Spanish colonial towns – the charming and the unexpected

June 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

In South America, though the capitals typically contain 30-50% of the entire country’s population, they are not generally destinations in and of themselves (exception, Buenos Aires). Let us recommend three alternative cities which are probably new to you: Sucre, Bolivia; Arequipa, Peru; and Cuenca, Ecuador.

All of these cities have a similar feel with their well-preserved buildings, square Spanish-style plazas, and cute cobblestone streets. The United Nations has listed them all as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Two of them even have the same nickname: “The White City”. As Andean cities, all have elevations of at least 7,000 feet. And though they overflow with historic charm, each of them intrigued us with some non-traditional surprises as well.

Sucre, Bolivia

We had a rare day of hardcore tourism in Sucre: 3 museums, many churches, and several plazas where we snapped photos of this beautiful white city. We tried a “sonso” which is yum on a stick: yucca and cheese, and probably a lot of butter as well. We stopped for a drink at the indigenous version of Jamba Juice: juice stalls where ladies mix any fruits your heart desires for about $1. Given it was Bolivia, we were able to splurge for the nicest hotel in town for only $50, which Frommer’s Guide described as “a magnificent converted mansion from the 18th century…best small hotel in Bolivia”. It was an interesting non-hostel with a lovely roof view, but probably not worth forgoing our usual $15/night hostel room.

Sucre, Bolivia (clockwise from top left): Main Plaza, White washed church, Eating tongue, Dino Park

Unexpected attraction: Amidst the lovely 17th century Spanish architecture, the highlight of our trip was actually from the Cretaceous inhabitants a few million years earlier: 65 million year old dinosaur footprints! We learned how the tracks were preserved due to daily coverings with layers of sediment. Over time, the lake dried up, the land shifted, and the lake bed is now a near-vertical face containing over 5,000 footprints from 150 species.

Arequipa, Peru

Our exploration mood while in Arequipa was one of leisure: we picked only a few sites to visit, and tried some of the chic eateries lining the restaurant row. Although it’s inadvisable to hail taxis yourself in this town, we found a super nice policeman who walked us several blocks in the rain in search of a cab. One of the major factors influencing a visit to any town is the hotel, and our stay at  Casa de los Pinguinos contributed to our enjoyment of Arequipa. The owner personally advised us on our visit, fed us a fabulous breakfast, and offered a great DVD collection for our relaxation – a top 5 value compared to anywhere we stayed in South America.

Arequipa, Peru (clockwise from top left): Main Plaza, Pisco sour cocktails, Santa Catalina Monastery, Plaza on a hill

Unexpected attraction: Within the walls of the Santa Catalina Monastery existed an entire city of nuns living the high life: these girls were part of the Spanish elite, the richest of the rich. The families paid a steep dowry to buy their daughters’ admission, after which they would never see each other again. Once inside, the nuns had servants and active social lives, until the party ended with the arrival of a strict nun who enacted major reforms.

Cuenca, Ecuador

By the time we reached Ecuador, even though Cuenca was incredibly charming, we found our money did not go as far and we were a bit burnt out on tourism. We opted for the cheap (free) sites. Our guide at the Panama hat museum told us about the making of the hat whose Ecuadorian origin surprised us. We got to see first hand the artists weaving and pressing the hats. At the Central Bank museum we explored many artifacts, Inca ruins, and an aviary right in the heart of the city. Cuenca was decidedly tamer than the other two, but we found the park full of runners, and quiet (but safe) streets through evening.

Cuenca, Ecuador (clockwise from top left): Main Plaza, Old Cathedral, City park, Panama Hat museum

Unexpected attractionWho would have thought the Middle East is alive and well in Ecuador? There was so much Turkish influence in the form of shwarma joints and shisha cafes, and I still don’t know why. Even the blue domed cathedral seemed out of place in South America. Bonus surprise: Cuenca is full of retired Americans. Maybe its because Ecuador uses the US Dollar as currency, so it makes things easier. Go figure.

Take a virtual journey of the 3 towns via our photo album here.


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