Churches you Must visit in South America

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South American churches are known for their rich history and stunning architecture. Most of these Latin American chapels, churches and cathedrals in South America were built by the Spanish, Portuguese or French during the colonial period and exhibit a unique blend of European and indigenous influences. Featuring so many different types of ornate decorations, intricate woodwork, and beautiful frescoes, the grandeur and beauty of these churches is almost jaw-dropping. If you are visiting the continent, here are the top churches in South American to visit.

1. Catedral da Sé, São Paulo

By Danae from Danae Explore

Exterior of The São Paulo Sé Cathedral.
The São Paulo Sé Cathedral

The São Paulo Sé Cathedral, located in the heart of São Paulo, stands as a historical and architectural icon of the city. Its construction, which began in 1913 and concluded about 40 years later in time for the city’s 400th anniversary, showcases a neo-Gothic style with Renaissance influences.

The cathedral is renowned for its impressive 92-meter-high towers and grand interior, featuring vibrant stained glass windows and intricate marble and granite details. Additionally, its organ, one of the largest in Latin America, is a notable attraction. The crypt beneath the altar houses the tombs of significant local historical figures, such as Regent Feijó and Chief Tibiriçá.

Visiting the São Paulo Cathedral is essential for anyone wishing to understand more about Brazil, a country with one of the largest Catholic populations in the world. The cathedral is not only a place of worship but also a testament to the city’s historical and urban development.

2. Catedral Metropolitana, Brasília

By Danae from Danae Explore

Exterior of Catedral Metropolitana de Brasilia.
Cathedral Metropolitana de Brasilia

Some say it looks more like a sculpture than a cathedral, while others reject its harsh and futuristic style. However, everyone agrees that Catedral Metropolitana de Brasilia evokes emotions and leaves visitors in awe with the light passing through the stained glass windows that make up its inclined side walls.

Designed by Oscar Niemeyer, for which he received the Pritzker Prize, and inaugurated in 1970, it is an icon of modern Brazilian architecture and the capital of Brazil. It is located just a few meters from the main government buildings, all designed by the same architect, forming the so-called “Monumental Axis”: the headquarters of the Executive (Palácio do Planalto), the Judiciary, and the Legislative.

Visiting the Metropolitan Cathedral is essential for anyone who wants to understand the integration of art, architecture, and faith that defines Brasília.

3. Leon Cathedral, Nicaragua

By Melinda from Mel On The Go

Exterior of Leon Cathedral Ext Nicaragua.
Leon Cathedral, Nicaragua

One of the most significant churches in Latin America, Leon Cathedral is a must visit destination in Nicaragua. As one of Nicaragua’s two UNESCO World Heritage sites, it is much lauded for its architectural style and important artworks.

Also known as The Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, this Catholic church was completed in 1814. Pope Pius IX consecrated the cathedral in 1860. Designed by a Guatemalan architect blending multiple styles, it embodies the eclectic style. Central America’s largest cathedral, Leon Cathedral holds important sculptures and the tombs of some of Nicaragua’s most prominent historic figures.

The Cathedral is an essential stop on a walking tour of Leon. Once inside, visitors may go underground to spy the burial crypts and tunnels, and explore the immaculate white roof with panoramic views of the city.

4. San Pedro Claver Church in Cartagena, Colombia

By Adam from Cartagena Explorer

Exterior of San Pedro Claver Church in Cartagena, Colombia.
San Pedro Claver Church in Cartagena, Colombia

Pedro Claver, or Peter Claver, spent much of his life converting slaves brought to the New World to Catholicism and advocating for better treatment of them. It was for this reason he was later made a Saint and the church where he spent much of his life was renamed in his honor. Pope Francis gave a mass here where he honored Claver during his visit to Colombia in 2017.

The San Pedro Claver Church is located in the destination city of Cartagena, Colombia on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast. In addition to lovely beaches and islands, the city is well known for its historic colonial walls and architecture, including the San Pedro Claver Church. It is the most impressive of several historic churches.

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The church was originally constructed between 1580 and 1654. Its impressive stone facade was constructed from stones from the nearby Tierra Bomba island. It was also subject to a point of dispute between the crown and church. The church built part of its seminary on top of the city’s walls. At one point a demolition order came from the king at the request of Cartagena’s military commanders who believed the construction compromised the city’s defenses.

However, the dispute was solved when the church agreed to assume the costs of constructing a new wall. They were required to leave just enough space for a patrol to pass through, leading to the creation of the narrow Calle de la Ronda, or Street of the Patrol. When walking along this narrow street today, you can see the remains of the wall on the foundations of the church’s building, the only visible stonework dating to the original construction of the walls.

The church itself is also open to visitors today, and contains exhibits on Claver’s life, historic religious artifacts and art, and art from contemporary local artists. Claver’s simple and austere quarters can be seen much as they were during his life, and his remains can be seen under the altar in the sanctuary itself.

5. La Merced Covenant and Church – Antigua, Guatemala

By Taylor from Taytrum Travels

Exterior of La Merced Covenant and Church
La Merced Covenant and Church – Antigua, Guatemala

Visiting Antigua, Guatemala is incomplete without a stop at its famous canary yellow church. Iglesia de la Merced was built from 1749-1767. This Catholic church is in the Spanish Guatemalan Churrigueresque style, meaning ultra baroque. It features two bell towers and lots of sculptures on the facade. The church was practically new at the time of the 1773 major earthquake and therefore did not suffer major damage like many of the other buildings. The church is free to enter, but the covenant and the ruins next door have a small fee for visitors. You’ll also often find food vendors nearby in the park just in front if you are in need of a snack.

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6. El Santuario De Las Lajas, Colombia

By Claire of Tales of a Backpacker

El Santuario de las Lajas in Colombia.
El Santuario de las Lajas in Colombia

Situated in the south of Colombia, near the Ecuadorian border, this unique churhc is located on a bridge that soars 130 feet above the Guaitara river, a remarkable feat of engineering and beauty.

The story goes that back in the mid-1700s, a local woman and her deaf-mute daughter sought refuge from a storm here and saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary on one of the slate rocks that are called lajas. This led to the building of a shrine here, which was later followed by a church. The current version of the church was completed in 1949, making it one of the world’s most stunning churches.

El Santuario de las Lajas in Colombia is truly a must-see if you’re near the Colombian-Ecuadorian border. Make sure you explore the interior of the church and the surrounding pathways, and also take ride in the cable car nearby to get and eagle’s view of the church.

This is a work in progress list of the must-visit cathedrals and churches in South America. There are many that still need to be added. If you would like to contribute, ping abby@abbyshearth.com

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Pinterest images of Cathedral Metropolitana de Brasilia and Leon Cathedral, Nicaragua.
Pinterest images of The Sé Cathedral, San Pedro Claver Church, La Merced Church and Leon Cathedral, Nicaragua.

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