21 Surprising Facts About South America

South America facts

South America is a land of contrast. The Andes tower over the continent, dividing a range of unique ecosystems. From rainforest to volcanic islands and barren deserts, South America has it all. 

With so much going on, it is no wonder South America is such an interesting place. If you’re wondering just what it is that makes this continent so captivating, read on. We’ve compiled a list of our favourite facts about South America, from the fascinating to the outright bizarre. 

Without further ado, here are 21 amazing facts about South America that will make you want to jump on a plane right now! 

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21 Amazing Facts About South America

1. Another river flows under the Amazon River 

The Amazon River might be arguably the most famous in the world but just 4km beneath it runs an underground waterway. Named after the head of the research team who discovered it, Rio Hamza is not a river in the traditional sense. 

Interestingly, it actually flows vertically to depths of around 2km before then changing direction to become near enough horizontal. Even though it is as long as the Amazon River, this subterranean flow holds nowhere near the same volume of water, despite being wider. 

Amazon river
The mighty Amazon is the widest river in the world.

2. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, guinea pig is eaten as a delicacy 

Although many of us may think of guinea pigs as pets, in the above Andean countries they have been eaten for centuries. Traditionally, guinea pigs have long been used in highland communities. They were bred in large numbers to provide additional heating in houses, used in shamanic rituals and eaten on special occasions. 

Guinea pigs are usually served fried, baked or roasted and look alarmingly similar to their living state – they are even served complete with their gnashers! Although guinea pig isn’t the most appealing dish to look at, many love the taste, claiming the meat has a gamey flavour and the crispy skin is comparable to chicken. 

Many visitors to the continent want to try guinea pig whereas others are dead set against it. Where do you fall on the spectrum? If you were visiting one of these Andean countries, would you try guinea pig?

Guinea Pig Peru Challenge!
The Guinea Pig in Peru Challenge!

3. Nine countries in South America speak Spanish

There are nine Spanish speaking countries in South America. These are:

Despite Spanish being an official language of all of these countries, many of them have multiple registered languages which also includes traditional indigenous languages.  Bolivia actually has over 30 which are officially recognised! 

There are nine Spanish speaking countries in South America.

4. South America is home to the highest navigable lake in the world

Straddling the border between Peru and Bolivia is the vast Lake Titicaca. This enormous lake is more than 120 miles long, 50 miles wide and sits at roughly 3,812 metres above sea level. The lake is home to a number of iconic South American islands which are popular with travellers. These include the manmade Uros Islands, Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna. 

The lake has long been important to ancient religions and cultures, including the Incas, who believed it to be the birthplace of the Sun. These days, it has become a hub of spirituality for the continent, with open-minded travellers flocking there to take in the good energy, eat vegan food and practice yoga and meditation. 

Lake Titicaca
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world.

Also read: Peruvian landmarks you should visit.

5. The world’s biggest carnival celebrations are held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

South American carnival is one of the biggest parties anywhere in the world. Celebrated all over the continent, this annual fiesta occurs just before the Christian tradition of Lent. But, nowhere are the festivities as pumping as they are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

Around a million tourists flock to this city every year for the occasion and they are joined on the streets by another million every day, making these the largest carnival celebrations anywhere in the world. 

The income from Rio Carnival, including ticket sales, costumes, sponsorships and advertising, is estimated to be in excess of $40 million! Of the many Samba schools that compete in carnival competitions, the top 12 spend nearly $5 million on their shows. Carnival is big business!

Rio carnival
Every year, a million people flock to Rio for carnival.

6. South America is home to the planet’s largest rodent

As capybaras are my favourite animals, I couldn’t resist squeezing this South American fact in! Capybaras are the largest of all the rodents and although they are closely related to guinea pigs, they are more like very big beavers to look at. 

As they are semi-aquatic animals, they live in wetland areas close to dense forests. If you are planning to head into the Amazon or explore the pampas, you have a good chance of spotting them. 

Capybaras are known for their laidback attitudes and it is not uncommon to spot other smaller animals sitting on their heads. Monkeys and birds are among those commonly spotted hitching a ride. And we didn’t think it was possible to find cheaper transport than Bolivia’s mototaxis! 

YouTube video

7. The Galapagos Islands inspired Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Sitting off the coast of mainland Ecuador lies the Galapagos Islands. A hub of biodiversity, these islands were at the core of Darwin’s research when he was formulating his famous Theory of Evolution. 

