South America is alive with incredible archeological sites, rich cultural heritage, and some of the most treasured ancient wonders in the world. This intoxicating continent shares a history with some of the earliest migrating peoples on Earth – going back tens of thousands of years, powerful indigenous empires, European settlers, invaders, and so much more.
The result of this complex past is an endless list of fascinating and significant archeological sites that have thrilled explores, historians and wide-eyed travelers for centuries.

So if you’re someone who is excited by cultural sites, evocative ruins and seeing the remnants of ancient history first-hand – or simple want a spectacular day trip to break up your downtime, South America is tough to top.

But where to start? From the hidden, crumbling walls of lost citadels in Colombia to the impossible Nazca Lines in Peru, ancient rock carvings in Bolivia to the giant Moais Statues on Easter Island – South America offers up so many treasurers to choose from, there are no two trips that look the same.
So, here at Atelier we’ve put together a list of our top archeological sites in South America for history lovers, to help you pick the perfect mix for your perfect tour.

1. Machu Picchu: Peru

No list of South America’s greatest archeological treasures is complete without Machu Picchu, the Lost City, an unmistakable site that has come to symbolize the great Inca Empire. Often voted the top tourist destination on the planet and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu, found high atop in the Andean foothills of Peru, was rediscovered by explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911.

The site itself is as evocative as they come, a walled citadel of ceremonial areas, houses, temples, gardens and gates that all overlook the incredible Sacred Valley from a lofty mountaintop perch. Beside Machu Picchu is the lesser-visited sister site of Huayna Picchu, where the Inca built terraces and temples only accessible by incredibly steep mountainside stairs. If you have a head for heights, you can climb the staircase for fantastic aerial views of the Lost City below!

It is widely believed that Machu Picchu provided Inca nobility with a final, hidden refuge when Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the 16th Century. And that’s all-too-easy to imagine for anyone who takes on the iconic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. One of the world’s best treks, the Inca Trail still follows the original path to the Citadel, winding its way through forests and gorges, up high mountain passes, and along cliff edges until reaching the elevated ceremonial site of Inti Punku, the Sun Gate. Here, lucky hikers can see the sunrise over the city as the morning mist clears and Machu Picchu is revealed in all its glory – a truly unforgettable travel memory.

For anyone looking to enjoy a more leisurely exploration of Machu Picchu, there are some fantastic hotels around the nearby town of Aguas Calientes or you can travel from Cusco by car, rail (for one of the most scenic journeys in South America) or the 5-star Hiram Bingham train, before your private tour of the site.

2. Capivara National Park: Brazil

Home to the oldest cave paintings in the Americas (over 25,000 years old), stunning rock formations and evocative viewpoints, the Capivara National Park in Brazil’s northeastern region is a must for history lovers.

The setting is suitably dramatic for such an important – UNESCO-stamped – area of historical interest. Here, among the forested valley floors, towering cliffs and deep caverns you’ll find over 300 archeological sites dotted throughout. Many of these are found within the caverns and caves that line the cliffsides, where some of the earliest known portraits, paintings and depictions line the walls.

Capivara National Park covers a huge area across the municipalities of São Raimundo Nonato, São João do Piauí and Canto do Buriti, areas known for their tropical vegetation, valleys, mountains and plains. It’s a true hidden historical wonderland and offers an enchanting insight into life here, tens of thousands of years ago.

When visiting Capivara National Park and witnessing the perfectly-preserved cave paintings, ranging for 4,000 to 25,000 thousand years’ old, it’s the very human, innocent feel to them that really stands out. The paintings themselves include wild animals, human figures and what seem to be families or farming communities. Though simple, they serve as a time machine to another age entirely.

In fact, evidence of human habitation here has been dated back to over 50,000 years ago, an incredible thought.

3. Kuelap: Peru

Peru is no stranger to awe-inspiring archaeological sites, ancient wonders and iconic cultural gems, and the isolated fortress of Kuelap – one of the largest of its type in the Americas – is among the best of them.

Kuelap, in Peru’s Amazonas region (accessible via Tarapoto, Jaén, Chiclayo, or Chachapoyas), is quite simply a stunning ancient wonder in an equally stunning location. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s as historically significant as it is beautiful, dramatic, and thought-provoking to visit.

This sprawling hilltop site of temples, towers, defensive walls and circular houses was at the center of the Chachapoya Civilization some 2,400 years ago. The Chachapoya were some of the most prominent and established peoples in South America for over 1,000 years, with Kuelap’s towering walls, ingenious architecture and ornate stonework paying testament to that fact.

A staggering 400+ separate buildings and dwellings make up the once impregnable Kuelap Fortress, meaning history lovers can happily lose days here absorbing the stunning valley views, intricate pathways and important structures. Without doubt, the fascinating Kuelap Fortress and its isolated, elevated setting stand tall among the best archeological sites to visit in South America.

4. Nazca Lines: Peru

Spanning a 195sq mile expanse of desert in southern Peru and etched into the sand (only visible from the air), the impossible Nazca Lines are one of the world’s greatest mysteries and greatest historical sites.

