Since the times of ancient Rome people have been flocking to even more ancient ruins to feel like a part of history. Stepping into the ruins of an ancient city allows us to feel a connection with the people that lived there centuries ago. South and Central America have their fair share of pyramids and spectacular ruins. Visiting those ruins allows us to learn the history and culture of the people that inhabited pre-Columbus America. The coolest aspect of these ruins is that the societies that created them developed in complete isolation from the Old World and their cities, symbols and rituals developed completely independently.
South American Ruins: 12 Ancient and Extraordinary Sites to Visit
1. Chan Chan - Trujillo, Peru
This UNESCO World Heritage site was once the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas. Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimor Empire, which predated and was overtaken by the Inka Empire. Historians believe that the city was founded around the year 850 AD. However, by the time that the Spanish arrived to Peru the city had already been conquered by the Inca and more or less abandoned. Excavations began in 1969 and the site was chosen to be a Heritage Site by the UN in 1986.
To reach Chan Chan you need to get to Trujillo, which has its own airport. The best time to visit is between December to April when the weather is warmest.
2. Tiwanaku - Tiwanaku Village, Bolivia
Tiwanaku is an old pre-Columbian city, which was already abandoned by the time that the Spanish arrived to Bolivia. The city was once the capital of the Tiwanaku Empire and between 300 BC to 300 AD became an important city for religious reasons. Even back then it began drawing in pilgrims and visitors. Archeological excavations date back from at least 1903 and in the year 2000 UNESCO designated the ruins as one of their World Heritage Sites.
Tiwanaku is best reached from Bolivia’s capital La Paz. You could take a bus or a car to the ruins, which are about 90 km away from the center of La Paz. Tiwanaku (as well as La Paz) have stable weather patterns that are in the 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit range throughout the year - making it a great destination for travelers who don't like the heat!
3. Moray - Village of Maras near Cuzco, Peru
The first ruins on our list that are not UNESCO sites, Moray is no less important or magnificent than the other ruins mentioned on this list. The ruins were left behind by the Inca people but are very different from traditional Inca sites. Moray is famous for large, circular terraces that sink below the surface gradually. No one knows for certain what these terraces were used for or how they were made, but they are really awe inspiring.
Moray is best reached by road from Cuzco (which has an airport). The ruins are about 50 km away from Cuzco so getting there shouldn’t be too bad. As with Tiwanaku, the weather in Moray is stable throughout the year, with the coldest months being June and July (keep in mind- that's South America's winter).
4. Choquequirao - Abancay, Peru
Another great Inca site, Choquequirao is second only to Machu Picchu when it comes to Peruvian sites to visit. This city was founded in 1536 by the Inca ruler Manco Inca Yupanqui (good luck getting Siri to recognize that guy’s name). He was originally set up as a puppet ruler with the Spanish pulling the strings, but then revolted and set up his capital in the historic city of Vilcabamba near Choquequirao. From there the Inca resisted Spanish colonialism, though they eventually failed.
Choquequirao is best reached by traveling from Cuzco (which has an airport) to Abancay by bus or car. From there I recommend the two day trek - though there are taxi services and tours that could take you to the ruins as well. The weather is controlled by the altitude of the ruins so it remains stable year round.
5. Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City) - Santa Marta, Colombia
This site is 650 years older than Machu Picchu. Founded near the year 800 AD, this was one of the earliest advanced cities in South America. Ciudad Perdida was once the economic center of the region and nearly 8,000 people called it home. These people built terraces for farming, paved roads and even built public plazas. The city was abandoned during the Spanish conquest and was ‘lost’ to the outside world until 1972.
Ciudad perdida is close to Santa Marta, which has an international airport. From Santa Marta a bus, taxi or rental car will do to get you to the site. The weather is warm and tropical throughout the year but keep in mind the height of the wet season is from July to October.
6. Easter Island - Easter Island, Chile
I prefer calling Easter Island by its native name, (which sounds way cooler) Rapa Nui. This island is most well known for its giant human statues called moai. There are 887 of these giants scattered around the island. People first began inhabiting Easter Island between 700 and 1100 AD but used up much of their resources and began collapsing so that just 2,000 people lived there by the time that the Europeans arrived. In more recent times, the island has been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Easter Island is geographically isolated and a trip there requires quite a bit of dedication. There is an airport on the island and there are domestic flights from all over Chile that head that way. The best time to visit Easter Island is between November and March when the weather is warmest.