Darwin studied the animals of the archipelago and used his findings to build his theory. One thing that stood out to him was learnt by looking at the archipelago’s finches. By studying the difference in beak shapes, he was able to work out that they had each adapted to their own unique diets and environment. He would later come to believe that they had all descended from the same lineage. 

The research that Darwin conducted on the Galapagos Islands, later went on to provide a base for his groundbreaking book, The Origin of Species

Marine Iguana Galapagos Islands
Watch out for the Marine Iguanas – the Galapagos Islands most unusual-looking creatures.

8. The largest salt flats in the world are in Bolivia

Spanning an area of over 10,500 km, Salar de Uyuni holds the accolade for the largest salt flats in the world. Arguably Bolivia’s most popular attraction and one of South America’s most famous landmarks, this incredible area is covered by metres of salt crust. 

Salt is collected from the flats and cultivated to be sold. It is used for road gritting and even as table salt. You can buy this as a souvenir if you visit. Every year during the wet season, the flats are transformed into the world’s largest mirror, a wonder of nature that has to be seen firsthand to be believed! 

Salt flats
Salar de Uyuni transforms into the world’s largest mirror!

9. Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua is the easiest of the Seven Summits

I want to state from the off that I am not saying that trekking any of the Seven Summits is easy, obviously, they are all crazy difficult. However, according to mountaineers, of the seven, Argentina’s Aconcagua is meant to be the easiest. 

This is because you can follow a trekking route the whole way up. It is also not particularly technical terrain for experienced mountaineers. The main obstacle when climbing Mount Aconcagua is the altitude which hikers sometimes underestimate. 

Related: Hiking in Argentina – Best Trails!

Mount Aconcagua
The peak of Mount Aconcagua.

10. Venezuela gets its name from the Italian city of Venice

The country of Venezuela was named by Amerigo Vespucci. He, along with Alonso de Ojeda, led a naval expedition there in 1499. When he arrived, he was surprised to see stilt villages that had been built over the water. It reminded him of Venice, leading him to christen the region ‘Venezuola’. In Italian, this translates to ‘little Venice’. 

Venice was the inspiration for naming Venezuela.

11. The world’s most infamous drug lord came from Colombia

As those of you that have watched the incredible Narcos will know, Pablo Escobar was, for years, a name to be feared. The world’s most recognisable drug kingpin ruled the Medellin Cartel and in turn the whole country, exporting cocaine in record quantities.

Escobar’s reign fostered corruption, brutality and fear and Colombia became one of the most dangerous countries in the world. This also fuelled a civil war that didn’t officially end until 2016. 

It has taken the people of Colombia years to recover from the trauma of the cartel years. However, in recent years, the country has been working hard to overhaul its image and has successfully marketed itself as an appealing digital nomad and traveller destination. 

Medellin was once the country’s drug capital.

12. There are over 300 national parks in South America

You are likely to find beautiful natural reserves and national parks anywhere in the world. South America is no different. There are over 300 national parks in South America, ranging from high altitude locations to dreamy coastal escapes. 

As hubs for nature and biodiversity, natural parks are granted protection by the relevant government, usually for conservation reasons. Although it is hard to choose between the national parks in South America, we love Torres del Paine and the Galapagos!

20 Spectacular National Parks in South America
The breathtaking Torres del Paine.

13. Latin American and South American mean different things

Although these terms are often used interchangeably, Latin America and South America are two different things. South America refers to the continent of South America where you will find countries such as Colombia and Argentina. 

Latin American refers to a shared culture, commonly including historical experience and language. Generally speaking, Latin America refers to countries within the Americas that speak one of the Latin-based languages for example, Portuguese, French and Spanish. 

Confusingly, there is much debate about what countries should be included under the umbrella of Latin America. It traditionally includes central American countries and those in the Caribbean.

Guyana, Belize and Suriname don’t fit into Latin American definitions because their official languages are English and Dutch respectively.

South American carnival
Latin America and South America are two different things!

14. Uruguay is the safest country in South America

South America doesn’t have a great reputation when it comes to safety. However, it may actually be safer than you think! According to the Global Peace Index, the only countries in South America which are ranked less safe than the United States are Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela! 

