Whether you’re an architecture buff or just enjoy getting lost in a maze of pretty cobbled streets, there are a multitude of colonial cities in Latin America that warrant your time and attention. Some of the best colonial cities are easily reached by public transport, so there’s no reason not to include them in your itinerary. They usually also provide an opportunity for relaxation in a cooler climate than by the coast.
BEST COLONIAL CITIES IN LATIN AMERICA
My picks of the best colonial cities in Latin America are summarised below from north to south. The great appeal is not only their appearance, but the fact that many of them provide the perfect base from which to explore surrounding attractions.
Larger, more modern urban sprawls drain both your money and your energy, but a stop off in a colonial town or city provides a chance to relax, recharge, take in the sights on foot and enjoy observing a more traditional slower pace of life.
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO
Often shortened to just San Cristobal, this pleasant town in the central highlands of Chiapas can easily be explored on foot in one day.
Don’t miss the two hillside churches, which are worth a look inside, but which also provide great views of the rooftops below. Day tours include boat trips in Sumidero Canyon and a fascinating church in San Juan Chamula where chicken sacrifices are a regular occurrence. There are also some fantastic waterfalls along the road from San Cristobal to Palenque.
Antigua Guatemala would be beautiful even without the volcanoes that surround it. Because the city is so compact, and the streets run parallel to each other, it’s easy to explore.
Don’t miss the Catedral de Santiago, Iglesia de La Merced, Convento de la Recoleccion and the famous arch of Santa Catalina. Some of these charge a small fee, but it’s worth it. If you walk up to Cerro de la Cruz, consider taking a guide, as muggings have been reported in this area.
The is one of the best colonial cities for adventure sports. Further afield, a steep scramble up the Pacaya volcano is rewarded with panoramic vistas of the region and, on occasion, a sighting of lava. You can also toast marshmallows on the hot rocks!
Central Granada is a picture-perfect city filled with magnificent buildings. The yellow and red cathedral can be seen towering above the rooftops and makes for the quintessential postcard shot. Climb to the top of the bell tower in the nearby Iglesia de la Merced for even better views.
Other points of interest include a beautiful cemetery west of the city, a disused railway station to the north, and the shores of Lake Nicaragua to the east, from which you can hire a boat to take you out to the 365 isletas that were formed when a nearby volcano blew its cone.
The surrounding volcanos are Granada’s other main attraction. A trip to Masaya includes a walk through bat caves and probably the closest view of a bubbling lava-filled crater you’ll ever experience – if there aren’t too many sulphurous gases in the way. Mombacho has an organic coffee farm, a butterfly garden, walking trails, two canopy tours and hot springs at its base. The difficulty here is not deciding what to do, but figuring out how to fit it all in.
If we’re splitting hairs, Barichara is far too small to receive ‘city’ status, but it really is a must see for any visitor to Colombia. Most people come so they can hike the trail from Barichara to Guane – equally gorgeous cobbled towns with intricately painted doors and shutters, and a few miles of rolling hills between them.
An added bonus is that the closest traveller hub is also the country’s adventure capital – San Gil, from which you can book trips rappelling down Juan Curi waterfall or paragliding in San Gil‘s mountains.
Quito is unique on this list in that, not only is it a beautiful example of colonial architecture – it’s also a capital city. As a result, it’s one of only two colonial cities on this list you can fly directly to and from internationally. You can read more about it in my post ‘Is Quito safe?‘
Two of the most memorable city centre experiences are climbing the spires of La Basilica Church and taking the teleferico – the highest in South America – to the top of Cruz Loma.
Also worth a day trip is the Mitad del Mundo museum, where you can experiment with the effects of being either side of the equator.
One of the best colonial cities in Peru has to be Cusco – and who can blame tourists for wanting to hike into the Andes for a chance to explore the Incan city of Machu Picchu? But Cusco’s neighbouring colonial city – Arequipa – has an incredible amount to offer too.
One of the top sights in town is Santa Catalina Monastery, which has housed nuns as young as 12 since the 16th century.
Anyone stopping in Arequipa should also arrange a few days’ return trip to Colca Canyon, where hikes to an oasis at its bed are popular. Condor Cross is nearby too, and one of the best places in South America from which to see the Andean Condor rule the skies.
Potosi’s claim to fame is that it’s one of the highest cities in the world, at 4090 m above sea level. This means you’re likely to have a fuzzy head and shortness of breath as you wander the streets. Narrow passages and crumbling balconies are a common sight.
Casa Nacional de la Moneda, the convents of San Francisco and Santa Teresa, and Compañia de Jesus are the main architectural attractions in town, but there’s a darker reason most people come to Potosi, and that’s to visit the ‘man-eating’ Potosi mines.
Since the 1500s, millions of men have lost their lives mining for silver in the surrounding mountains – some due to accidents; others due to pulmonary diseases. Conditions haven’t improved much, but today, you can take a tour (at your own risk) and part of your money goes to supporting the workers. Claustrophobia, the effects of altitude, rickety ladders and unstable mine shafts combine to make this an unpleasant experience at best, but the optimism of the workers is both humbling and inspiring.
Paraty is a town on the coast of Brazil about 240 km south of Rio. It’s an oasis of calm, with a couple of sandy beaches and a mix of cheap local markets and quirky boutique stores. Boat trips are extremely popular. You can also hire a bike, cycle through the mountainous tropical forest behind the beach and visit one of many nearby waterfalls and plunge pools.
The four beautiful baroque churches are definitely worth a look, as are the two colonial forts. The most unique feature of Paraty is the fact that its cobbled streets flood during high tide when there’s a full moon, forcing pedestrians to balance on the narrow pavements or paddle through town.
If you’re hungry, try a ‘por kilo’ restaurant, where you pay depending on the weight of your plate – a great opportunity to sample a huge variety of fresh sea food. There is also frequently live entertainment and dancing in the main square.
While colonial towns and cities don’t immediately spring to mind as the ideal stop off points for adventurous travellers, these destinations have made the ‘best colonial cities in Latin America’ list because of their proximity to other attractions, in addition to their charm. Travellers seeking excitement on their journey through Latin America shouldn’t be too quick to write off these seemingly uneventful places as, often, there’s a hugely memorable experience lurking just around the cobbled street corner.