Understanding South America
A guide to the history and geography of South America
South America travel advice for touring
The South American continent offers mature & senior travellers limitless opportunities for adventure.
Whether you are drawn to the wilds of the Amazon and the soaring Andes, or seek to uncover the mysteries of the Incas through archaeological ruins, Odyssey Traveller’s small group escorted tour of South America caters to mature and senior travellers with an appetite to learn.
Key highlights of this South American small group tour include
- the chance to explore the Peruvian reaches of the legendary Amazon River.
- journey by rail through Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu.
- As well as experiencing the passion and excitement of some of the world’s most vibrant cities.
Read on to learn more about South America — its history, geography and melting pot cultures. And stay tuned for a further two article on our South American series, when we delve into the individual nations that make up the fourth largest continent in the world.
Travel in South America
The South American continent extends across the two hemispheres from latitudes 12ºN to 55ºS, a north-south distance of approximately 7,440 kilometres. The range of climates thus extends from equatorial rainforest to high mountain climates and also hot and cold deserts, with the influence of latitude being significantly modified by the high Andes. High elevations modify climate significantly, and the Andes form a major physical barrier to the passage of prevailing winds, with dramatic effects on both climate and vegetation. The combination of the cold Humboldt Current flowing along the Pacific coast, and the rain-shadow effect of the Andes, has produced the world’s driest desert – the Atacama of the northern coast of Chile and Peru.
The physical and climatic contrasts of South America are reflected in the racial and cultural differences evident throughout the continent. The continent is home to thirteen nations. Of these, Brazil is by far the largest in terms of both area and population. Brazil shares its border with all other South American nations except Ecuador and Chile.
The Physical Landscape of South America.
The most spectacular physical feature of South America landscape is the Andes Mountains. They run north-south along the western coast of the continent, with Mt Aconcagua on the Chile-Argentine border being the highest elevation at 6,962 metres. The Andes are geologically young fold and fault mountains pushed up from the oceans with marine fossils in the sedimentary deposits. There is considerable volcanic activity associated with the Andes. The altiplano is a series of inter-montaine glacial and alluvial deposits in the folds of the sediments. Very deep ocean troughs lie along the Pacific coast on the edge of the South American plate.
The Amazon River Basin occupying most of Brazil and its surrounding nations is the world’s largest river system and its most significant climatic engine. The river gradient is so slight that Manaus, 1,600 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean where the Amazon commences its journey, is only 31 metres above sea level. Other major river basins are the Orinoco in Venezuela and the Parana in southern Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. The Iguaçu River and Falls are in this basin. The ancient crystalline uplands of Brazil and the Guianas are heavily eroded and provide rich mineral deposits including many precious stones. There are vast tropical and subtropical savannah forests and grasslands surrounding the Amazon basin. Glaciation is very significant in the Andes, and at lower altitudes in the south in Chile and Argentina, with extensive fiords and glacial lakes. The Atacama Desert along the west coast is rich in minerals. The Patagonian Desert in southern Argentina is a rain-shadow desert resulting from the Andes blocking the prevailing westerly winds at that latitude.
Climate & Vegetation of South America
The Amazon lowlands form the world’s major equatorial low-pressure system. The continental heat draws in vast quantities of moist air from the Atlantic Ocean, which is then heated and rises to produce huge volumes of convectional precipitation. This rainfall supports dense equatorial rainforests (selva) in heavily-leached soils.
Savannah forests and temperate grasslands cover most of the lowlands in the east of the continent. The area that is Brazil & Argentina. The warm temperate grasslands of Argentina and Uruguay are some of the world’s most fertile soils. They produce large commercial quantities of grain and livestock for export.
The West Coast
The west coast is cooled by the very cold Humboldt Current flowing north from the Antarctic. It supports vast quantities of fish, but this resource has been over-exploited in recent decades. In southern Chile, the westerly winds are blocked by the Andes and produces heavy rainfalls throughout the year. This cool and remote region is mainly covered by vast temperate rain forests.