The safest of them all is Uruguay, known for its high standard of living, liberal laws and low crime rate. If you’re concerned about safety and want more information to help you plan your trip, check out this post about the safest countries in South America

Skyscrapers seen across the water, Punta Del Este, Uruguay
Uruguay is the safest country in South America.

Also see: Is South America Safe?

15. Coca leaves are widely used in South America but banned outside of the continent

Coca is a plant native to South America. It has been used for centuries medicinally and is still used to reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness today. The leaves can be brewed in tea or chewed. When the leaves are chewed, it produces a mild stimulant effect.

Although coca is readily available to buy in many Andean countries, the leaf is the base ingredient for cocaine which means that there are strict rules about cultivation and exports. Coca leaves are banned in both the US and UK, as well as in many other countries. 

While it is perfectly legal for you to consume coca while you are in many parts of South America, it is worth noting that this will lead to a positive cocaine result if you are required to take a drug test soon after. Make sure you have used up all of your coca products before leaving the country to avoid getting into trouble at customs! 

Coca Powder for sale
Coca products are sold all over the Andean regions.

16. Ecuador has granted constitutional rights to nature

Home to the biodiverse Galapagos Islands, Ecuador has been quicker than most to recognise the power of nature. In 2008, the rights of Mother Earth were enshrined in a constitutional document, making Ecuador the first country to afford the maximum rights to nature.

According to the wording of the constitution, Pachamama (Mother Earth) has a right to exist and to “maintain and regenerate its cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes”. What great news for mankind and the planet! 

Mother Earth has been granted legal rights.

17. The Andes is the longest continental mountain range in the world

Acting as the spine of South America is the awe-inspiring Andes mountain range. Stretching 7,000km and traversing an impressive seven countries, no trip to the continent is complete without a few hikes up in the mountains. To get you inspired, check out these epic mountain quotes!

The Andes is a haven for hikers.

18. South America’s major exports are foodstuffs

Although the dominant product varies by country, the majority of the continent’s exports are different foodstuffs. As South America is famous for its coffee, it is probably no surprise that this is a huge export. 

Soy and associated products also account for a huge percentage of exports, used both to feed livestock and as a biofuel ingredient. Just 7% of soy goes into meat and dairy replacement products. 

The south of the continent is responsible for the majority of meat exports with beef being the prime product. Bananas, sugar, cocoa and corn are also major exports from the continent.  

Colombia Finca Sign
Coffee is big business in South America!

19. Salt has been banned from restaurants in Montevideo, Uruguay 

Sitting down in a restaurant in Montevideo and about to tuck into a mouthwatering asado? Don’t waste your time looking for the salt. You can forget about ketchup and mayonnaise too. Uruguay’s capital has banned condiments high in sodium from being put on tables as standard. 

If you want any of these things, you have to ask for them. This has been done in an attempt to reduce people’s salt intake and encourage a healthier lifestyle. Around 40% of the Uruguayan population have hypertension. 

Salt on table in restaurant
Salt is not provided in restaurants as standard.

20. The Pan-American Highway is the world’s longest driveable road (sort of)

Beginning in North America’s Alaska and finishing in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, the Pan-American Highway is the longest motorable road in the world. It travels through North America, Central America and down through the majority of South America. 

However, it isn’t quite possible to drive it all. The Darien Gap is quite the obstacle. Stretching 100-160km between Panama and Colombia, this roadless section of the Americas prevents anyone from driving non-stop from Alaska to Tiera del Fuego. It’s arguably the most dangerous place on earth with drug smugglers, paramilitary groups and people traffickers all using the jungle to operate under the radar. Oh, and due to the small human footprint, the area is also full of lethal animals! 

Many travellers looking to road trip South America choose the Pan American Highway as their route. This is because directions are good and the road is generally well serviced. 

Road with mountains
Aspiring road trippers will need an International Driving Permit.

21. There are hardly any doorbells in Paraguay

You may be used to visitors to your house announcing their arrival using your doorbell. Not if you are in Paraguay though! Very few houses in Paraguay have doorbells, with visitors instead clapping their hands for 3 or 4 seconds to announce their presence.  

They don’t have doorbells in Paraguay!

Got any extra facts about South America for our list? Let us know in the comments!

Sheree Hooker Bio Pic
Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South America Backpacker + Winging The World

Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind wingingtheworld.com, a travel blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks.

Find her on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

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