8 places to travel to explore Hispanic heritage sites

Sep 22, 2021

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Hispanic heritage in the Americas dates to the 1400s, when explorers from Spain and Portugal began their colonization of the New World. Today, many sites from that significant and oftentimes violent era, as well as the centuries that followed, still survive and can be illuminating, enriching focal points for an exploration of the history and culture during National Hispanic Heritage Month.

Fast on the heels of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Caribbean, other explorers set out to claim and conquer vast regions of North and South America. Hernán Cortés subdued the sprawling Aztec Empire (present-day Mexico and Central America), and Francisco Pizarro managed to defeat the wealthy Inca Empire, based in present-day Peru, within a generation. Farther north, Hernando de Soto explored what is now the U.S. Southeast, and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado sent expeditions out along the Colorado River, where they “discovered” the Grand Canyon during his search for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold.

Given the breadth and impact of Hispanic exploration in the Americas, it’s no wonder that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of significant sites to visit, both in the U.S. and other countries. Here are eight you might want to consider traveling to this year during Hispanic Heritage Month.

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In This Post

Sonoma, California

The Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, California, in November 1958. It was founded in 1823. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Across California, there are Spanish missions where the Indigenous people were converted to Christianity and oftentimes made to perform forced labor. You can follow the route the Spanish missionaries took to colonize California by going from one mission to the next throughout the state. The Mission San Francisco Solano near the town of Sonoma was built by Padre José Altimira to convert Native Americans from the Miwok, Pomo, Patwin and Wappo tribes to Christianity in 1823. It was the 21st, and final, Spanish mission built in California.

Related: These are the best points hotels in Napa and Sonoma, California


In Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, the Basque Sheepherder Monument is a 23-foot bronze sculpture created by Basque sculptor Nestor Basterretxea. Titled “Bakardade,” meaning solitude, the abstract sculpture depicts a man carrying a lamb over his shoulder to represent the first generation of Basque immigrants in the U.S., who were mostly shepherds. Nearby at the University of Nevada, Reno is the Jon Bilbao Basque Library, which has one of the world’s largest collections of Basque-related artifacts.

St. Augustine, Florida

The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

America’s oldest continuously inhabited colonial city, St. Augustine was founded on Sept. 8, 1565, by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, a Spanish admiral. Spain occupied Florida until 1763 and again from 1783 to 1821. The city has many Hispanic heritage sites, such as the National Park Service’s Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, the oldest masonry fortification in the continental U.S., built by the Spaniards in the late 1600s to protect the city from pirates. Travelers can visit the fort, then stop by the Plaza de Las Constitución to see the white obelisk that is thought to be the world’s only remaining original monument to the Spanish Constitution of 1812.

Related: Florida’s top 10 vacation regions for different types of travelers

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Spain conquered Puerto Rico and founded the capital city of San Juan 500 years ago in 1521. Travelers to the island can learn about the Spanish era at the still-imposing Castillo San Felipe del Morro, which was begun in 1539. The Atlantic-facing fortification guarded the entrance to the city’s harbor against attacks from the British, Dutch and, yes, pirates, in its time, and continues to be a popular attraction.

Related: Puerto Rico to require testing and/or vaccination for lodging

San Jose del Cabo, Mexico

The Mision San Jose del Cabo Anuiti. (Photo by Thelmadatter/Wikipedia)

The Mision San Jose del Cabo Anuiti was the southernmost Jesuit mission set up by the Kingdom of Spain on the peninsula of Baja California, and was established in 1730. The European missionaries had to move their mission as the Indigenous population staged uprisings in retaliation to forced religious conversion. Initially built on the banks of the San Jose River, the mission moved to the coast alongside a Spanish fort that could defend it against future raids. Today, its twin bell towers remain a local landmark and the church still hosts daily services.

Related: How to get to Los Cabos on points and miles

Mexico City

An Aztec calendar stone. (Photo courtesy of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia)

The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, fell to the Spanish 500 years ago on Aug. 13, 1521. In the subsequent centuries, the ruins of that metropolis have morphed into Mexico City. Before it was a bustling metropolis, the region was home to giant lakes dotted with islands. Although the Spanish destroyed much of the Aztec city, certain archaeological sites, including the area around the Templo Mayor, can still be seen today. To learn more about Aztec culture and the human side of this tragic history, visitors can head to the Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

Cartagena, Colombia

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena, Colombia. (Photo by Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The walls of Cartagena de Indias were erected more than 400 years ago to defend the city against pirates and other colonial powers. This was one of Spain’s richest and most important bases in the New World, from which it shipped treasures plundered from Colombia and the rest of northern South America. The walls, and forts such as Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, were meant to prevent Cartagena from being invaded by the English, French and privateers. They remain some of the best-preserved Spanish fortifications in South America and can still be visited today.

Quito, Ecuador

Church of San Agustin. (Photo by Daniel Romero/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Quito is the oldest continuously inhabited South American capital, and was a population center long before the Spanish founded their city there in the 16th century.  The Spanish forced local peoples to convert to Catholicism and built many churches and monasteries, including the Church of San Agustin, where Ecuador’s Act of Independence was signed in 1809 after a victory over the Spanish troops. Many of the religious buildings are now museums and can be visited in the historical center of Quito, which was the first-ever city to be designated UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

Related: Travelers with proof of vaccination can now visit Ecuador — including the Galapagos

Bottom line

In the more than 500 years that have passed since European explorers first arrived in the Americas, they and their descendants built cities, monuments, churches and other landmarks throughout the Western Hemisphere, many of which remain to be discovered by travelers today.

On the one hand, Spain’s military, economic and cultural conquest created a significant historical record of Hispanic heritage that endures today. On the other, much of that success was the result of brutal campaigns and the suppression of myriad Indigenous cultures that were already living in North and South America.

Visiting these eight significant sites, or any of the hundreds of others both in the U.S. and other countries, is an excellent, thought-provoking way to learn more about Hispanic heritage, while also acknowledging the costs that were inflicted upon other cultures during the Age of Exploration and beyond.

Featured photo of St. Augustine Beach by Daron Dean/Visit Florida.

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