cultural diversion. Located in St. John’s, the museum displays cultural and archaeological exhibits relating to past and present Antiguan life, which is a boring way of saying there are lots of pretty, old things here. But what do you do once your half hour here is up? Back to the beach, baby. Let’s Go hears great things about Deep Bay near Five Islands Village, just west of downtown St. John’s. The water’s pristine, the sand is fine, and there’s a great view of the ruins of Fort Barrington.

No visit to Mexico City is complete without a visit to the Museo Nacional de Antropología. You know that giant Aztec sun stone? That’s here. How about the terrifyingly colossal Coatlicue? Perhaps less familiar, but also here. You could spend days wandering this museum’s halls and sacrificing the living hearts of unsuspecting tourists to that Chac-Mool statue—but please, for the love of Tlaloc, don’t. Instead, escape to the green pastures of the surrounding Bosque de Chapultepec, Latin America’s largest urban park. Hit the park’s other cultural institutions—the Museo de Arte Moderno, Museo de Historia Nacional, and the Zoo—or go boating on the Lago Mayor.

South America also has its share of history. For example, everybody goes to Peru for the ancient stuff: Inca ruins, Moche gold, Nazca lines. Even in the Spanish colonial city of Lima there are remnants of the region’s pre-Columbian grandeur: the Huaca Pucllana ruins in the Miraflores neighborhood. But about 3.5mi. up Av. Arequipa in the Parque de la Exposicion is the Museo de Arte de Lima, which promotes and displays works from Lima’s burgeoning modern art scene. The building itself is a gem—its design is Neoclassical but incorporates iron columns made in Eiffel’s workshop. The collection is varied, and exhibitions are at times off-the-wall, so you’re bound to be happily surprised by whatever you encounter here. What next? Walk north on Paseo de la Republica and continue up the right side on C. Carabaya to the Plaza de Armas, the heart of the historic center. Marvel at the colonial architecture hiding behind what seems to be every corner, or just sit on the plaza and sip that bubble-gummy Inca Kola.

For a bit of Chilean cultural refinement, check out the Chilean National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago. One of the oldest in South America, this museum contains a mix of national and international art. If you’re more interested in performances and cultural events in the Santiago area, make a stop at El Centro de Extensión de la Universidad Catolica, a university-run cultural center that organizes exhibitions, recitals, and art house and documentary film series. For those seeking to learn more about Chile’s past, take the trip north to San Pedro de Atacama, the archaeological capital of the country and home to the Padre Le Paige Museum and its many mummies. 

In Buenos Aires, the larger museums are the National Museum of Fine Arts (MNBA), the Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires (MALBA), and the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art (MAMBA). But if you’ve had enough of the big acronyms, try exploring a few of Argentina’s smaller, more specialized museums. The Museo del Títere (Puppet Museum) in San Telmo, for example, displays traditional and contemporary puppets made of both conventional and less expected materials (rubber puppets, galore!).

For a taste of Uruguay’s more mainstream art, the National Museum of Visual Arts in Montevideo is your best bet. But if you’re looking to get a little bit weird, try El Espacio de Arte Contemporáneo, an abandoned prison where artwork is displayed within old jail cells. Meanwhile in Montevideo, a new museum by the name of Museo Figari houses the folk modernist works of Pedro Figari, a Uruguayan lawyer and politician. The Museo del Carnaval is another small museum in the city center that focuses on the traditional and contemporary customs of Uruguay’s Carnaval celebrations.

Not to be outdone, Brazil’s museums and galleries have gained fame for their eclectic architecture. While the Pinacoteca do Estado in São Paulo intrigues visitors with its glass mazes and open spaces, the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum near Rio de Janeiro is in a league of its own. Resembling something akin to a spaceship, the museum is designed to offer visitors a sensational view of the Guanabara Bay and Sugarloaf Mountain.

Though the biggest draws to the Latin America and the Caribbean are the promises of a tan and the tickle of a sea breeze, take a break from your beach bumming to check out must-see museums throughout the lands; not only will you be sneaking a peek at Latin American history, but you will be witness to Latin American history in the making.