Peru is an architectural hodgepodge. From pre-Columbian sites to colonial churches, modern cities, and unusual structures, the country is home to a huge variety of styles. Here are just a few of the architectural highlights in Peru’s diverse cityscapes.
Pre-Columbian: Inca buildings
Everyone knows that the Incas built a vast empire, but few people realize that they did so without using any mortar.
Inca stonemasons perfected their craft, shaping blocks to fit together like puzzle pieces; once a building was constructed, it became impossible to insert a knife blade between the stones. This means that, even though Peru is prone to earthquakes, the Incas’ buildings have resisted seismic activity and held up throughout the centuries.
Most Inca buildings were rectangular, with trapezoidal windows and strong foundations. The roofs, made of wooden beams and thatch, disintegrated long ago, but archaeologists believe that they must have been steep to combat Peru’s intense rainfall.
To be fair, the Incas were not the only accomplished architects in pre-Columbian history. In fact, they borrowed building and engineering techniques from several other groups, but the Incas’ sites are easily the most familiar examples of pre-Columbian culture in Peru.
Colonial: Lima and Arequipa
Peru’s largest cities are monuments to colonial architecture. When the Spaniards arrived in 1532, they brought their own architectural styles with them — which are still visible today. Even in Lima, which has been devastated by earthquakes time and time again, the buildings bear witness of a colonial past.
For a glimpse into the past, check out Lima’s cathedral, the Church of San Francisco, and the Convent of Santo Domingo. All three buildings are prime examples of Baroque architecture — but with a twist. The cathedral’s façade has been destroyed in several earthquakes, then rebuilt and restored; the Church of San Francisco has a bright yellow exterior; and the Convent of Santo Domingo is recognizable for its photogenic pink bell tower.
Lima is also home to several colonial mansions, including the Palacio Torre Tagle, Casa Goyoneche, and Casa de Pilatos.
Arequipa, the “White City,” is crafted from white-pink volcanic rock called sillar, and its colonial buildings are a sight for sore eyes. Located near three volcanoes, Arequipa’s position and unique building material make the city a picturesque stop on any journey through Peru.
In Arequipa’s Plaza das Armas, you can’t miss the colonial architecture. Impressive colonnades span the plaza’s sides, and massive buildings are just a stone’s throw away. Make sure to check out the cathedral, which houses a museum and the largest organ in the country, and then head over to the brightly colored Monasterio de Santa Catalina.
Although Lima is a stronghold for colonial architecture, you’ll also find modern buildings (and even pre-Incan ruins) in Peru’s bustling capital. The presence of so many styles in one city makes Lima a dynamic and colorful place to visit, so if you’re a fan of architecture, add Lima to your list!
Today, many architects make their home in this city, where they design everything from restaurants to apartments to parks.
All of Peru’s skyscrapers are located in Lima, with the tallest one (Torre Banco de la Nación) reaching 460 feet (140 meters). Take a look at these glittering glass-and-steel buildings, and you’ll find it hard to believe that they exist in the same city as the Convent of Santo Domingo or the Palacio Torre Taglo. You’ll find most of Lima’s skyscrapers in the San Isidro district (Peru’s financial center), far from the capital city’s historic heart.
Other: Islas Uros
While the Islas Uros don’t qualify as an architectural style, per se, we couldn’t pass them up! Adrift on Lake Titicaca, these floating islands are made entirely from reeds.
The Uros people take the totora reeds that grow in the lake’s shallows and weave them together to create large, buoyant platforms. Then, they use the same reeds to build homes atop the platforms; they even weave boats from these flexible plants. When the reeds rot away from the bottom of the islands, the Uros simply add new layers to the top; although the islands are completely safe, they aren’t quite as firm as solid ground. The ground feels spongy, similar to playground mulch.
A few centuries ago, the Uros wove their floating islands to escape from hostile groups, like the Incas and Collas, but today, they welcome visitors onto many of the unique sites. You don’t need to book a guided tour to the islands, but no matter how you choose to visit, remember to be respectful of your hosts!
Photo by Rafal Ostrowski