Central Chile has a warm temperate Mediterranean-type climate characterised by hot dry summers and warm wet winters. Santiago is in the middle of this region. Central Chile produces large quantities of dairy produce and wines. The coast of Northern Chile and Peru is a desert region because of the Humboldt Current and the Andes. Forests were the original natural vegetation of the uplands and high mountains and they vary with altitude. In fact, the most significant climatic and vegetation variations in Peru are vertical rather than latitudinal. The lower elevations are called the zona caliente (hot zone), the lower mountain areas zona templada and the higher elevation the zona fria or Sierra. The trees change from tropical to temperate with altitude and vanish at the snow line, which is quite high in the tropical latitudes.
A Brief Human History of settlement in South America.
Civilization in North America occurred during the last ice age, 15,000 to 40,000 years ago and eventually crossed the land bridge to South America. The first people had arrived in South America sometime between 12500 to 15000 years ago. The human history of South America can be conveniently categorised into three significant eras as the:
- Pre-Columbian Era
- European Colonial Era
- Post-Colonial Era
South America’s vast rainforests, mountains, plains, and coasts were home to tens of millions of people. Some groups formed permanent settlements. Among those groups were the Quechuas of Peru, and the Aymara of Bolivia.
The Pre-Columbian Era of human settlement in South America.
The Pre-Columbian Era includes all of the many ancient civilisations that existed prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in Central America in 1492, and the Spanish Conquest of most of South America led by Francisco Pizarro, which followed immediately afterwards. The Inca Civilisation was the dominant empire at the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. But they had been preceded by many great and extensive empires over several thousand years, including the Tiahuanaco, Moché and Chimu civilisations. On Odyssey Traveller’s tour of South America, these civilisations are the focus of our studies in Peru and Bolivia.
The first people had arrived in South America some time between 12500 to 15000 years ago. Their ancestors presumably had crossed the Bering land bridge and had worked their way down through North and Central America. The continent was still in the grips of the last ice age. For the next three thousand years or so, men and women made a living from hunting and gathering, and used a variety of stone tools.
As the ice age slowly retreated, the fauna and flora gradually changed. Around 8000 BC, the first evidence of agriculture appeared. Over a five thousand year period between 8,000 and 3000 BC, people in what is now Peru learned to domesticate animals (llamas and alpacas) and grow food crops (potatoes, corn, quinoa, beans, peppers, squash, quava, etc.). Eventually, they abandoned the hunting and gathering lifestyle and settled in permanent villages and towns. As more food was produced, local populations increased. Then something changed on the coast.
Peru’s coastal plain is a narrow strip of land (about 2000 km x 100 km). Hemmed in on the west by the Pacific Ocean, and on the east by the Andes, the coastal plain is extremely dry along most of its length. In many areas, rain doesn’t fall for years at a time. The desert strip is penetrated, however, by more than thirty river valleys that carry water from the Andes down to the Pacific. In these valleys both fertile soil and water are abundant (prime real estate for the first agriculturists).
A new social class
The Humboldt Current, meanwhile, which sweeps northward along the coast, is also one of the richest seas in the world for fish. Beginning in about 3200 BC – roughly the same period when the Egyptians were building their first pyramids – people on Peru’s northern coast began building terraced mounds alongside large plazas, with ceremonial architecture and large scale settlements. The interesting thing about these people is that they farmed little and instead relied upon fish from the sea. Meanwhile, in certain lowland coastal valleys other groups who did farm began building their own large settlements and urban architecture. Fast forward another three thousand years and the gradual process of population growth, the competition for arable land, an erratic climate, advances in food production and the conquest of adjacent river valleys, led to the formation of the Moche Kingdom (AD 100-800) on Peru’s northern coast.
By the time the first Kingdoms arose, small groups of people, or elites, had gained control over much larger masses of people. Farmers were now required to produce a surplus of food or labour over and above their personal needs. They were then required to relinquish that surplus in order to support a ruler and an emerging upper class. Over thousands of years, on different parts of the coast and in different parts of the Andes, a growing number of Peru’s inhabitants had gradually become peasants or taxpayers: a new social class. “Civilisation” had thus begun. It can be defined as the development of a complex social order based upon the division of labour between rulers and food producing cultivators. Here, amid the barren deserts of Peru and high up in the Andes, a revolution had taken place; one that would form the basis of every subsequent Peruvian civilisation to come.
