Capital Capitals: South America

Map of South America

Map of South America

If trivia geeks like me had utility belts like Batman’s, world capitals would have an accessible place on the belt and could do some serious damage against trivia villains. Knowledge of world capitals is important trivia fodder for anyone who loves almost pointless, obscure facts. While I can rattle off US state capitals pretty easily (apparently my 5th grade geography lessons stuck), I have trouble remember even a significant portion of world capitals (my high school geography classes didn’t stick). Therefore, I’ll go through the continents and their countries and point out some interesting facts for each capital, hopefully learning a little bit in the process. As dated British gents might say informally, these shall be some capital descriptions of capitals, good sirs!

ArgentinaBuenos Aires – This capital city is located on the eastern shores of South America. Argentina is divided into provinces, but Buenos Aires is not part of a province (even though there is a province of the same name). The name literally means “fair winds”, as many explorers claimed were abundant near the city, and it is now referred to as the “Paris of South America”, teeming with European culture like opera, theater, and other arts.

Bolivia – La Paz and Sucre – Bolivia has two capital cities…sort of. When Bolivia gained its independence, one of its largest industries was tin and silver mining. Lots of silver mine owners lived in Sucre while the tin miners lived in La Paz. The mining industries were each supported by different political parties, so when the liberal party overthrew the conservative party, they attempted to move the seat of government to La Paz (since they supported the tin miners). The Bolivian constitution says that Sucre is the true capital of Bolivia, but the seat of the executive and legislative branches still reside in La Paz (while the judicial branch is in Sucre). La Paz is often referred to as the administrative or de facto capital and would be the highest capital in the world, but technically, Sucre is more often considered the correct capital.

Brazil – Brasília – Brasília was built with the intention of becoming the capital city. Rio de Janeiro had been the capital until 1960, but Brazilians wanted the capital to be more geographically central. The capital features two “Palácios”, or palaces, for the president (his workplace and place of living). Seven of the 2014 World Cup games were played here.

Chile – Santiago – Santiago, strangely enough, is named after the biblical figure James, one of the twelve apostles (Sant Iago = Saint Iacob = Saint Jacob = Saint James). Conquistadors founded the city in 1541 but were met with resistance from the Inca tribes, resulting in a three-year long war. The air in Santiago is the most polluted in Chile.

Columbia – Bogotá– Bogotá is one of the largest cities (by land area) in Latin America. If Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America, Bogotá is the “Athens of South America”, which it is sometimes referred to as due to its large number of universities and libraries. Bogotá used to be known for its high crime rates, but one former mayor deterred crime by implementing unorthodox policies and through his eccentric behavior. For example, he dressed up as a superhero (Supercitizen) while speaking about doing the right thing. He once hired mimes to make fun of traffic violators in an attempt to use shame as punishment rather than financial incentives. His methods were very successful; during his tenure, for example, the homicide rate fall by 70%.

Ecuador – Quito – Quito is the oldest capital city in South America (founded as the capital in 1534) and the highest (9350 feet above sea level). It is the highest official capital in the world (since La Paz is not the official capital of Bolivia).  The capital city is also the only capital in the world that is directly menaced by an active volcano, which last saw puffs of smoke and ash eject in 1999. Quito is also the closest capital to the equator, which is appropriate since it is in Ecuador.

Falkland Islands – Stanley – The Falkland Islands compose an archipelago, which is just a fancy geological term for a large group of islands. It is situated near the southern tip and eastern coast of South America. While it is a self-sufficient country, natives of the Falkland Islands are officially British citizens. The total population of its capital, Stanley, is only 2115 (I think my high school had a larger population), and this makes up over 75% of the islands’ population. Stanley is named a former prime minister of the United Kingdom, but many residents simply call it “Town”. Stanley’s monuments are modest; the city boasts a whalebone arch and a totem pole as some of its main attractions.

French Guiana – Cayenne – The French Guiana is described as an overseas region and department of France located in South America. The region was originally considered too hot and poor by early Spanish explorers but eventually, a French settlement, which was soon destroyed by the Portugeuese was founded. Then, the French returned and founded the capital city Cayenne. Cayenne has an annual carnival, starting on the first Sunday after New Year’s Day. The festivities continue every weekend with parades and costume balls until Mardi Gras. During these costumed dances, the women must ask the men to dance, who cannot refuse.

Guyana – Georgetown – Originally the capital of Guyana was Longchamps (a French capital), but it was relocated to Georgetown in honor of King George III. Street names and locations are most commonly named after English, Dutch, and French names, reflecting the early European settlers who once resided in the region. Guyana is the only English-speaking country in continental South America.

Paraguay – Asunción – Asunción is called the Mother of Cities because it is one of the oldest cities in South America and the longest continually inhabited areas in the Rio de la Plata Basin. Cities like Buenos Aires were founded after settlers in Asunción left. The primary language is Spanish, but there are plenty of Guarani speakers, which is an indigenous language of the Americas.

Peru – Lima – Lima was made the capital of Peru after the Peruvian War of Independence. It is home to the National University of San Marcos, which was founded in 1551 and is the oldest continuously functioning university in the Americas. It also is home to South America’s oldest newspaper and to the departure location of the second highest train junction in the world (15843 feet above sea level). Caral, a settlement about 200 km north of Lima, is currently known as the most ancient city in America, with remains found that are more than 4000 years old.

Suriname – Paramaribo – The city is named after the tribe that lives at the mouth of the Suriname River and comes from the Tupi-Guarani name “para” meaning “large river” and “maribo” meaning “inhabitants”. The Dutch founded the city as a trading post, which continually switched hands between the Dutch and the English until the independence of Suriname from Dutch rule in 1975. Paramaribo has a large Jewish community and is home to one of the oldest synagogues in America.

Uruguay – Montevideo – Montevideo is the southern-most capital in the Americas, barely besting Buenos Aires. It is consistently ranked as the top Latin American city for its quality of life. There is dispute over the etymology of Montevideo, which could be from Monte Vidi from an explorer who wrote that this was the name they gave to the hill across the bay; from Monte Vide Eu, which means “I saw a mount” in poorly-pronounced Portuguese; from Monte-VI-D-E-O, which is an abbreviation of Monte VI De Este A Oeste or the 6th observable hill on the coast; or Monte Ovidio from Saint Ovidius of Portugal.

Venezuela – Caracas – Caracas is the northern-most capital in South America. In its early days, while other coastal cities were being raided and sacked by pirates, Caracas was naturally protected by expansive mountains, which allowed it to grow and later be named as the capital. To end on a really negative note, Venezuela and Caracas are often cited as having the highest murder rates per capita, many of which go unsolved. I guess it’s a dull silver lining to say that many of these purported facts were actually due to the government’s incompetence; it was misreporting crime and population data. As it turns out, Caracas is only the third most dangerous city in the world. As I said, it’s quite a dull silver lining.


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