World Facts

Largest Cities In South America

These are the most populous cities on the South American continent, ranked in terms of their respective metro area popul

As of 2013, South America, a continent with an area of 17.82 million square kilometers, had a population of 406.74 million people. Though South America comprises of 12 sovereign and two non-sovereign states, more than 50% of its population is concentrated within five of its countries. These are Brazil (201 million), Colombia (47 million), Argentina (41 million), Peru (31 million), and Venezuela (30 million). In observance of the above figures, 9 out of the 15 most populous cities in South America are located in Brazil alone. Among the remaining 6 cities, 2 are located in Colombia, and 1 each in Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, and Chile. The analysis below intends to decipher the reason why these cities are so heavily populated, and the factors that are responsible for sustaining, and growing, the large population sizes in these cities.

The Development of South America's Biggest Metropolises

Brazil is synonymous with the word “Amazon”, referring to some of the densest and most inaccessible rainforests in the world. Rainforests in Brazil cover nearly 60% of the land area of the country, leaving very little space for human habitation. Hence, population distribution in this country is highly uneven, with the majority of modern Brazilians residing within 300 kilometers of the coastline. An estimated 81.3% of Brazil’s population lives in urban areas, primarily concentrated along the coast, while a few major cities are inland. Many of these large cities were founded by the Colonial Portuguese, who developed the cities into thriving ports with flourishing international trade. Some of these cities also became state capitals within Brazil. The few inland cities developed as important agricultural and industrial centers, and thus also nursed large populations of their own.

Currently, Sao Paolo, the largest city in Brazil and in the entirety of South America as well as the 12th largest city in the world, has a population of 20.9 million people. The nearness of the city to the Atlantic Ocean (only 70 kilometers away), makes it an ideal location as an international business center. Sao Paolo has the largest economy by Gross Domestic Product in South America, and the 10th largest GDP of any city in the world. The lucrative economic potential of the city has turned it into a truly cosmopolitan one, with large Japanese, Arabian, and Italian diasporas. Like Sao Paolo, the nearness to the sea facilitated the rapid development of the city of Rio de Janeiro from an important Portuguese settlement in the 16th Century into a bustling modern metropolitan area of the current times. Rio, being the third most populous country in South America, has the second largest GDP in Brazil, and is one of the most visited cities in the Southern Hemisphere. The beaches, landmark monuments, world heritage sites, carnivals, festivities, and overall happenings of life of Rio is responsible for attracting millions of tourists and immigrants from other countries to visit or stay in this truly multicultural city. Several other Brazilian cities like Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, Brasilia (the federal capital city of Brazil), Recife, Fortaleza, Curitiba, and Campinas are also densely populated.

The Argentinian city of Buenos Aires is the second most populous city in the South American continent. Like Brazilians, Argentinians also prefer living in the urban areas and, as per UN estimates, more than 89% of Argentina’s population resides in urban areas, and one-third of the population dwells in and around Buenos Aires. The city, located in a strategic position on the western shore of the Rio de la Plata estuary, has easy access to the Atlantic Ocean. Of the 14.1 million people living in Buenos Aires, many are immigrants who have moved into the country in a massive immigration wave from the European and Middle East countries in search of a better life. The 4th, 5th, and 6th most populous cities of South America are all capital cities of their respective countries. Lima, the capital of Peru, Bogota, the capital of Colombia, and Santiago, the capital of Chile, have populations of 9.8 million, 9.8 million, and 7.2 million, respectively. All of these cities began as European colonial settlements and then developed into modern cities and bustling capitals of their respective countries. Being capital cities, they became the central points of activities, attracting millions of people to settle in these cities. Besides the above capital cities, Mendellin, the capital of the department of Antioquia in Colombo also, with a population of 3.7 million people, features 12th in the list of South America’s most populous cities.

The Positives and Negatives of Large Numbers

South America is more urbanized than most other regions of the developing world. The shifting of the population to urban areas has sped up the economic growth of the continent’s countries, and also reduced the cost of delivering basic services to the people as the populations are less dispersed. Today, the top 10 cities of the continent contribute nearly 30% to the continent's annual GDP. However, on the downside, many of the largest cities of South America face diseconomies of scale, and are struggling to overcome traffic problems, housing and water shortages, and other high population-related stresses. There is thus a need for South America’s political and business leaders to quickly act and implement reforms and upgrades that will enhance the developmental potential of South America’s most populous cities, ensuring rapid growth while minimizing the potential infrastructural hiccups and environmental damages.

Largest Cities In South America By Population

RankLargest Cities In South AmericaEstimated Metro Population
1Sao Paulo, Brazil20.9 million people
2Buenos Aires, Argentina14.1 million people
3Rio de Janeiro, Brazil12.1 million people
4Lima, Peru9.8 million people
5Bogota, Colombia9.8 million people
6Santiago, Chile7.2 million people
7Caracas, Venezeula5.3 million people
8Belo Horizonte, Brazil5.2 million people
9Porto Alegre, Brazil4.4 million people
10Brasilia, Brazil4.0 million people
11Recife, Brazil3.9 million people
12Medellin, Colombia3.7 million people
13Fortaleza, Brazil3.6 million people
14Curitiba, Brazil3.4 million people
15Campinas, Brazil2.6 million people

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