The fourth-largest continent in the world, South America is made up of 12 sovereign states as well as a number of other territories. The continent has been shaped by centuries of European colonialism: the vast majority of South Americans speak Spanish or Portuguese, and the continent’s cultural and ethnic heritage stems from the interaction of indigenous people with European colonialists.
The sheer size of South America, combined with its richly diverse cultural and historical fabric, make it a fantastic continent for history lovers to explore.
Here’s our pick of 5 of the best sites you can visit across South America.
No list about South America’s most stunning historical sites would be complete without the world-famous Machu Piccu in Peru. Believed to have been constructed by the Inca Yupanqui people sometime during the mid-15th century for the then-emperor Pachacuti, the ruins of Machu Picchu sit high atop a granite mountain. The high standard of engineering and construction employed by the Incas, such as the fact that each stone on the site fits together seamlessly, accounts for Machu Picchu’s incredible state of preservation.
The site was never discovered by the Spanish, and it was gradually reclaimed by jungle growth. It’s thought it might have been rediscovered in the mid-19th century, but the American explorer Hiram Bingham is generally credited with the site’s discovery in 1911. Bingham led several further expeditions to the site in the subsequent years, and excavations continued throughout the 20th century.
Tiwanaku in Bolivia is an impressive archaeological site housing the capital of a pre-Inca empire. Much about Tiwanaku and its inhabitants remains a mystery and the subject of ongoing academic debate. It started out as a small farming village in approximately 1200 BC, possibly the first to ever cultivate potatoes. Over the course of the 1st century, Tiwanaku developed and, by 550 BC, it was a thriving capital of a vast empire with a presence throughout much of the Americas. At its peak, Tiwanaku had around 20,000 inhabitants. The city remained prosperous over the coming centuries and satellite towns were built, altogether with a population of up to 175,000 people.
Today, Tiwanaku is a popular tourist site and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitors can view its many monuments, gates – such as the well-known Gateway of the Sun – and statues, all of which attest to the importance of this once ceremonial city.
Chan Chan is an impressive site in Peru and the world’s largest adobe city as well as the largest pre-Colombian city in the Americas. As the capital of the ancient Chimu civilisation, Chan Chan was developed in around 1300 AD and would have reached its peak in the 15th century, after which the Chimu were overtaken by the Incas and the city was abandoned. The Chimu were extremely sophisticated builders and engineers. There are 10 citadels at Chan Chan, marking the 10 Chimu rulers. The site is in the desert, and aqueducts/canals had to be built in order to supply the city with water.
Still a vast site today, it is thought that Chan Chan was home to up to 100,000 people, and spanned over 20 square kilometres at its zenith. Over the years, erosion has meant the outer parts of the city are gone, but there’s still plenty to visit.
San Ignacio Mini in Argentina is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The site of a former Jesuit reduction, the ruins are extremely well-preserved and a popular tourist attraction today. Originally founded around 1610, San Ignacio Mini formed part of a series of Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis established by the Society of Jesus or ‘Jesuits’. Many similar Jesuit missions – around 30 in total – were scattered across Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, with 11 of these located in the modern-day province of Misiones.
It was moved to its present site in 1695, and developed quickly. The remains of a church, cemetery, central square, priest’s house and 200 further dwellings have been uncovered today, many of which were built in a unique style known as Guaraní baroque.
5. Las Lajas Sanctuary, Colombia
Perched atop a forested forge on the border between Colombia and Ecuador, Las Lajas Sanctuary was built between 1916-1949 around a pre-existing chapel which was built as a commemoration for two 18th century miracles in the areas.
A dramatic bridge links one side of the gorge with the sanctuary, and the site was dedicated as a minor basilica by the Catholic Church in 1954. However, religious visitors can still enjoy the glorious neo-Gothic structure and dramatic setting of the church which towers 150 feet above the river and cascading waterfall below.