The emergence of societies within South America
Eventually a series of large, complex, politically organized societies emerged, such as at Tiwanaku (Bolivia) and Chimu (Peru). By AD 900, in the region of Lake Titicaca for example, the Tiwanaku civilisation had already flourished for more than seven hundred years. They had erected giant, perfectly cut stone monoliths and temples, had forged copper tools, and had created and maintained a capital of some 25,000 to 50,000 people, located high up on the Altiplano at 3840 meters in elevation. (The population of London at the time, by comparison, was less than 30,000)
By AD 1400, the Kingdom of Tiwanaku had long since disappeared. Meanwhile, on the north-western coast of Peru, the Chimu Empire had gradually conquered river valley after river valley. The Empire eventually extended its rule for nearly a thousand miles from Tumbez in the North, all the way down to where the modern capital of Lima now lies.
Had the Spaniards arrived in Peru one hundred years earlier than they did, say in 1432 rather than 1532, the Spanish chroniclers would no doubt have written excitedly about the great Chimu Empire and its golden treasures – while the Inca kingdom far to the south would have been largely ignored.
The rise of the Incas in South America.
As the Chimu Lords administered their empire, built irrigation canals and collected taxes in the form of labour from the masses of peasants under their control, far to the south, the tiny kingdom of the Incas suddenly started to explode. According to Inca legend, the Inca version of “Alexander the Great” who began this process was a man named Cusi Yuipanqui. At the time of his ascension sometime in the early fifteenth century, the Kingdom of the Incas was spread over a relatively minuscule area centred on the valley of Cuzco, located at 3399 meters in the Andes.
The Kingdom of the Incas was similar to other kingdoms that had existed in Peru. Peasants relinquished their power to warrior kings, who in this particular case maintained their exalted positions by claiming divine ascent from the ultimate source of all life, the Sun. The Inca were a relatively small ethnic group that hailed from a region to the south of Cuzco
For a two hundred year period, (roughly AD 1200 to 1400), they had gradually been consolidating their power in the Cuzco basin, conquering or intermarrying with their neighbours and slowly developing a small state. Then, beginning in the 1400s, the Inca launched a prolonged series of military adventures conquering tribes across the Andes and on the coast. Their martial and organisational abilities were obviously exceptional. For within a period of some sixty years, the Inca had transformed their tiny kingdom — originally measuring perhaps less than 100 miles in diameter — into an immense empire stretching for some 2500 miles. The centre of their kingdom was Cuzco, which lay at the intersection of all four corners of their regions. (In this case — all roads lead to Cuzco!)
The European Colonial Era (1532 – early 1800s) of settlement in South America
The European Colonial Era began with the invasion of the western coast of the continent by the Spanish conquistador Pizarro in 1532. He established the Spanish Vice-Royalty with its capital in Lima and soon conquered the Andean region of the Incas. At its zenith, the Vice-Royalty extended over most of the large area now occupied by Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. The national language of each of these nations is Spanish.
The Portuguese occupied the large area of Brazil and introduced slaves from Africa to work the sugar plantations established on the tropical lowlands of the east coast. The national language of Brazil is thus Portuguese. Britain, the Netherlands and France each colonised small areas in the north-east region which were known as British Guiana, Dutch Guiana and French Guiana respectively. Since the post-Second World War decolonisation, these former British and Dutch colonies are known as Guyana and Suriname.
During the Colonial Era a relatively small number of families acquired large grants of land and established very wealthy dynasties. Many of these still exist today as a very wealthy and privileged elite. The local people were subjugated to work as virtual slaves for the land-owning families. Land reform is one of the most pressing problems throughout South America today and the source of political unrest in many societies.
The Spanish Conquistadors and South America
Although the popular myth is that conquistadors were professional soldiers sent out and financed by the Spanish King in order to extend the emerging Spanish Empire, nothing could have been further from the truth. Evidence suggests that the Spaniards, who raised forces and bought passages on ships headed for the New World, formed a representative sample of their lower class compatriots back home. The vast majority of expeditionary Spaniards, therefore, travelled to the New World not in the employ of the King, but as private citizens hoping to acquire the wealth and status that had so eluded them at home. Men joined expeditions of conquest in the New World at their own expense in the hopes of getting rich. This invariably meant that they hoped to find a large population of natives in order to strip them of their wealth and live off of their labour.
