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 favourite colonial towns in South America.
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 splendour. 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.
Visit Arequipa on a tailormade tour of Peru – click here. You can also read more about Arequipa on our city guide by clicking here.
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 centre 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 civilisation 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 unmistakeable 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.
Northwest Argentina is a region brimming with dramatic mountain ranges striped in a rainbow of colours, vast deserts and even salt flats. But the city at the centre 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 colourful facades followed, with the 9 de Julio Plaza being the centre of it all. This is where you can find some of the best examples of Salta’s colonial architecture, including the unmistakeable 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 is Ecuador’s third largest city (after Guayaquil and Quito), with a UNESCO-preserved historic centre and enchanting ambience 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.
Explore colonial towns in South America on a tailormade tour. Handpick the hotels and activities you want, adjust the durations depending on how long you want to stay in each place, and have fun in the process! Surtrek is always at hand to help out. Call us on 1 866 978 7398 (Canada and USA) or 080 8189 0438 (UK) to talk to an expert, and Discover Your South America with Surtrek!