It’s home to one of the most picturesque landscapes, unspoiled jungles, panoramic beaches, marble caves, rich biodiversity and unparalleled number of plant and animal species. It’s unquestionably the most beautiful continent on the planet. Keep reading to learn more about South America facts and secrets.
Map of the continent
South America is the world’s 4th largest continent after Asia, Africa and North America with an area of 17.84 million km². Most of the South American countries are located within the western and southern hemispheres. However, Guyana, French Guiana, Venezuela, Suriname, parts of Ecuador, parts of Brazil, and nearly all of Colombia are in the northern hemisphere. The continent has 12 countries and 3 dependent territories.
Brazil is the largest country in South America and the fifth widest land in the world covering 8.516 million km².
Suriname is the smallest independent South American country which only covers 163,820 km². French Guiana is the smallest land in South America that covers only 91,000 km² but it’s a French territory after all.
On the land
South America meets the Caribbean Sea in the north, the Atlantic Ocean in the east and the Pacific Ocean in the west. The Isthmus of Panama connects North and South America altogether.
South America boasts no shortage of great rivers like the Paraná, the Paraguay, the Rio Negro and the Orinoco rivers. The second-longest river in the world -the Amazon- runs through South America.
Starting from the Andes Mountains of Peru, The Amazon and its tributaries flow through Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil, before finishing a 6437-kilometer journey at the Atlantic Ocean.
The freshwater provided suitable land for rainforests to grow. The tropical South America region represents the greatest concentration of tropical rainforest in the world. The Amazon Rainforest is the world’s largest Rainforest that covers about 5.5 million km² of the continent and spreads through 8 South American countries.
There are many other enormously beautiful rainforests in South America, such as the Caatinga rainforest which lies around the São Francisco River in Brazil and The Valdivian temperate rainforest that covers 248,100 km² in Chile and Argentina.
It’s the only continent where you can find a mountain range that spans the full length of its western side; The Andes are the longest continental mountain range in the world with 7,000 km in length and a passage through 7 countries: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. The Andes have 2 different climate zones: the Wet Andes and the Dry Andes.
The Andes have plenty of the highest mountains of the world. The Aconcagua Mountain of the Andes is around 7.000 m tall and it’s the tallest mountain in the world outside of Asia. The peak of Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo in The Andes where Earth’s bulge is the furthest point on Earth from Earth’s center. It’s the closest point on Earth to the stars!
South America has the 8th largest desert in the world. The Patagonian desert extends from the Andes in the west to the Atlantic Ocean in the east with an area of 572,883 km² in Argentina, but the Atacama desert in Chile is way more famous for being the driest nonpolar place on earth and being completely devoid of animal and botanical life.
This continent with its huge rainforests, glaciated mountains and remarkable deserts is home to different ecosystems with thousands of species endemic to the region. The Amazon Rainforest alone provides a home for one-tenth of the entire world’s animal species including some of the finest wildlife like the jaguars, anteaters and the vicious piranha.
The Andes have a vast array of their own fauna to mesmerize the biologists with more than 1,700 species of birds, almost 600 species of reptiles and about 600 species of mammals, such as the mountain tapir -also known as the Andean Tapir- which is the largest mammal in the tropical Andes region and the friendly Lamas.
Even the harsh Patagonian desert has more than 500 animal species that survive in waterless land and hot weather like the famous pumas, the “huemul” deer which is the most endangered deer in South America and “pichi” the Patagonian armadillo.
The climate varies widely due to the sheer size of the land. There is a wide tropical zone around the equator that is usually hot, humid and susceptible to tropical rains such as Ecuador, Brazil and Colombia.
A temperate zone is found in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay which usually has warm humid summers and mild winters.
An arid deserted zone is found in Chile and Argentina in the Patagonian and Atacama deserts. Besides, a polar frosty region is found in Ushuaia; a city in Argentina located in the southernmost tip of South America and believed to be “the end of the world”.
Sadly, a beautiful continent like this is prone to earthquakes and tsunamis especially in Chile, western Argentina, western Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela.
The most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the world was the 1960 Valdivia earthquake; a 10-minute earthquake with over 1.500 deaths. The tremors caused localized tsunamis that severely damaged the Chilean coast with 25 m waves.
South America also has over 200 beautiful scenic volcanos. The Andean volcanic belt has 4 volcanic zones; Northern, Central, Southern, and Austral. The Central Volcanic Zone (CVZ) is the main volcano zone in the world; it extends from Peru to Chile and has the highest active volcano in the world: Ojos Del Salado which is 6,893 meters tall.
South America is facing the threats of deforestation and the Amazonian wildfires. They’re globally disastrous acts that lead to climate change which is melting the Andean glaciers causing floods and rising sea levels, species extinctions, wildlife endangerment, water stress, pollution, more diseases, decreased yields and food shortage.
Meet the People
South America is the 4th populous continent in the world with 434.9 million people living there. Brazil is the most crowded country with around 212 million people.
