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Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro | © David Berkowitz/Flickr
Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro | © David Berkowitz/Flickr
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12 of the Most Beautiful Churches and Cemeteries in South America

Picture of Kristin Deasy
Contributor
Updated: 27 June 2017
South America has a wealth of architectural wonders, among them many jaw-droppingly beautiful churches and cemeteries. The architectural glory of some of them rival Europe’s best monuments, while others are celebrated for their originality. If you’re looking for a culturally inspired way to tour the continent, look no further – here are the spots to hit.

1. Colombia’s Las Lajas Sanctuary

Santuario de las Lajas, Colombia | Courtesy Nariño
Santuario de las Lajas, Colombia | Courtesy Nariño

The Las Lajas Sanctuary looks like something out of the Rivendell elf wonderland from The Lord of the Rings. The Virgin Mary is said to have appeared here in the late 18th century, inspiring the building of the neo-gothic church. It was finished in 1949 and lies in a canyon in southern Colombia. Whether you believe in God, or elves, or nothing at all, this amazing structure can’t fail to move you.

Recoleta Cemetery
Recoleta Cemetery | © SC Image / Shutterstock

2. Argentina’s Recoleta Cemetery

The most famous cemetery in Argentina, if not all of South America, the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires draws visitors from around the world eager to experience its maze-like graveyard full of exquisitely carved, above-ground burial sites. Many graves date back to the 18th century, with one notable exception being Evita. The grave of the former first lady is probably the most famous in the cemetery, and one of several must-see sites to check out when you go.

Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro
Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro | © David Berkowitz/Flickr

3. Brazil’s Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro

Brazil’s enormous pyramid-like cathedral, built in the ’60s and ’70s, can hold around 20,000 people. To understand what it’s like to be in a space that large, you have to go and experience it firsthand, so make sure it’s on your itinerary.

Ecuador’s Tulcán Cemetery
Ecuador’s Tulcán Cemetery | © Diego Delso / Flickr

4. Ecuador’s Tulcan Cemetery

This cemetery has legions of bright-green cypress bushes pruned into the form of everything from South American mythical figures to birds to other shapes and animals. The garden-graveyard, which draws visitors all year round, is located in the town of Tulcan, near the border with Colombia.

The entrance to Colombia’s underground Salt Cathedral
The entrance to Colombia’s underground Salt Cathedral | © Lauren de Walick / Flickr

5. Colombia’s Salt Cathedral

This Roman Catholic church is buried deep in an old salt mine in a town about 25 miles (40 kilometres) outside Bogota. The Salt Cathedral, as it is called (although it is not technically a cathedral) was constructed in the 1990s to replace the original cathedral, which had been closed because of safety concerns. Back when it was in operation as a mining site, workers founded a sanctuary there, so the idea goes way back. The underground cathedral is part of a larger Salt Park in Zipaquira that has some museums you can visit.

A train in Bolivia’s train graveyard, reading ‘Such is life’
A train in Bolivia’s train graveyard, reading ‘Such is life’ | © 3rdparty! / Flickr

6. Bolivia’s Great Train Cemetery

If graveyards make you squeamish, head to Bolivia’s Great Train Graveyard on the outskirts of Uyuni, the burial site of an inhuman collection of old locomotives. The metal frames of the engines are being eroded by salt winds, Uyuni being the site of the world’s largest salt flats. You’ll see the rusted shells of early 20th-century engines, possibly prompting existential thoughts about industrialization, civilization, and the state of humanity.

7. Argentina’s Mysterious Green Church

Hidden away in a Buenos Aires suburb is a beautiful old, ivy-covered brick church. Not much is known about the Parroquia Jesús en el Huerto de los Olivos, but it’s definitely worth making time for a visit.

8. Ecuador’s Cemetery of Guayaquil

Otherwise known as the White City, the tombs of the enormous Cemetery of Guayaquil in Ecuador are constructed in a sweeping array of architectural styles. You’ll find Moorish-influenced structures standing next to baroque or neoclassical as you wander the huge cemetery, built in the late 1800s.

Brazil’s Maringa Cathedral
Brazil’s Maringa Cathedral | © tchágo / Flickr

9. Brazil’s Maringa Cathedral

Reportedly the tallest church in all of South America, this Soviet-inspired architectural experiment is located in the Brazilian town of Maringa. The architect supposedly modeled the space on sputnik satellites, and it shows.

The Basilica of the National Vow
The Basilica of the National Vow | © Chris Feser / Flickr

10. Ecuador’s Basilica of the National Vow

This stunning cathedral in the city of Quito, Ecuador, is often compared to Notre Dame in Paris. You can ascend a very long staircase to the top of the church, where you’ll be rewarded with incredible panoramic views, this being the biggest neo-gothic cathedral in all of the Americas. The gargoyles on the outside of the church are inspired by Ecuadorian animals. The Roman Catholic basilica has yet to be completed; legend has it that when it is finished, the end times will be upon us.

Chauchilla cemetery
Chauchilla cemetery | © Stew Dean / Flickr

11. Peru’s Chauchilla Cemetery

Peru’s Chauchilla Cemetery is an eerie place, full of ancient graves dating back to before the 9th century. Over time, the site was repeatedly ransacked – resulting in a number of dismembered mummies – until the late 1990s, when the burial grounds became a cultural site. Despite repeated disturbances, the remains have been remarkably well preserved by the desert climate. The cemetery is located outside the city of Nazca.

The Church of Santa María de Loreto
The Church of Santa María de Loreto | Wikicommons
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12. Chile’s Santa María de Loreto

Considered a prime example of Jesuit mission architecture and influence, the church of Santa María de Loreto in Achao is the oldest in the region. Church construction, which combined indigenous building techniques with traditional European Christian church design, began in 1740. Located in the the southern Chiloe Archipelago, Santa María de Loreto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.