In a sense, New World conquest was about men seeking a way around one of life’s basic rules — that human beings have to work for a living, just like the rest of the animal world. In Peru, as elsewhere in the Americas, Spaniards were not looking for fertile land that they could farm; they were looking for the end of their own need to perform manual labour. To do so, they needed to find large enough groups of people they could force to carry out all the laborious tasks necessary to provide them with the essentials of life: food, shelter, clothing, and ideally, liquid wealth. Conquest, then, had little to do with adventure, but rather had everything to do with groups of men willing to do just about anything in order to avoid working for a living. Stripped down to its barest bones, the conquest of Peru was all about finding a comfortable retirement.
Using historic evidence to trace settlement patterns in South American people.
One may balk at the possibility that Spanish explorers set off to intentionally destroy aboriginal peoples in the New World. This seems to be assuming motives based on the results. It is possible to believe that the explorers, while motivated by selfish desires, were looking for riches, and just happened to run into civilizations already populating the lands they invaded and that the destruction of these native peoples was an indirect result of their desire for wealth.
However, the inescapable fact is that there was plenty of uninhabited land in the Americas. This leads to the conclusion that the subjugation of native peoples was a clear goal preceding the expeditions, and not a spur of the moment decision when faced with hostile groups.
The Spanish Conquistadors came from largely impoverished backgrounds. Their life, if not spent exploring, would have been consumed with heavy manual labour. Their whole goal in leaving Spain was to avoid such a life. This explains why the Spanish attempted to conquer a vast civilisation. It also suggests why they stayed in a country where they were vastly outnumbered, when they could have just as easily taken their spoils and returned home to their previous social position. Instead, many of the original conquistadors stuck around long enough to see the end of Inca uprisings.
First contact between the Incas and Spanish Conquistadors
In the first contact between Spanish and Incas at Cajamarca, 167 Spanish fighters defeated approximately 10,000 Incas. Six to ten thousand Incas were killed in several hours of battle, while the Spanish didn’t lose a single person. This is largely due to the superior weaponry, armour and horses that the Spanish possessed, but no doubt also due to the fact that there was no possible retreat. They had to win by surprise and confusion against a battle hardened force. The Inca, massively outnumbering them, had not faced canon and horse. The Spanish tactic of trickery and slaughter of the chiefs and military commanders at first strike, whilst seizing the Inca King, effectively left the Inca army leader-less and in confusion long enough for them to consolidate control over superior numbers.
As had happened in Central America, the Spanish were also able to make good use of previously warring factions of the Inca state and gain firm control of the masses by installing a puppet Inca at their head.
Vilcabamba; A South American historic jewel
Everyone always talks about Machu Picchu and its Inca connections. But Vilcabamba is the true historic treasure: the real last Inca stronghold and lost city. Hiram Bingham believed he had found the lost stronghold at Machu Picchu in 1927. He was wrong. It was actually further into the jungle at Vilcabama
There are no saints in this story. While the Spaniards come off as the greater of the two evils, the Incas aren’t entirely innocent. It’s not as if the Incas were a peaceful people – they were a conquering people as well. Their kingdom was built upon military conquests by Inca forces, which overall were a minority number in the kingdom. The Inca nobles were just as brutal as the Spanish, they just happened to lose this war due to technological limitations in weapons, cavalry, and epidemiology. The impact of diseases, like smallpox and plague, which preceded the Spanish Conquistadors, played a significant role in weakening the Inca forces against them, having killed many leaders and peasants alike.
While Cortes conquered the Aztecs of Central America in a couple of years, the whole process of conquering the Incas took a total of 40 years. This extended from Pizarro’s first battle with Atahualpa’s Incan forces at Cajamarca (1532), to Francisco Toledo as the Viceroy of Peru. He waged a series of Spanish civil wars in Peru, which swept both the original conquistadors and their supporters from power and finally captured Tupac Amaru in Vilcabamba in 1572.
The Post- Colonial Era (1800 – 1818/1826) of South American history.
