Latin America’s Best Colonial Cities

written by Matt McMillan

I’ve just returned from a holiday in Spain and despite spending most of the time visiting my wife’s family I did get the chance to further explore this amazing country. On this trip I managed to make it to Andalucia, a region which I found reminded me of and probably inspired many of the beautiful Spanish Colonial Cities in Latin America. I’ve always loved visiting any colonial city in Latin America and in my opinion many of these rival the best of Spain, especially with their dramatic locations.

One afternoon, over a few tapas and a cerveca or two, I came up with my top 5 must visit colonial towns in Latin America. These are as follows;

#1: Oaxaca, Mexico
This city in south-eastern Mexico is an absolutely magical place to visit with its mixture of Spanish colonial treasures, nearby ruins and its distinctive Indian character. Oaxaca’s historic centre is large and well-preserved with many spectacular churches, ornate buildings and charming plazas and the town is also renowned for its food with some of Mexico’s most traditional dishes, like mole sauces, hailing from here. Oaxaca is also the home of Mezcal and is the perfect place to try Mexico’s most traditional drink.

Added to this, the impressive Zapotecan ruins of Monte Alban are located on a mountain above the city and every year Oaxaca is the most popular place for Mexicans to celebrate the colourful ‘day of the dead’ festivities.

#2: Trinidad, Cuba
Easily my favourite town in Cuba, Trinidad offers a window into the past with its well preserved colonial architecture, large plazas and cobblestone streets with horse drawn carts. Trinidad’s fantastic atmosphere and picture-perfect location, between mountains and nearby Caribbean beaches make this the perfect destination to experience the best that Cuba has to offer.

Antigua (5)#3: Antigua Guatemala
Antigua Guatemala is by far the best-preserved Spanish colonial city in Central America, and is a popular stop for travellers, many who choose to study Spanish here. It’s surrounded by several active volcanoes and is close by to other must see destinations like Chichicastenango and Lake Atitlan.

#4: Cartagena, Colombia.
This walled city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia was one of the first destinations I visited in Latin America and is still one of my favourites. The plazas, narrow lanes and architecture you would expect in a colonial town are ever-present and are complemented by Caribbean flair with the pastel-coloured houses which line its streets. Cartagena has spectacular beaches and islands nearby and is a must see destination in any trip to Colombia.

#5: Arequipa, Peru
Often only visited as a mid-way stop between Lima, Nazca and Lake Titicaca, Arequipa is a worthy addition to any Peru itinerary. Arequipa is filled with colonial architecture with the highlight being the beautiful 16th century Santa Catalina Convent and is surrounded by several 6000m high volcanos which tower over the city.

Other memorable mentions;

Colonia (1)Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay – located only a short ferry ride across the Río de la Plata from Buenos Aires, Colonia makes for a very nice day trip or overnight visit. Cobble stone streets, classic American cars along with great bars and restaurants make this a great place to escape the hustle bustle of Buenos Aires or Montevideo.

Campeche, Mexico – located on the Gulf of Mexico this is a very colourful well preserved city with an interesting pirate history.

Cusco, Peru – a beautiful city with an interesting mix of well-preserved colonial and Incan architecture. Cusco is the jumping off point to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu and is worth spending several days to visit, explore and enjoy the great nightlife.

Havana, Cuba – Wars and revolution have admittedly damaged some of the heritage of Havana however great efforts are currently being made to restore it to its former grandeur. Either way a visit to Havana is a treat with its enchanting history, great atmosphere and streets filled with classic American cars.

Sucre, Bolivia – The picturesque white city of Sucre would have to be Bolivia’s most pleasant town and is a great stopover between La Paz and Uyuni.

Potosi (3)Potosi, Bolivia – One of the highest cities in the world Potosi is jam packed full of colonial marvels and was once the wealthiest city in the Americas due to the silver extracted from Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) which overlooks the city. These days the mines are in almost total disrepair however minerals are still being extracted by desperate miners. Some brave (stupid?) tourists like myself have risked their lives on a visit to the mines which does provide an interesting insight into the poverty of this country. Potosi is best combined with Sucre as a stopover between La Paz and Uyuni.