Dating back over 2,000 years, the Nazca Lines still divide historians and experts to this day. From what they mean to how they were made, who created them or how and why these perfect depictions of insects, animals, geometric lines and geoglyphs can only be witnessed from the sky, there is no consensus on it all.

Some say the lines represent an astronomical calendar, others that they’re ceremonial symbols, perhaps communication pieces with the gods or even made by, or for, alien lifeforms! Whatever you believe, read, study or see before visiting the Nazca Lines, once here – in the deserts of southern Peru – you can look forward to an overflight to witness giant monkeys, killer whales, birds, spiders, trees, plants and geometric shapes perfectly printed on the desert floor, exactly as they were over 2,000 years ago.

As well as the lines themselves, this entire region near Paracas is full of interest and intrigue, from ancient mummies to the famous “Spaceman” cliff carving, there is nowhere quite like Nazca and the otherworldly Nazca Lines.

5. The Moai of Easter Island: Chile

Head to Chile on the western fringes of South America, then travel nearly 1,300 miles west across the Pacific Ocean and you’ll find Rapa Nui (known as Easter Island), a dramatic volcanic land mass jutting sharply out of the ocean waves. And it’s here, on an isolated island cut off from mainland civilization, that the iconic Moai Statues of the Rapa Nui People have stood guard for over 1,000 years. These gigantic – and instantly recognizable – stone monoliths were built between the 10th and 16th century and have filled the imagination of historians, archaeologists and visitors ever since.

Easter Island is a fascinating place to visit for so many reasons. This is a veritable treasure trove of cultural heritage, folklore, outdoor activities and beautiful landscapes like volcanic craters and untouched beaches – not to mention the boutique hotels and fantastic food to enjoy each evening. But it’s the unique ancient history of Easter Island and seeing the legendary Moai statues up close that is the highlight of any trip. Nothing prepares your for your first glimpse of a Rapa Nui Moai.

Their true meaning is still being uncovered, as are the statues themselves with many still hidden beneath the rocky earth of the island and holding their secret meaning with them. Many believe they were made to sit atop important tombs and represent those buried beneath, others that they were aimed at the Gods to provide safety, good weather and food, or a tool to communicate with celestial beings. Whatever their purpose, the hundreds of Moai across Easter Island are one of the world’s great wonders and a must for history lovers visiting Chile.

So what will you see when you get there? All Moai are a sight to behold, carved from huge lumps of rock weighing several tons each and standing between 6 and 30ft tall, though lots of the giant heads scattering hillsides and plains are likely the tip of much larger statues. In fact, recent excavations have revealed enormous bodies below the soil of some, intricate carvings, symbols, and writing. One of Easter Island’s most striking sites is Ahu Tongariki on the island’s south east coast where 15 impressive moai stand perfectly in line, or Ahu Nau Nau near the white sandy beach of Anakena in the north, among so many more.

6. Ingapirca: Ecuador

The Inca are so often associated with Peru that it’s often overlooked their empire stretched far beyond Peruvian borders, including into Ecuador. Travel 50miles north of Cuenca and the Ingapirca Ruins are Ecuador’s most prominent example of Inca culture in the country.

There is an unmistakably Inca feel to Ingapirca, with its Temple of the Sun and Moon, recognizable round houses and solid stonework, yet this sprawling complex has its own character too, thanks to the architectural influences of the native Canari Peoples who thrived here before the Inca arrived.

Sitting at 10,500ft above sea level and surrounded by subtropical plains and tree-lined hills, Ingapirca is a beautiful site to visit in South America. The perfect addition to any trip to Ecuador, time can be spent wandering the ceremonial areas and temples, homesteads and terraces.

What’s more, not only are the Ingapirca Ruins a fascinating archeological site, but as testament to their Inca, Canari, and local heritage, the site is still used for folklore festivals, cultural events and traditional celebrations to this day.

7. Cueva de las Manos: Argentina

Saving one of the world’s most incredible, mesmerizing and touching archeological sites until last, Cueva de las Manos in Río Pinturas, Argentina, links us to our ancient ancestors some 13,000 years ago, through stenciled outlines of their human hands that cover the walls.

Unsurprisingly, Cueva de las Manos translates to Cave of Hands, though there are plenty more paintings of animals, hunting scenes and depictions of daily life between 13,000 and 9,500 years ago. Yet, it’s the connection you feel with the people who dwelt here through those all-too-recognizable hand portraits that makes this archeological site so breathtaking, humbling and thought provoking for history lovers.

The site itself forms part of a much larger study of ancient hunter-gatherer communities being conducted in this untouched region of Argentina’s southwest, near the arid and mountainous border with Chile.

Not as dramatic as an Inca fortress or imposing as a Moia Statue, the hand silhouettes of Cueva de las Manos may not have the Hollywood wow factor of other historical sites in South America, but they are perhaps the most moving and relatable to our fellow, ancient humans.

No matter where you choose to go and whatever your interests, the historical gems to be found in Southern America will keep you coming back for more time and time again.

Speak to an Atelier specialist today and they will craft your dream tailor-made tour.

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