Top 5 Temples and Monuments in South America

The Ultimate Cultural Destinations for Adventurous Students

Ancient ruins, steamy jungles, rugged plains; nothing says adventure like South America. Every year thousands of students study abroad in South America to practice their Spanish, volunteer and participate in humanitarian initiatives. Of course, a trip to South America wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the ruins of a past civilization. Famous temples like Machu Picchu are often overrun with tourists. If you’re in the mood for a real adventure, then these five lesser-known UNESCO world heritage sites are worth your while.

Peru: Explore the past while experiencing the culture of modern day Peru in the cosmopolitan city of Cuzco.

Ancient Inca ruins combined with Spanish Baroque architecture. Does it get more South American than Cuzco? In this thriving urban center, modern buildings stand on the same foundations of much earlier Inca buildings. When the Spanish came to Peru some 500 years ago, they added their own architectural flourishes. But at its heart, Cuzco is a pre-Columbian city. It even maintains the original Inca town planning with separate districts for commerce, artisans, and agriculture. The ancient city wall and the ruins of the temple of the sun are still visible. Strolling through this lively city, you truly appreciate the culture and history of Peru.

Ecuador: Learn about the evolution of Ecuador’s national culture at the Pumapungo Archaeological Park, Cuenca

The Pumapungo Archaeological Park is located in the historic city center of Santa Ana de los Ríos de Cuenca, itself a world heritage site. Part of the larger Pumapungo Museum complex, Pumapungo is dedicated to the modern and indigenous cultures and history of Ecuador. The site of the Archaeological Park was once the Inca city of Tomebamba. There you can experience the space between the world of the living and the dead as you explore the Temple of the Sun and the underground mausoleum.  Deemed sacred by the Inca royal family, legend says that the son of King Huayna Capac (1464/68–1525) was born here, then a city sprang up and was smiled upon by the gods.  Combined with the Pumapungo Museum and the historical City of Cuenca, the park makes an unparalleled cultural experience.

Brazil: Get out into nature and see the oldest art in all of South America

The Capybara is the world’s largest rodent. While not a particularly majestic creature, the capybara is nonetheless fascinating. The ancient paleolithic people of Brazil thought so too. This animal was the subject of some of the oldest cave paintings in South America, and it is from this animal that the Serra da Capivara National Park gets its name. Dating to around 25,000 years old, the brilliant red ochre cave paintings at Serra da Capivara are the oldest known works of art in South America. This cave complex is at the center of the discussion about how long humans have been living in South America, thought to be only after 10,000 BC. The cave art depicts hunting scenes, rituals, and native animals, including the emu and capybara. The natural scenery of the park is truly breathtaking. Lying in a forested valley between sheer rock cliffs, the park is home to several species of monkey and tropical birds. The cave complex is pierced with shafts of light from above, giving the impression that you’re truly an adventurer exploring a civilization lost in time.

Sheer rock cliffs at Serra da Capivara National Park
Animal cave drawing

Argentina/Brazil- Contemplate the passage of time at the Ruins of the Jesuit Missions of the Guaranis

Many visit ruins to contemplate the passage of time and the rise and fall of civilizations. At the ruins of these five Jesuit Missions, you become aware of just how long Christian culture has been a part of life in South America. Established in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Spanish Jesuit order, their purpose was to convert the local Guarani Indians to Christianity. These five missions are all that remain of the original 30 connected settlements that brought massive changes to the infrastructure and economies of the area. However, cultural and religious tensions led to the Spanish being expelled in 1767. The missions were abandoned and fell into decay. What remains is a haunting testament to the fraught relationship between European settlers and the indigenous people of South America.

Ruins of San Ignacio Mini in Argentina
Ruins of a Christian graveyard

Bolivia- Explore a hauntingly beautiful city on top of the world at Tiwanaku

Not far from Bolivia’s capital La Paz, lies the ancient city of Tiwanaku, the cultural and spiritual heartland of the Pre-Inca.  The Tiwanaku culture flourished in the mountains of modern-day Bolivia from about 400 to 900 AD. Tiwanaku was planned with a high degree of organization, evident in its rectilinear architecture and street arrangement. Almost modern looking with its minimalistic, geometric simplicity and monumentality, Tiwanaku was the inspiration for later Andean cities of the Inca Empire like Cuzco. Its large open religious and ceremonial public spaces were later admired by the Incas who used a similar sort of spatial organization in their own town planning. There is no escaping the intense spiritual vibe making you feel like you can reach up and touch heaven itself! This proximity to the spirit world inspired Tiwanaku’s thriving artistic culture. These ancient people created monumental stone sculptures, colorful woven textiles, and richly decorated pottery, all of which can be seen at the National Museum of Archaeology in LaPaz. This site is a must, not just for students of ancient culture but also for anyone with an interest in art and architecture.

Mysterious stone sculptures
A geometrically arranged public space in Tiwanaku

Written by Jesica Versichele