Rio de Janeiro may well be the most picturesquely located city in the world: encircled by mountains, ruptured by smooth, rounded outcrops and poured into a perfect bay – but it is more than just a pretty face. Rio is also the home of exhilarating nightlife, hypnotic musicality and a cult of the body beautiful that makes people-watching one of the most enjoyable rituals of city life. Unwind on Ipanema beach with a chilled coconut or a cocktail and you'll wonder how things could possibly get any better.
Once the capital of the ancient Inca Empire and still its tangible heart, Cusco is stuffed with the riches of many different eras. Here, baroque facades jostle for position with Inca buttresses and vibrant markets. Cusco's colonial churches are crammed full of gold and gory religious iconography, but it is really the Inca legacy that fascinates most. Ancient walls seem barely in need of preservation - such was the skill of their architects that they look certain to withstand many centuries more. And the culture that gave rise to them is much in evidence still, visible in the timeless traditions of locals, and in the surrounding Sacred Valley where the patchwork fields are dotted with terraced farmlands and ancient temples.
Havana doesn't disappoint: its heady mixture of unique cultural quirks and lilting Caribbean rhythm quickly catch the visitor off-guard, while the chevrolets, Soviet schoolbuses and the propaganda that replaces advertising on billboards and posters throughout the city compound the feeling that the aeroplane that brought you here must have been on some kind of time-travel setting. Dilapidated mansions crumble picturesquely in the gold-hued sunshine as the malecón peters out into the distance, and the sound of salsa bursts out from around every cobbled corner.
It's hard to capture what it is about Buenos Aires that leaves itself imprinted upon the visitor - this frenetic city which seemingly never sleeps is the type of place you plan to visit for a weekend but end up staying for a month. Part of its appeal is its spontaneity: catch a late-night concert, stop by the Teatro Colón for an opera, or turn up on match day and secure a ticket to an electrifyingly atmospheric football game - the city is your oyster. Meanwhile you'll absorb the passion of the tango dancers who command the pavement, and no doubt take some of it home with you. The colourful clapboard neighbourhood of La Boca, the intriguing flea markets and the epicurean delights of the city's steakhouses make up some of the many other pleasures of this elegant, indefinable metropolis.
Panama City is undeservedly overlooked as one of the region's great cities. Far from the nondescript capitals that characterise some other Central American countries, Panama's urban heart is a surprising treat - its casco viejo (old town) shares the evocative charm of Havana, while its modern areas buzz with lively bars and restaurants. Add to this the Panama Canal, not only an awe-inspiring feat of engineering but a visual delight with its enormous ships sailing across a rainforest horizon, and you have a unique and captivating mix.