7. Machu Picchu - Aguas Calientes, Peru
Without a doubt, Machu Picchu is the most famous and spectacular of the ruins in Peru. This Inca city on a hill showcases massive man-made structures as well as terraces and temples. It was built in 1450 but just one hundred years later, by the time that the Spanish had arrived, it was already abandoned. Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bringham while he searched for the lost city of Vilcabamba (many people still confuse the two). In 1983 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in 2007 it was crowned as one of the seven wonders of the world.
The closest airport to Machu Picchu is in Cuzco. There are other towns close to the ruins but from Cuzco one could book a tour or catch a bus to the ruins. The weather is stable year-round.
8. Kuelap - Near Chachapoya, Peru
This site is located in the Amazon region of Peru and is surrounded by green. Kuelap was founded during the 6th century AD as a fortress city on the edges of the Andean world. The site is surrounded by large stone walls and has over 400 ruins within. These ruins are unique in that they are not from the Inca period and the architecture that you will see is very different from the ruins in the Cuzco region.
To get to Kuelap, one can fly into Chachapoya and from there take a bus or car to the ruins. The best time of the year to visit Kuelap is between December and April when the weather is warmest.
9. San Agustin Archeological Park - San Agustin, Colombia
Designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, San Agustin is a veritable city of the dead. The site was once used as a massive graveyard and represents the largest collection of religious monuments in prehistoric South America. The site was also used as a place where the Magdalena and Cauca, ancient indigenous tribes, met with each other to trade. They left no written records, so all we know about the people who built this site comes from the archeological record that they left behind.
Getting to San Agustin is not as simple as some of our other recommendations. The small city of Florencia has a local airport nearby and there is an international airport in Cali (about 185 km away). From either of these two cities you can take a bus or car to San Agustin. The temperature is stable around the year. June through September has the least amount of rain.
10. Ingapirca - Ingapirca, Ecuador
This site represents the largest group of Inca ruins in Ecuador. The highlight of a visit to this site is the elliptically built Temple of the Sun, which is perfectly aligned with the sun on the day of the solar solstice. It was built as all other Inca buildings were built, without mortar to keep the stones together. The city of Ingapirca was founded by the Canari people who eventually united with the Inca through marriage. The people who built the city built it with miles of underground aqueducts that brought fresh water to residents.
To reach Ingapirca you can fly into Cuenca, which has an international airport. From there one could take a day trip to the ruins. The weather in Ingapirca is not exactly stable, but your best chance to enjoy your visit is in the dry season from May to November.
11. Chichen Itza - Yucatan, Mexico
Just because all of the sites in this list up to now have been in the Andean region of South America doesn’t mean that Central American civilizations left less impressive ruins behind. Chichen Itza was a Mayan city established between 750 and 900 AD. It was important at the time as a local political and commercial hub. Today Chichen Itza is visited by about 1.2 million people every year. The site is famous for its temples and pyramids and could be the real place behind many of the Mayan mythical cities. This site is a World Heritage Site as well.
One of the reasons that Chichen Itza is visited so often is that the site is very close to Cancun. If you fly into that city (or dock into Playa del Carmen) you can find a tour to Chichen Itza or find your own way there. The weather is nice and tropical throughout the year but August through October are wet months.
12. Monte Alban - Oaxaca, Mexico
Monte Alban in Mexico is the site of what was once an important and influential city. It was the capital city of the Zapotec people for over one thousand years. The Zapotec made a lot of money from trade and their city had many monuments. The architecture in this site is truly massive and includes monuments carved out of solid stone, a palace and pyramids. If you’re a sports fan you’ll love the two ballcourts where the ancients played pitz. Monte Alban is one of the most important archeological sites in the world and it’s been a World Heritage Site since 1987. If that’s not enough, the views from the site are famously spectacular.
Oaxaca has an international airport. From there, the site is a short taxi or car ride (5 miles). You could also book a tour from Oaxaca. September is the wettest month of the year, but other than that, a trip to Monte Alban should be pleasant year-round.Start planning an incredible trip. Browse Oazaca rentals now!
This article was written by Amid Bennaim.
Image by Babek Fakhamzadeh