Curious about South America, a land of natural wonders and vibrant culture? Despite all the clichés and some bad reputation, this fascinating continent has something to offer to every type of traveller. So whether you’re planning a trip there or just want to learn more about it, here are 30 important facts about South America that you should know.
30 facts you must know about South America
- South America is the fourth largest continent in the world, covering an area of 17,840,000 square miles.
- It is home to approximately 422 million people, making it the fifth most populous continent on Earth.
- Brazil is the largest country in South America by both land area and population. With over 208 million people, no surprise that it’s a melting pot of various cultures and backgrounds. Learn more about it in our post about Brazil.
- The largest lake in South America is Lake Titicaca, which straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia. At 3,812 meters (12,507 feet), it’s also the highest navigable lake in the world. For the indigenous inhabitants, it’s a sacred site, full of legends and a strong cultural heritage. Read how best to visit Lake Titicaca and what you should know in advance.
The Andes mountains run along the western coast of South America, and are the longest mountain range in the world. It’s home to many of the highest peaks in the continent, including Aconcagua, which is 6,959 meters (22,831 feet) tall. Although Aconcagua is considered to be relatively easy to summit, there are several other, less strenuous treks around it. Read about all the possible day hikes in the Aconcagua Natural Park.
- The longest river in South America is the Amazon River, which stretches for over 6,500 km (4,000 miles). If you have time, it’s possible to travel by boat along the river, through the jungle.
- The Amazon Rainforest covers parts of Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia, and is home to the largest number of species of plants and animals in the world. It’s really a magical place to visit! Read our adventure in the Amazon Rainforest in Tarapoto, Peru.
- The Iguazú Falls, on the border between Argentina and Brazil, are one of the largest and most spectacular waterfall systems in the world. They can be visited from both Argentina and Brazil – which can be a bit confusing. Read our post about everything you need to know before visiting the Iguazu Falls.
- By the way, Iguazú are made up of over 275 individual falls that stretch on nearly 3 km (2 miles).
- The Atacama Desert in Chile is the driest place on Earth. Some areas haven’t received hardly any rainfall for hundreds of years (however, this seems to be changing). It’s one of the most popular tourist spots in South America, and it can easily empty out your pockets. Read our Atacama special tips on how to make it cheap, without missing those crazy landscapes.
- The world’s highest waterfall, Angel Falls, is located in Venezuela and drops at a staggering 979 meters (3,212 feet). It had to be featured on our list of the most beautiful waterfalls in South America. So if you have the chance, don’t miss it!
- The southernmost city in the world is Ushuaia, Argentina. It’s located on the island of Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America. You’ll find there some of the best multi-day hikes in Patagonia.
- The world’s highest capital city is La Paz, Bolivia, which is located at 3,640 meters (11,942 feet) above sea level. We found it to be one of the most fascinating cities in South America – here’s what we like in La Paz.
- The Amazon is sometimes referred to as the “lungs of the Earth” due to its role in generating oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide.
- The Galápagos Islands, located off the coast of Ecuador, host many unique species of plants and animals. They greatly inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
- The Pantanal, located in Brazil, is the world’s largest wetland. With a wide variety of animals, including jaguars, capybaras, and hundreds of species of birds, it’s one of the most interesting places for animal lovers. It’s part of our top backpacking destinations in Brazil.
- Patagonia, located in Argentina and Chile, is a region known for its rugged beauty and some of the highest peaks on the continent. It’s a true gem for hikers and nature lovers! Here are the most important things to know when planning a trip to Patagonia.
- When visiting the Andes, never underestimate the “soroche“, or altitude sickness. Symptoms include shortness of breath, headache and dizziness. It’s important to acclimatise over several days, and take your time when climbing/trekking.
- South America is home to several unique and endangered animal species, including the pink river dolphin, the giant otter, and the Andean condor. These animals can only be found in certain regions of the continent and are facing threats from habitat destruction, poaching, and other human activities. Conservation efforts are underway to protect them, but more work is needed to ensure their survival.
- The continent knows a wide variety of climates, including tropical, desert, and polar, making it a great destination for travellers who seek a diverse range of experiences. Check out our complete South America backpacking guide with our personal tips from our own travels.
- Spanish and Portuguese are the most widely spoken languages on the continent, but there are also many indigenous languages spoken throughout. The main one is Quechua, the language of the Incas, which is still spoken in Peru and Bolivia. Many landmarks there have a Quechua name – as illustrated in our post about Quechua place names.
- The rainforest hosts several indigenous tribes who have lived in the region for centuries and have their own unique cultures and traditions. A few of them refuse all contact with our modern world.
- The iconic Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a symbol of the city and one of the most recognizable landmarks in South America. Standing atop the Corcovado mountain at 38 meters (125 feet), it offers breath-taking views of the city and the surrounding region.
- The equator line passes only a few kilometres north of Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The name in fact means “the middle” in the indigenous Kichwa language. Nowadays, Quito has a crazy bus system but also lots of interesting cultural events.
- Several ancient civilizations lived in South America; including the Inca empire, which was one of the most advanced and prosperous in the world. We are fascinated by these ancient civilizations so we wrote a short introduction to the Andean mythology.
The largest carnival in the world takes place annually in February in Rio de Janeiro. But there are fun carnivals and other festivals elsewhere in Brazil too. Read about those colourful events in our Brazilian festival calendar.
- The Inca Trail, a stunning mountain-hiking route in Peru, leads to the ancient city of Machu Picchu. It’s a VERY popular tourist destination, so it’s known for being expensive. However, there are ways to make your visit to Machu Picchu more affordable.
- US dollars can be used in various countries of South America, and it’s the official currency in Ecuador since 2000. By the way, read why we think Ecuador is a great country to start exploring South America; not only because of the currency.
Tango, a popular dance originating in Argentina, has become a symbol of the country’s identity. The same can be said about Uruguay, which shares a lot of cultural similarities with its neighbour. You can experience tango in many ways, so why not read our story about discovering tango in Argentina and Uruguay?
- South America has a long history of political instability and military coups, with many countries experiencing drastic changes in government. Art is often a good way to understand history; some of our favourite documentaries about South America deal with those events.
Whether you’re an adventure seeker, a history buff, a nature lover, or simply looking to make unforgettable travel experiences, South America certainly has something for you. With its colourful lifestyle, rich cultural heritage, stunning landscapes and vibrant cities, it’s sure to steal your heart.
Browse our blog to discover (some of) the beauty of South America. And feel free to ask any questions in the comments section at the bottom of any post.