Almost anyone who’s ever lived in a university town can tell you that they offer a great quality of life. All those students keep the town vibe young and lively. And a good university practically guarantees plenty of culture, from concerts and dance to art exhibits, theater, and lecture series (a great way to practice your foreign-language skills if you’re an expat). Plus, depending on the university, you may even ﬁnd good sports facilities…and a decent local team to support.
Thanks to these beneﬁts, university towns can offer you big-city sophistication with small town friendliness and convenience.
That’s why we asked our editors and experts to select 10 of Latin experts to select 10 of Latin America’s best university towns. From the cobbled lanes of Antigua, Guatemala, to the canal-bank walks of Córdoba, Argentina, these towns don’t just offer you a great lifestyle but a lower cost of living, too.
And there’s something for everyone on this list… If you like mountains, then try Loja, Ecuador, 6,700 feet above sea level in the Andes, with an average temperature of 60 to 69 F. For botanical delights and ancient Olmec wonders, check out Xalapa in the Mexican state of Veracruz, and if you fancy a new cuisine culture, try Alpaca steaks in the southern Peruvian town of Arequipa.
1. Antigua, Guatemala
Antigua served as colonial Spain’s capital in the Central American region until a string of devastating earthquakes hit the highland city in the 1700s. Many of its most important buildings were reduced to ruins and the colonizers chose a new, less unstable location for their capital.
But the city survived and today, Antigua has been well and truly rediscovered by the outside world. It’s now the most popular tourist destination in Guatemala. Much of the colonial-era architecture is still in place while the remains of churches and cathedrals damaged by the earthquakes form spectacular and romantic ruins.
Wander through the numerous markets selling crafts and exotic fruit at knock-down prices, while smiling locals brightly dressed in colorful traditional outfits weave past…all in the shadow of three soaring volcanoes. This is truly one of Central America’s gems.
2. Arequipa, Peru
Arequipa has long been a center of learning in Peru, with many of the country’s most famous intellectual, political and religious figures hailing from the Andean city. The latest batch of aspiring academics help keep this old world city feeling young and vibrant.
Arequipa’s colonial-era buildings are particularly striking, in that they are made from sillar; a pearly white volcanic rock. They have earned this place the nickname La Ciudad Blanca (“The White City”). Such is its beauty, overlooked by the majestic, seasonally snow-capped El Misti volcano, that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 2000.
3. Concepción, Chile
The settlement of Concepción was first built as a frontier town right on the boundary between Spanish lands and the territory of the fiercely independent Mapuche people. During its early years, its inhabitants were forced to contend with numerous earthquakes, tsunamis and several invasions by the armies of the Mapuche. However, the town survived, grew and is now Chile’s second biggest population center.
The historically important Universidad de Concepción, established in 1919, is one of the center pieces of the city. It was built as Chile’s first private university and is something of an attraction in itself. Its beautiful buildings and spacious, manicured gardens are well worth taking the time to wander through.
4. Córdoba, Argentina
Nestled in the foothills of the Sierras Chicas is Córdoba—smack bang in the middle of Argentina. As well as being packed out with a wealth of colonial era buildings, it is also home to the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba—the oldest university in Argentina.
Although it may have been founded back in 1613 by the Jesuit Order, the university is still cutting edge.. For one thing, it has been key in fostering Córdoba’s rich musical culture that sees classical, jazz, rock, pop and electronic packing out venues city-wide. It also helps explain the city’sfamed after hours scene.
5. Cuenca, Ecuador
Vibrant Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador, known for its fantastic year-round climate, great old world architecture and easy-to-navigate size. The city’s main plaza, which sits under a triple-domed cathedral, is ringed by a number of fascinating artisan markets selling everything from flowers and clothing to knit crafts and finger puppets.
As well as its compliment of full-time students attending the main university, the city also boasts a string of language schools which cater for foreign visitors and expats.
6. Guanajuato, Mexico
Spanish colonizers were initially drawn to Guanajuato in central Mexico by the rich mines around the area. Today, however, it has a lot more to recommend it than mineral deposits. Many of the city’s oldest buildings, which lean over narrow streets and small plazas, are made from green and pink-tinted sandstone, giving its historic center a distinctive, colorful feel.
Equally colorful is the city’s culture. With thousands of university students in place most of the year, Guanajuato is a lively place to spend your time. However, it is during the likes of the Festival Internacional Cervantino, when artists and performers from all over the world flood into the city each October, that it really comes to life.
7. León, Nicaragua
The city of León spent much of its early history in a tug-of-war with Granada over which would be Nicaragua’s capital before it was finally decided to choose Managua by way of compromise. However, León remains the country’s education capital. Today, its population of 175,000 leaps upwards during university season as students from across Nicaragua’s provinces arrive in town.
León may be home to more colonial churches and cathedrals per capita than any other place in Nicaragua but as yet, tourists are not arriving in any great numbers to check them out. Those that do, tend to arrive as independent travelers or backpackers rather than in large tour groups. As a result, they are a far less visible presence and blend in well with the city’s students, expats and volunteers.
8. Loja, Ecuador
Nestled to the south of Ecuador’s Andean Highlands region is the city of Loja. Nicknamed “The Musical Capital of Ecuador”, Loja boasts numerous salsa and other music clubs. Other forms of creativity thrive here too, and public art is around every corner. You can expect to stumble upon giant painted tile murals, frescoes and some stunning statues as you wander through its well-preserved streets.
Loja is something of a university town par excellence in that it features three top-notch third level institutions—the Universidad Nacional de Loja, in which students major in everything from Law to Fine Arts, the Loja campus of the Universidad Internacional del Ecuador which is partnered with Harvard University and finally the Universidad Técnica Particular de Loja, which offers both local and distance education in a wide range of disciplines.
9. Morelia, Mexico
The consistent, almost omnipresent nature of Morelia’s colonial architecture means it is widely regarded as one of Mexico’s most beautiful cities. Again, it is some way off the main tourist trail and most of its visitors are students coming from other parts of Mexico to study in its university.
You don’t have to go far to run into the cheerful, friendly youngsters–they man many of the tourist booths dotted around the city and are both multilingual and extremely helpful. The city is also known for its numerous festivals which take place year-round. They include a regional foods festival, the Festival Internacional de Música de Morelia music festival which sees some 500 acts arrive in town and the Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia, which is dedicated to Mexican cinema.
10. Xalapa, Mexico
Xalapa, also known as La Ciudad de las Flores (“The City of Flowers”) is home to one of the most important universities in Mexico. The Universidad Veracruzana attracts students both from across the country and further afield giving the city a real intercultural vitality. Although home to a large community of expats and foreign exchange students, most coast-hugging backpackers seem to bypass the city when touring the country.
Its position in the highlands means Xalapa enjoys a pleasant, cooler climate than what is found on the hot and humid Veracruz coast. With a small population and hilly streets, it is often called the ”San Francisco of Mexico.’”