The 5 most beautiful colonial cities

| Johan van Rijswijck

From Latin America

When I start talking enthusiastically about Central and South America, at a certain point they always ask me which country is my favourite. "Difficult question!" I alway answer. I really can't answer that question. There is no such thing as a favourite country for me, but it is the places, cities, nature reserves, people and roads that attract me. Over and over again I am invited to return or to rediscover.

The most beautiful colonial city?

Are you asking me about the most beautiful colonial city? Even then, I don't have an answer ready. After 5 minutes of thinking, there is already a list of at least 20 cities on my sheet. And these don't even cover the load. However, I made a choice and wrote down a list of my 5 personal, but less known, favourites.

My favourite places are those where you already feel like going back in time when you arrive. The romance of the old plastered walls and the cobbled streets. Where you stay in one of the characteristic hotels, located in the old centre. Where you can enjoy an excellent meal, a good cup of coffee or a fresh white wine on a terrace just a stone's throw from the central square. A place where you can immerse yourself for a few days in the romance of days gone by.

1. Antigua, Guatemala

This is where I happened to end up 15 years ago on my first trip through Latin America. Actually, I had the idea to study Spanish in another place, but somehow, I couldn't get away from here. Lika a hidden gem, Antigua lies in a green valley amidst the volcanoes Agua, Fuego and Acatenango. The city was founded in 1543 by the Spanish conquistadores and served well into the 18th century as the capital of Guatemala. After a number of violent earthquakes, which destroyed large parts of the city, it was decided to move the capital to the place of present-day Guatemala City, causing Antigua to lose its importance. Meanwhile, the colonial heart has been completely restored to its former glory. In the colourful colonial buildings, you will find cozy bars, excellent restaurants and tasteful boutique hotels. When I arrive in Antigua, I first pick up a freshly baked banana bread from the bakery of Doña Luisa Xicotencatl and eat it in the central park, with the twittering of birds and the cheerful sound of children playing in the background. There are many nice small-scale hotels in this city, but if I have to choose one, it is Posada del Angel, two blocks from the centre. If you are visiting Antigua, then you should definitely take a look at the colourful market.

2. Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

The name alone enchants me, but it doesn't stop there. Cartagena is a vibrant melting pot on the Caribbean Sea. Although there are also several good hotels in the new part, the beautiful colonial heart with its colourful colonial buildings is of course the place to stay. In the narrow streets and picturesque squares in the old centre, an ever-cheerful Caribbean atmosphere dominates. Behind the facade of thick ochre yellow, hell blue or earth red walls are stylish boutique hotels, which are considered an oasis of tranquillity. Here you can leave the busy crowds of the centre far behind you. There's no better place to see the sun set at nightfall, while the sun's rays set the colonial heart on fire. Read the book Love in Times of Cholera by Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, played in the city streets. I prefer to stay in Casa San Agustin or hotel Santa Clara. And when visiting the city, I always take a look in the hip district of Getsemani, which is situated against the old centre. A place with a cozy bustle and nice bars, where the tapas bar Demente is an absolute must.

3. Paraty, Brazil

A Hidden Gem, idyllically located in Brazil on the Costa Verde, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The town was founded by Portuguese settlers at the end of the 16th century and flourished at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries as a port from which the mined gold in the state of Minas Gerais was shipped to Europe. After Rio de Janeiro took over this function as a port, Paraty was forgotten, which turned out to be a blessing for the beautiful old town centre. The pace of progress and development passed this place by, so the beautiful old buildings were spared. Rio must have looked like this at the end of the 17th century. In the characteristic white plastered buildings with bright light blue, ochre yellow, vermilion or emerald green doors, you will find tastefully decorated hotels and restaurants with beautiful courtyards. In the centre you will also find nice shops and hip art galleries. It is highly recommended to go out with a beautiful wooden sailing yacht during the day. From the water Paraty, with its white buildings that contrast sharply with the dark green Mata Atlantica rainforest overgrown hills, offers its most beautiful view. In the bay in front of the town you will find a number of densely vegetated uninhabited islands and a little further away is the green fjord Saco de Mamanga. An idyllic setting, with small, hidden coves and pristine tropical nature. After returning to the town in the afternoon, choose a refreshing Caipirinha on one of the many terraces in the small harbour.

4. Cuenca, Ecuador

Without a doubt the most beautiful city of Ecuador. The city was founded in the 16th century and has a beautiful colonial centre with an impressive cathedral and many stately Spanish colonial buildings. Not only the centre of the city very attractive to stay, also the location of the city makes a stay in Cuenca worthwhile. The city is situated at an altitude of 2500 meters and because the equator is not far from Cuenca, this creates a wonderful climate with beautiful spring-like days during the day and lovely coolness at night. The surroundings consist of green hills with dense vegetation, occasionally interrupted by small traditional villages, crystal clear rivers and small mountain lakes. In the town itself there are a number of attractive boutique hotels, the furnishings of which surround you with an atmosphere of bygone times. The inner man can be pampered in one of the many excellent restaurants. As far as I am concerned, a stay in Cuenca is always accompanied by a visit to the factory of Homero Ortega, the place where the best Toquilla straw hats are made, better known as the Panama hat.

5. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

When it comes to historical heritage, Mexico can undoubtedly compete with Europe. For example, the long and varied series of pre-Columbian cultures have left their traces in the Mexican country. The French and Spanish settlers, who alternately had their influence, also left their traces. As a result, the characteristic colonial architectural styles of both European countries can sometimes literally be found next to each other. As a result, an innumerable number of small villages and large cities can be found in Mexico, which together are also called Colonial Mexico. It is therefore difficult to pick one place. In the end I chose San Miguel de Allende. This small town was almost a deserted ghost town until foreign artists and adventurers settled in the town. The centre consists of cobbled streets, coloured colonial buildings in both French and Spanish style. Ochre-yellow and blood-red walls, overgrown by brightly coloured bougainvillea. Like an open-air museum.

Want to know more about Latin America?

That's my top 5. As said before it was a difficult choice and now, I still doubt if for example Salvador do Bahia in Brazil or Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay shouldn't be on this list. I do wonder what your favourite colonial city is. Would you like to know more about a unique journey through Latin America? Then take a look at our destinations.

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