5 charming colonial South America towns

South America is almost bursting at the seams when it comes to quaint colonial towns, promising a window into the past through their timeless cobblestone streets, ornate churches, and tree-lined plazas. This distinctive – and totally picturesque – architectural style is owed to the colonial era, when European conquistadors from Spain and Portugal constructed towns and cities drawing influences from their home countries. Many of these beautiful colonial towns in South America have been wonderfully preserved and even protected with UNESCO World Heritage status, offering both a snapshot into the region’s heritage and a sense of magic in the air. Across Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Ecuador, read on to find out more about some of our favorite colonial towns in South America.

Arequipa, Peru

Peru is a country dripping in colonial towns, with Cusco flying the flag for the best-looking of them all. But Arequipa, Peru’s second city after Lima, quietly showcases its own architectural gems to those who venture beyond Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Known as the ‘White City’ for its silvery walls splayed with volcanic sillar, Arequipa is picturesque indeed, backed by the looming El Misti volcano and peppered with colonnaded streets, grand townhouses and churches, above all the sublime Cathedral that rises up into the skyline with regal splendor. But that’s not all – Arequipa is also home to the Santa Catalina Convent, dating back to the 16th century and a working nunnery to this day. Meander along the convent’s cloisters, through atmospheric courtyards and past walls of terracotta red and cornflower blue, soaking up the sacrosanct spirit of this special place.

Ouro Preto, Brazil

Brazil flaunts its fair share of pretty colonial towns in South America, but Ouro Preto stands out as being very special indeed. Meaning “Black Gold” in Portuguese, Ouro Preto was a major center for gold mining in the 18th century, and with this came lashings of wealth. While a lot of this gold was sent across the Atlantic Ocean to Portugal, much was poured into the construction of Ouro Preto’s Baroque architecture, including the awe-inspiring Matriz Nossa Senhora do Pilar which is inlaid with a mind-boggling 400kg of gold. This Cathedral Basilica is one of many impressive Baroque gems in the city, alongside cobbled lanes, plazas, fountains and bridges, all tucked into the rolling hills of Minas Gerais – a charming sight indeed. It’s no wonder why then, in 1980, Ouro Preto became the first site of UNESCO World Heritage status in Brazil. During a visit to Ouro Preto, aside from simply strolling along its atmospheric streets, you can learn more about the great artist Aleijadinho at his namesake museum, who was responsible for much of the town’s astonishing religious art, including that of the São Francisco de Assis Church.

Villa de Leyva, Colombia

It’s as though time has stood still in the Colombian town of Villa de Leyva, a delightful ensemble of terracotta roofs, whitewashed walls and cobbled lanes that remain virtually unchanged since the 16th century. The town was named after Andrés Díaz Venero de Leyva, the first president of the New Kingdom of Granada, upon its founding in 1572, although it had been inhabited by the Muisca civilization long before the arrival of the Spanish. During colonial rule, leaders liked to escape the bustle of the capital, Bogota, for the peace and quiet of Villa de Leyva, with its mild climate and beautiful mountain scenery. Visitors today are just as likely to be enraptured by Villa de Leyva, with its unmistakable Plaza Mayor, one of Colombia’s largest at 14,000sq m; churches, such as the Iglesia Parroquial and Convento del Santo Ecce Homo; and artisan cafes and boutiques – a modern addition to this chocolate box colonial town.

Salta, Argentina

Northwest Argentina is a region brimming with dramatic mountain ranges striped in a rainbow of colors, vast deserts and even salt flats. But the city at the center of it all, Salta, is not to be overlooked on a journey to Northwest Argentina. Salta was founded in 1582 and subsequently, the squares, churches and colorful facades followed, with the 9 de Julio Plaza being the center of it all. This is where you can find some of the best examples of Salta’s colonial architecture, including the unmistakable Cathedral Basilica with its pastel pink façade, dating to the mid-19th century after the first Cathedral was destroyed in an earthquake. You can also explore the Cabildo, a government building-cum-museum with a tranquil interior courtyard, and the San Francisco Church and Palace, all fascinating glimpses into Salta’s heritage.

Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca is Ecuador’s third largest city (after Guayaquil and Quito), with a UNESCO-preserved historic center and enchanting ambiance to match. There’s a host of historical buildings to explore in Cuenca, but perhaps the most striking of all are the town’s churches. As old as the city itself, the Iglesia del Sagrario (or ‘Old Cathedral’ as it is dubbed) is a brilliant white Baroque gem from 1557 with ornate chapels, religious art and a resplendent organ. Meanwhile, the ‘New Cathedral’ (Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion) is a standout architectural marvel with its large blue domes made from Czech tiles, visible from miles away. Aside from its religious monuments, Cuenca is a delight to discover by dipping into cafes and museums, many of which are encased in beautiful colonial buildings, and simply watching the world go by.

Alfonso Tandazo is President and CEO at Surtrek Tour Operator. Surtrek Tour Operator is a well-established firm, specializing in custom-designed luxury tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and throughout the rest of South America.

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Comments (5)

  1. Zoe says:

    There are times when I think that it is only A Luxury Travel Blog that gets me through the week! This morning I’ve sneaked a quick look before I heard for the train. Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Brazil. I’ll try and remember those great pictures to get me through the commute!

  2. Karen says:

    Snap! I suspect that it is not just Zoe who starts her day with a fix of ALTB. I sneak a quick 10 minutes with my coffee and toast too. My point is that to read about another world, exotic Latin America, is far better than than reading about Brexit. It makes me realise that there is a whole world out there and whatever happens at work is really trivial. Compared to the glories of the Aztec and Inca Empires, Office Politics don’t really matter.

  3. Jeff G says:

    There was a time when Latin America was all “manana” and one donkey towns. But, on the whole, as this piece demonstrates, it’s a real class act now. Most of the countries have arrived in the 21st Century with accommodation and food to match.

  4. Jack says:

    Thirty-one isn’t too old for a Gap Year is it? I’m stuck in a rut and Latin America is calling. This post would make a great guide for my travels. Maybe I’m having an early mid-life crisis?

  5. Mike Hinshaw says:

    Great article. I love South America, especially Cuenca Ecuador. We are thinking of retiring there very soon if all goes well. My apologies but it was my understanding that the “Old Cathedral” was the cathedral across Parque Calderon. This is the “New Cathedral” I thought? Thanks.

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