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Fascinating Ancient Ruins to Visit in South America

Written by Going Places

This blog post was updated on August 22, 2022.

One of the great pleasures of travel is checking out ancient ruins while traveling though a foreign land. From the Colosseum in Rome to the Great Wall in China, we gain so much insight as we explore the remnants of civilizations from long ago.

But when we think of fascinating ruins, there’s an entire continent filled with vestiges of ancient cultures that doesn’t seem to get as much attention: South America.

“But wait,” you’re probably thinking, with images of a boxy stacked pyramids in your mind, “what about…” Ah, yes. But those ziggurats are the ruins of the Mayan civilization, and are located in Mexico and Latin America, not South America.

So here are three some fascinating finds worth visiting on your next trip to southern hemisphere:

Machu Picchu, Peru 

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu is the location when it comes to visiting ancient ruins in South America. This Peruvian icon of the once great Incan empire was built in the 15th century as an estate for the emperor and then abandoned during the time of Spanish conquest. Machu Picchu wasn’t discovered again until 1911. Sitting nearly 2,500 meters (almost 8,000 feet) above sea level in the Andes Mountains, it’s now a historical site with some reconstructed sections that visitors can explore.

The Lost City, Colombia 

Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City), Colombia

First discovered by treasure hunters in the early 1970s, the Colombian spot known as the Cuidad Perdida, or “The Lost City,” is believed to have been built over 600 years before Machu Picchu. Called Teyuna by the local tribes, whose forbearers are believed to have founded the ancient town, the Lost City is pretty remote and reportedly requires a nearly weeklong hike to get there and back that’s supposedly can get pretty grueling. Which kind of makes it cooler, right?

Easter Island…Chile?  

The Moai, Easter Island

Okay, so we’re kind of cheating on this one. While the giant stone heads of Easter Island–known as “moai”–are pretty iconic, their association with South America isn’t so well known. The fact is that even though Easter Island–or as the natives call it, Rapa Nui–is one of the most remote islands in the world, it’s technically part of Chile, which is over 2,000 miles east of the island. In fact, the only way to really get to the island is to take flight from Santiago, Chile. Once there, visitors can explore the roughly 63 square mile isle, see the grandeur of its nearly 900 moai, and learn of the culture that settled there around a thousand years ago and lived in isolation until European explorers landed in 1722.

Cueva de las Manos, Argentina

Cueva de las Manos, Argentina

Meaning “Cave of the Hands” in Spanish, Cueva de las Manos is one of the most intriguing archaeological sites in the world. It’s somewhere between 9,000 and 13,000 years old, and it’s covered in hundreds and hundreds of stenciled human hands.

The sight can be a little eerie at first: The handprints are so ancient and so numerous that they seem almost ghostly. When you look a little closer, however, you’ll start to realize the magnificence of their history and artistry. It’s believed that the handprints were made using bone-carved pipes to cause colorful chemical reactions in the rock. Iron oxides, for example, created red and purple prints; natrojarosite created yellow ones; kaolin created white.

Today, if you want to tour Cueva de las Manos, you’ll need to travel down a bumpy, out-of-the-way road outside a small town in Argentina. It’s a rustic kind of tourist attraction, and getting there is half of the adventure of experiencing it. If you’re interested in authentic cultural ruins, however, there’s no better place to view them than a cave filled with the literal imprints of long-ago cultures.

Tiwanaku, Bolivia

Tiwanaku, Bolivia

Believed to have been built around 110 CE, Tiwanaku is so mysterious that we don’t even know its true name. It was originally a settlement near a lake, but since its inhabitants had no written language, there’s no way of knowing what they called themselves or their home.

The good news is that you don’t need words to understand the depth of the history at Tiwanaku. Its crumbling structures represent the remains of everything from gates to temples to megalithic blocks. And though the fine details have been lost to age, the foundation of the architecture remains strong to this day. It’s scattered around a large area that really speaks to its original purpose as a hub of society and culture.

For visitors, exploring Tiwanaku can take several hours. There’s a museum for closer examination of things like pottery, and outdoor tours to take you around fortress walls. You’ll also find decorative statues and stone archways used to measure sunlight and seasonal equinoxes. By the time that you’re finished, you’ll be awed at the sheer size and scale of this gone-but-not-forgotten civilization.

Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis, Brazil

Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis, Brazil

The Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis are an especially interesting example of South American ruins. Founded by the Catholic church between 1609 and 1818, this complex was designed to bring religion to local indigenous tribes stretching across not only Brazil but also Paraguay and Argentina.

Today, not much remains of the settlements; they consist of the toppled remnants of gates and walls more than anything else. They’re tall and grand but also aged and decayed. Walking around them will give you a new appreciation for the word “ruins.”

Culturally speaking, however, it can be fascinating to look at sites like the Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis. They’re important pieces of South American history, but they were created by outsiders intent on imposing their ways on the locals. So, in a sense, the ruins are beautiful as architecture, but less than beautiful in their purpose. Their rich and complicated legacy can definitely be worth a visit if you’re south of the equator and looking to dive into local history.

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San Agustin Archeological Park, Colombia

San Agustín Archaeological Park, Colombia

Colombian art is some of the most well-known in the prehistoric world, and there’s no better place to see it than San Agustin Archeological Park. Not only is it the largest collection of religious monuments in Latin America, but it’s also the biggest and most carefully preserved necropolis in the entire world.

Things to see at San Agustin Archeological Park include tombs, statues, burial mounds, megalithic sculptures, and other pieces of ancient funereal architecture. Iconography ranges from animal motifs to male and female deities. The oldest creations date all of the way back to 5 to 400 CE, but you wouldn’t know it by how carefully they’ve been maintained over the years. Some look as though they could’ve been carved yesterday. Their age is only noticeable in things like chipped edges and faded paint. It’s believed that all of the statues were originally colored, but today, they’re simply gray stone.

With more than 500 statues and sculptures spread across several square miles to explore, you could spend all day at San Agustin Archeological Park. There’s a reason why it’s such a popular tourist destination. Even if you had no interest in South American ruins, you’d want to check out the big, bountiful, and occasionally bizarre artwork found here.

So, have we aroused you’re sense of adventure? Piqued your desire for discovery? Check out some international fares and start planning your own expedition.

Do you have a favorite place to visit in South America? Let us know in the comments below! 

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Going Places

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  • Please use the original name for Easter Island. It’s Rapa Nui. Easter Island it’s becoming obsolete considering it was the British who robbed the island when it was first “discovered” who named it.

    • Chris Caggiano says:

      A very valid point. Thanks for the heads-up.