There are over 600 different languages spoken in the continent. Due to the Spanish colonization of the area from 15th century to 19th century, Spanish is the most spoken language in South America with 210 million speakers, edging out Portuguese by a few millions.
Indigenous languages are still practiced like the Quechua which is spoken by six to eight million speakers across the Andean region.
The world became familiar with South America when Christopher Columbus first stepped onto the land in 1498, but civilization there existed way before that. The Inca Empire had its mesmerizing art and architecture around Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile and Colombia.
It might be a piece of heaven on earth, but the uneven land/wealth distribution and eco-political conflicts are among the reasons behind the struggle of a few nations with poverty such as Suriname and Bolivia. While other countries, such as Chile and Uruguay are considered rich countries in South America.
South America is known for its love of football; many of the world-ranked footballers came from this land. These include, the Argentinian legends Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi and the Brazilian stars Pelé and Ronaldinho.
The World Cup took place on the South American lands 5 times; twice in Brazil in 1950 and 2014, Uruguay in 1930, Chile in 1962, and Argentina in 1978.
Brazil has won the most titles of all times with 5 wins. Uruguay and Argentina won the title as well.
This land gave the world some of the unique sports influenced by the sand and seas. These include the Footvolley originating on the Copacabana Beach.
The music in this part of the world is so vibrant and alive that you can’t help but to dance to the beating rhythms of the Brazilian Samba, the Chilean Nueva Canción, the Colombian Cumbia and the Argentinian Tango.
Percussion instruments are the main ones for creating these unique syncretic melodies of song, dance and performance.
Take a Walk
South America is full of jaw-dropping gems, especially fascinating landscapes. The natural beauty there is one-of-a-kind.
Uyuni Salt Flat – Bolivia
Let’s start our trip with one of the most beautiful spots on earth. The Uyuni Salt Flat is believed to be the outcome of the evaporation of a prehistoric lake, the nearly 11,000 sq. km. of bright-white salt is the world’s largest salt lake. The best time to visit the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia is between December and April when the wet weather creates a magical mirror effect, so don’t miss the chance to have a photograph with the world’s biggest mirror.
Canaima National Park – Venezuela
Welcome to the 3rd biggest national park in the world covering 30,000 sq. km. it’s home to the highest waterfall on earth: the Angel falls which are 979 meters tall.
For only 4 US dollars; you can easily enter this UNESCO World Heritage Site to enjoy hiking, mountain climbing, boat trips, swimming and making friends with wild rare species, such as the Linnaeus’s two-toed sloth and the white-faced saki. Just watch out for the South American bushmaster and the cougar.
The Marble Caves – Chile
Let’s head to one of the most extraordinary spots in the world. The water slowly carved out the solid rocks over the years in General Carrera Lake forming those mesmerizing colorful hues.
You can either book a kayak tour or a boat tour that will take you from Chile Chico City to the marble caves.
Always choose a sunny morning. That way, your trip will be way calmer in the rocky lake while the sun is illuminating the caves and the turquoise water for some really awesome photos.
From wonder walls on the surface to a whole church carved underground; People in South America built wonders.
Redeemer Jesus – Brazil
The most famous landmark in South America is definitely Christ the Redeemer statue on Mount Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro, it’s a 38-meter tall sculpture recognized as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
Your trip there is not only for a photo with the statue but also for the scenic views of the mountainous landscape and the splendid Atlantic Coasts.
Machu Picchu – Peru
Let’s take a trip back in time to the 15th-century mysterious Incan citadel of Machu Picchu. It was built by the Incan Empire with dry polished stones around 1450 AD in the Andes Mountains around 7,000 feet above sea level.
This place will leave you amazed by the interesting details of how people succeeded in moving the heavy rocks without any high-tech vehicles, how they could cut the rocks so delicately and make them fit together so perfectly that not even a paper can come in between two stones. No wonder that this place is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
Salt Cathedral – Colombia
A hidden gem in South America carved entirely out of salt in a former salt mine in Zipaquirá around 600 feet underground.
It goes back to the 1930s when miners built a sanctuary to pray for protection from toxic gases and explosions. The work was so dangerous that they believed that coming out alive from this place is a miracle.
Zipaquirá’s miners and religious figures in this deeply Catholic country pushed the Colombian government to convert this miraculous site into a church in 1953.
It was a massive challenge to work underground, but the efforts paid off to a marvel of architecture that will take your breath away. It’s even called “the first wonder of Colombia”.
What lies beneath!
In 2011, Brazilian scientists at a meeting of the Geophysical Society in Rio de Janeiro announced the discovery of a new river “under” the Amazon; The Rio Hamza or the Hamza River -named after the head of scientists who found the groundwater flow- is a subterranean river that lies 4 km underneath the Amazon River.
Scientists believe that it has the same length as the Amazon. It even runs in the same direction but the Hamza River is hundreds of times wider than the Amazon!