Published on March 27th, 2013 | by Mark Chesnut
Touring the 5 Coolest Churches in Latin America: Holy Modern Architecture!
Organized religion may be thousands of years old, but that doesn’t mean that places of worship need to be visually stuck in the past. In fact, churches and temples are sometimes among the most forward-thinking icons of modern architecture and design. So if 20th-century style is what you choose to worship, make an architectural pilgrimage to these five cities in Latin America. Whether you need a spiritual renewal during a trying business trip or perhaps just a place to take some cool travel photography, consider worshipping at the altar of modernist design.
1. Bogotá, Colombia: Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral)
An absolute must-do day trip for any first-time visitor to Colombia’s capital, the Catedral de Sal (Cathedral of Salt) is guaranteed to impress, regardless of your religious beliefs or how many cathedrals you’ve toured in your travels. Located within the tunnels of a salt mine (about an hour and a half from Bogota), this subterranean cathedral opened in 1995 to replace a smaller chapel built for salt mine workers. One of the most bizarre and fascinating places of worship I’ve ever seen, the cathedral is set more than 590 feet deep into the earth. It is dark, dramatically lit and simultaneously primitive and contemporary, like some sort of underground worship chamber from a science-fiction movie.
Also worth seeing: Back in Bogotá, an interesting modernist chapel sits on the campus of the Universidad de La Salle, in the Chapinero district. The gracefully arched building houses a theater that serves as a cultural center.
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2. Brasilia: Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida (Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady Aparecida)
Brazil’s capital city is home to two photogenic religious sanctuaries. The world-famous Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida (Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady Aparecida), an Oscar Niemeyer creation that sits like a giant spacecraft parked in the center of this retro-futuristic city, absolutely begs to be photographed, with its sinewy, curved white pillars and surprisingly colorful interior.
Also worth seeing: Lesser known, but equally interesting, is the Templo da Boa Vontade (Temple of Good Will), which is billed as the biggest seven-sided pyramidal construction of the 20th century. Built in 1989, the non-denominational chapel’s floor is inlaid with a giant spiral, which visitors are encouraged to follow, barefoot, as a contemplative experience.
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3. Mexico City: Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe)
Built near where Our Lady of Guadalupe supposedly appeared in the 16th century, the basilica is one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in Mexico and Latin America. Constructed between 1974 and 1976 by Mexican architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, the massive, circular building has Brutalist touches and decidedly modern amenities — including a moving sidewalk in the basement that shuttles visitors beneath the altar. It’s a dramatic counterpoint to the old basilica next door, which sits lop-sided like a facade for a movie set (it started sinking several years ago).
Also worth seeing: Off the usual tourist trail is the Iglesia San José María, located in Mexico City‘s fast-growing upscale neighborhood called Santa Fe. Seemingly impossible angles and slim proportions characterize this structure, which features zinc-covered walls and attractive wood décor.
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4. Rio de Janeiro: Catedral Metropolitano de São Sebastião (Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian)
The 98-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer may be Rio de Janeiro’s most-photographed religious icon, but the city’s beautifully bizarre cathedral is also worth snapping. The stunningly modern, conical structure was designed by Edgar Fonceca and built between 1964 and 1979. Its dark but welcoming, and deceptively sized, with a capacity of 20,000. Four gigantic stained glass windows rise 210 feet from floor to ceiling.
5. Acapulco: Sunset Chapel
We end our tour of modernist churches in the 21st century, with a visit to the Sunset Chapel, an eye-catching concrete structure that opened in 2011 in Acapulco. Designed by Mexico City-based BNKR Arquitectura, the chapel measures 120 square meters, with contrasting glass and concrete features that are meant to symbolize the ethereal versus heavy aspects of life. The building is positioned so that the sun sets precisely behind the altar cross during twice-a-year equinoxes.
Also worth seeing: The non-denominational Chapel of Peace, which sits atop a cliff in the upscale Las Brisas district, features distinct triangular architecture and offers spectacular views of Acapulco Bay.
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Runner Ups for Coolest Churches in Latin America:
• The Basilica de La Altagracia, in Higüey, Dominican Republic, dates to 1970 and is characterized by a gigantic, soaring concrete arch.
• The Pontificia Universidad Católica de Puerto Rico, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, has a pleasingly mid-20th-century-modern church with curved dormer-style stained glass windows.