May is a month of independence across much of South America with many countries commemorating the beginning of rebellion against colonial powers or celebrating finally winning independence. Both Paraguay and Ecuador’s Independence Days fall in May, with parties going on late into the night and Argentina celebrates Dia de la Revolución de Mayo, on May 25th which marked the start of the fight for freedom from Spain. So this week we are paying our own homage to this month of independence with a reminder that the Americas did not simply emerge from a black hole with the arrival of the likes of Colombus and Cortes. Here is a selection of some of the more intriguing historic sites across the continent which might make you reconsider what you thought you already knew about the “New” World.
Serra da Capivara, Brazil
Travel to this corner of North-Eastern Brazil and you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve travelled back in time to an age when fur loincloths were all the rage and you lived in fear of bumping into a woolly mammoth. Serra da Capivara National Park is home to a collection of over 800 important archaeological sites some of which suggest that there was human presence in the area prior to the Clovis people (who are widely regarded as the first human inhabitants of the New World). Visitors to the park are transported back to the stone age by the hundreds of rock paintings and networks of caves, one half expects to turn a corner and bump into Fred and Wilma!
Chan Chan, Peru
Located on the North Western coast of Peru, Chan Chan is the largest known pre-Columbian city in South America. The city was built by the Chimor civilization in about AD 850 and it was a labyrinth of streets and passageways bordered by walls, some of which were 30 feet tall. It’s hard to imagine when visiting today but the city was once home to 30,000 people who all served one Emperior in a community that had very strict hierarchical rules. This is one archaeological site that is fighting against the climate to keep its place on earth as the El Niño storms that pass through the area every 5-8 years threaten to turn the brick into sand.
At first sight you may miss Tierradentro altogether as there appears to be very little there, that is until you head underground… As located some 8-10 metres below the surface is one of the most impressive networks of tombs in the world. The walls of each tomb have been carefully painted and decorated and are linked to smaller tombs in which the corpses were held. These hypogea lay undiscovered for thousands of years and venturing underground today to explore this city of the dead is still a distinctly unnerving experience.
Ischigualasto National Park, Argentina
The name may be unpronounceable but the fossils found here in North Western Argentina, are some of the most famous in the world. The Ischigualasto National Park is home to the most complete continental fossil collection from the Triassic Period, or for those of us whose dinosaur knowledge stops with Spielberg, that means from some 245 – 208 million years ago. The area is a mecca for wannabee archaeologists as the six geological formations in the park contain fossils ranging from ancestors of mammals to dinosaurs and plants, just don’t go getting any ideas a la Jurassic Park!
Machu Picchu, Peru
This site needs very little introduction and is of course one of the most instantly recognisable archaeological sites in the world and so it may seem hard to believe that it was discovered just over 100 years ago, celebrating its centenary in 2011. Machu Picchu is widely believed by archaeologists to have been built around 1450 as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti and was the centre of the Inca Empire until the time of the Spanish Conquest – although was in fact abandoned and never discovered at the time. Dehouche recommends visiting in style, travelling through the scenic Sacred Valley in the luxurious Hiram Bingham train, named after the American who unveiled the site to the world, before alighting at the foot of the citadel for a private tour with our local archaeological specialist. After spending a night at the grand Orient Express property overlooking the sanctuary, rise early to witness the sunrise over the ruins, much as the last Sapa Inca would have done, oblivious to Pizarro’s great conquering army being amassed on the other side of the world.