Ingapirca Incan ruins, an ancient site in South America

Beyond Machu Picchu: The best alternative sites in South America

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Niarra Travel

Before Europeans arrived in South America in the 15th century, the continent was already rich in history, home to fascinating civilisations whose cultures followed unique traditions and beliefs that separated them from the settlers that would cause a cataclysmic change across the continent.

While plenty of us have heard of the Incas and the magnificent Machu Picchu, many historical and ancient sites in South America aren’t as well-known, but are more than capable of capturing the imagination. Some of these places will take you thousands of years into the past, thanks to the ruins, art, pottery and other artefacts that were left behind.

Read on to join us on a journey back in time to discover some of the most awe-inspiring historical sites in South America beyond Machu Picchu…

Ingapirca, Ecuador

The largest Incan ruins in Ecuador, Ingapirca is set in rolling green hills grazed by herds of woolly llamas. Meaning ‘Inca wall’, a network of stone walls are primarily what remains intact of the original city. However, what is deeply facinating about this site is the combination of the Incan style of architecture and those of the Cañari people (the community still manage the site today), who lived peacefully side by side with their would-be conquerors.

The Inca’s careful craftsmanship of the structure is easy to see, and perfectly demonstrated by the site’s iconic Temple of the Sun. There are also remnants of ceremonial baths, storage areas and terraces to discover. Ingapirca is 80km north of historic Cuenca, which itself was founded on the ruins of the Incan city of Tomebamba. The city’s Pumapungo Museum has interesting exhibits about Ecuador’s ethnology, but in the gardens you’ll find the ruins of the fabled city of Pumapungo itself, once said to rival Cusco in splendour.

Incan ruins in Ingapirca, an ancient site in South America

Cueva de las Manos, Argentina

In the wilds of Patagonia you’ll find one of the most significant ancient sites in South America, the Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands). A cave and complex of rock art sites, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is thought to have been inhabited between 7300BC and 700AD. In the cave are hundreds of paintings of hands, mostly stencilled, some of which were created up to a mind-blowing 13,000 years ago.

Archaeologists even found the remains of the bone pipes that would have been used to spray the paint onto the cave walls, and much more evidence of the early hunter-gatherer groups of the region. Alongside the hands, there is plenty more rock art, depicting animals local to the area, hunting scenes and the sun.

Cueva de las Manos, an ancient site in South America

Rapa Nui, Chile

The most remote inhabited place on earth, Rapa Nui, also called Easter Island after the day Dutch voyagers discovered it, is a Chilean territory sitting 1,900km off its coast. The island is well-known for its towering statues, called moai, of which there are 600. A significant part of the mystical pull the island has, today the moai are an enigmatic monument to a vanished culture.

Once revered by the indigenous residents, who were Polynesian, the moai are thought to have been built in memory of their ancestors. Carved from volcanic stone, they were placed on ceremonial platforms around the island; while very few remain in their original positions, those that are, appear to defy the laws of gravity in their construction. Even the moai that are toppled, broken, half-finished or buried emanate an irresistible magnetism that will keep their colossal forms wandering through your imagination for years to come.

Rapa Nui, an ancient site in South America

Qhapaq Nan

The Qhapaq Nan, Royal Road, is a system of roads that covered the whole of the Incan Empire, criss-crossing Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, with its centre at Cusco in Peru. Reaching almost 40,000km in length at the peak of the Inca’s power in the 15th century, it spans from the coast and up into the mountains, running the length and breadth of the Andes, skirting vertical cliffs, along river valleys, across desert plains and through rainforest, in an incredible feat of ancient engineering.

The road’s use was multipurpose ­­­-- communication, religion, trade and defence, and to assist with the absorption of other cultures and communities into the Incan Empire. Today, the whole network is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s endless branches leading off to long-forgotten sites and ruins lost to time. The most famous stretch of the road is the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, but you can find sections of the road across the region; walking on it is an eye-opener when you think that the Inca themselves travelled it on foot just a few hundred years ago.

Qhapaq Ñan, an ancient site in South America

Serra de Capivara National Park, Brazil

Hidden among the steep cliffs and secluded valleys of Brazil’s northeast is the largest and oldest concentration of ancient sites in South America - in the whole of the Americas in fact. Within the boundaries of the Serra de Capivara National Park, at sites like Pedra Furada and Sitio do Meio, you’ll find rock shelters filled with rock art. Believed to be up to 25,000 years old, it depicts wild animals, humans and scenes of hunting, dancing, fighting and supernatural beings.

The whole area where the art was found, alongside other artefacts and evidence of human activity, has been UNESCO-listed since 1991. What makes these sites so fascinating is the fact that they challenge the long-held theory that the Americas were colonised from the north. This national park is an absolute must for pre-history buffs.

Serra de Capivara, an ancient site in South America

If you are looking to plan a a trip to South America that encompasses visits to these incredible historic sites - or indeed any other ancient sites across the continent - get in touch with our expert travel team on +44 (0) 20 3821 5994 (UK), +1 (833) 215 9353 (US) or at and start creating your unforgettable Latin American family experience today.

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