Spain and Portugal continued to extract great riches from their South American colonies. They ruled with an iron grip until the late 18th century, when their power was weakened at home by European conflicts. During the late 1700s, local revolutionaries began to agitate for independence from their colonial rulers. As a result, resistance movements spread throughout the continent.
Two major figures led the Independence movements and fought the battles against Spain. They were José de San Martin and Simon Bolivar. San Martin was based in Buenos Aires, while Bolivar was in Caracas in Venezuela. The Buenos Aires revolt began in 1810 and on 9 July 1816, San Martin declared Independence from Spain. The 9th of July is Argentina’s national day, and the Avenida 9 Julio in Buenos Aires is the world’s widest street. San Martin then marched westward from Buenos Aires to Mendoza and crossed the Andes to liberate Santiago and Chile before moving north along the coast towards Peru. San Martin battled the Spanish in Peru in 1821. Bolivar raised an army and liberated what is now Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. Then, he fought the decisive Battle of Ayacucho in Peru in 1824, in the company of the local hero, Sucré. This battle secured the independence of the remaining Spanish colonies.
The new nations formed during the early 19th century were all very nationalistic. They were prepared to enlarge their territories at the expense of neighbours, particularly if valuable natural resources were involved. The most significant instance was the Pacific War of 1879 – 1884, fought between Chile, Peru and Bolivia. The major catalyst was the huge deposits of nitrates, borax and copper in the Atacama Desert. Chile was the final victor, as is clearly evidenced by the Armada Monument in Valparaiso. By contrast, both Peru and Bolivia lost territory. Bolivia lost the towns of Tarapacá, Tacna and Arica and its access to the Pacific Coast. Bolivia must rely on Peru and Chile for port access – a source of significant indignation to this day.
South America in the 20th century
In the Chaco War of 1934, Bolivia lost territory to Paraguay. Bolivia today has the poorest economy of South America. Nationalism remains a very strident force throughout South America and border disputes occur despite the formation of the Organisation of the American States (OAS).
During the 20th century there were large migrations of Europeans to South America, especially to Brazil, Argentina and Peru. There were very substantial British investments in South America, particularly in railways. Following the Second World War, there was a mass-migration of displaced persons from Europe very similar to the migration to Australia. There are significant German agricultural communities in Central Chile and a large population of German immigrants in Argentina. There are also large Japanese communities in Peru and Brazil. US political and economic policies exert a very significant influence on the various South American nations. Chile and Argentina are the most ‘European’ of the South American nations, while Peru and Ecuador have the largest indigenous populations.
Understanding South America for travellers
South America is a fascinating, diverse region of the world. Its ancient and recent histories continue to be studied, with more and more being uncovered. If you wish to read more about travel in South America, stay tuned for an upcoming article on Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil. We explore the unique culture of each country, and study their recent histories in more detail. You will find that South America offers something to every traveller.
Odyssey Traveller tours of South America
On Odyssey Traveller’s small group tour of South America, participants will be introduced to spectacular contrasts in the physical and climatic geography that provide the setting for major contrasts in human cultures, both historical and contemporary. Our journey incorporates the study of the major archaeological sites and museums of the Tiahuanaco, Moché, Chimu and Inca pre-Columbian civilisations, together with visits to Spanish and Portuguese colonial-era cities and towns. The subsistence economies of the altiplano villages will be contrasted with large modern urban centres. We will experience the cultures of the Andean peoples with their dances and music as a contrast to the stylised Brazilian samba and the Argentine tango. If you are passionate about learning while you travel, you will find a variety of opportunities with Odyssey Traveller. If you have a keen interest in archaeology, Odyssey Traveller offers further specialised tours. Alternatively, you may be inspired by this colonial-era architecture to explore Spain and Portugal, too! As long as you remain inquisitive, we continue to design tours to challenge and excite.
About Odyssey Traveller
Odyssey Traveller is committed to charitable activities that support the environment and cultural development of Australian and New Zealand communities. Accordingly, we are pleased to announce that since 2012, Odyssey has been awarding $10,000 Equity & Merit Cash Scholarships each year. We award scholarships on the basis of academic performance and demonstrated financial need. We award at least one scholarship per year. We’re supported through our educational travel programs, and your participation helps Odyssey achieve its goals.