The Best South American Ruins to Visit

Check out the best non-Inca ruins in South America

Many travelers come to South America with one mandatory on their list – to see Machu Picchu. While this jewel of South America is an amazing ruin to visit, there are so much more South American ruins to see and many of them are not even Inca.

If you want to get a better understanding of how the countries were settled, it is important to explore beyond the Inca civilization. South America is a land of many cultures and the melding, and sometimes warring, of these cultures has created what exists today. To gain a better understanding check out these great South American ruins:

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Colombia: Ciudad Perdida or The Lost City

The Lost City

While much attention is given to Machu Picchu as South America’s ancient city, the Ciudad Perdida is a pre-Inca civilization dating back 800 AD or 650 years prior to Machu Picchu.

This ancient city of Teyuan is located in ​the Sierra Nevada, Colombia in a remote area of the jungle that was abandoned during the Spanish conquest. The local tribes Arhuaco, the Koguis and the Asario knew about the area for years but kept it secret to outsiders. It was not until the early 1970s when an airplane spotted it from above that anyone else knew of the area.

The hike itself is not for the faint of heart as it involves walking over 25 km coca plantations, jungle and through rivers that can be waist-deep and finally 1200 steep steps to the top.

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Ecuador: Ingapirca


Including this ruin is technically cheating as it was initially a ruin from the Cañari that became an Inca ruin but it is a fascinating story that could be partly folklore and partly fact.

People believe that as the Incas expanded throughout South America Inca Túpac Yupanqui met the Cañari Hatun Cañar. To create harmony the two married and created a family. While the Inca were more dominant, the Cañari maintained their own customs and the two tribes lived in peace.

Meaning Inca wall, Ingapirca is certainly not as grand or impressive as the neighboring Machu Picchu but is one of the best in Ecuador.

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Peru: Chan-Chan

Chan Chan

For those creating a Northern Peru itinerary, the Chimu Kingdom of Chan Chan is essential to the list. Meaning sun sun, it is the largest pre-Columbian settlement in South America. It is one of South America’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites and remains as a mud-brick settlement still in great condition today with much support from the Peruvian government and UNESCO.

Besides being an interesting site for architecture, tours include explanations about the political and social planning that was very complex.

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Bolivia: Tiwanaku (Tiahuanacu)

Visitors Arriving at Tiwanaku

Located in Western Bolivia near the city of La Paz, this site is very different from other ruins and considered one of the most important pre-Hispanic sites.

Not much was known about this culture because there was no written history. However, it is considered to have been a very powerful center for 500 years and often violent as it expanded into new areas. At its peak, the city was nearly 2.5 square miles with a population over 40,000.

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Argentina: San Ignacio Mini

San Ignacio Mini Entrance
Peter and Jackie Main

The Jesuits played an important role in later development of South America with many missions remaining throughout the region.

Thirty missions in Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil were created between 1609 and 1818 for the Guarani Indians. San Ignacio Mini, just over 35 miles from Posadas, Argentina is located in the heart of the jungle and now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with 5 other missions of São Miguel das Missões (Brazil), Nuestra Señora de Santa Ana (Argentina), Nuestra Señora de Loreto (Argentina), Santa María la Mayor (Argentina.

The mission of San Ignacio Miní was actually moved twice before its current location and its most impressive features and still in tact, which includes the schools and churches.

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