South America

A snapshot of Earth today in its tectonic evolution shows seven landmasses known as continents. Though there are no strict criteria for exactly what constitutes a continent, broadly we define them as large bodies of crust that sit on top of plates. Our planet’s upper reaches are comprised of tectonic plates that move slowly. Most of the plates are covered with water, but land dominates in seven large regions.

Today’s article superstar is South America. Located entirely in the Western Hemisphere of the globe and almost entirely in the Southern Hemisphere, South America is the fourth-largest continent, behind Asia, Africa, and North America. Over 420 million human beings reside there.

The eastern boundary of the continent nestles up to the Atlantic Ocean. Travel south and around the tip, called Cape Horn, part of an archipelago named Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), and you’ll reach the Pacific Ocean. At the top of the continent, the Panama Isthmus kisses South America, joining the two American continents. Major isles near South America include the Galapagos Islands and the Faulkland Islands.

A NASA satellite image of South America

Most of the population lives in a ring around the continent, on the oceans, which means some truly gnarly and majestic natural features abound in the interior.

The continent is broken into 12 sovereign nations, though French Guiana, a dependency of France, could take your tally to 13 if you want to count that way. In order of population, the countries of South America are: Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Guyana, and Suriname.

The countries of South America

As you might imagine, the plate on which the continent rests is called the South American Plate. North and South America’s connection via the Panama Isthmus is actually a relatively recent development. Until approximately 3 million years ago the two masses were separated. Zoom out on the globe a bit and you can see continental drift with a bit of imagination. That Brazilian puzzle piece slides right into Africa! During the time of the supercontinent Pangea they were connected!

A snug fit!

On a large scale, the continent is often described as a giant bowl; the center is low and the edges are higher. The central lowlands are ringed by the Andes on the west and the Brazilian and Guiana Highlands on the east. The middle portion of the continent contains another one of the major natural zones of Earth, the Amazon Rainforest.

Very rarely do two renowned features of our planets meet in a demonstrable manner, but the Andes and the Amazon transition strikingly shows up from the air:

Aerial view in Peru, where the mountains meet the rainforest

The Amazon River is approximately 4,000 miles long, usually considered the second-longest river in the world (the precise locations of river headwaters are often difficult to determine and rife for debate). It is by far the largest river in terms of water volume. The Amazon discharges more water than the next seven-largest waterways combined! By itself, it accounts for 20% of the world’s riverine discharge! That is some serious H₂O!

The rainforest that accompanies the plentiful water of the Amazon is enormous, over 2.7 million square miles. It is the largest and most diverse rainforest in the world. Scientists estimate 390 billion trees take root in the basin! Over 16,000 species populate the forest. One in 10 of all plant and animal species on the planet lives in the Amazon Rainforest.

It’s definitely no stretch to call the Amazon Rainforest the beating heart of our planet!

The river and the rainforest - photo by Neil Palmer

The Andes are the longest continental mountain range in the world, stretching over 4,300 miles from end-to-end, through seven different countries.

The range is also the highest in the world outside of Asia. The High Point of the continent, Aconcagua, sits in Argentina, rising 22,837 feet above the sea. The crag is the second-tallest continental High Point. The chain also contains Chimborazo, whose peak is farther from the planet’s core than any other location, thanks to the planet’s equatorial bulge. The bulge is so big that Chimborazo’s 20,549-foot apex is farther from the core than the continent’s crown, which tops out 2,000 feet higher relative to sea level. The world’s highest volcanoes are also in the Andes.

The chain is relatively young. It is the result of two plates crashing into each other. The Nazca Plate to the west is slowly subducting below the South American Plate. The result is a crumpled uplifting of enormous crags.

Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Andes - photo by Dmitry Mottl

Between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean is the Atacama Desert.

The Atacama is the driest non-polar desert in the world. It’s so dry it has been used to simulate conditions on Mars for experiments. The average rainfall for this desert is just 0.6 inches per year!

Llamas in the Atacama Desert

Even beyond these all-star features, South America is packed with wonders.

You have Enya’s Orinoco River.

You got Machu Picchu.

Sesame Street characters might be hiding in the rocks.

And, of course, you have some cute critters. Have you been to South America? If so, please send me some photos of your trip! Until we next meet, enjoy some images of South America’s fantastic flora and fauna.

The Toco Toucan
Jaguar - photo by Cburnett
Andean Spectacled Bear - San Diego Zoo
Capybaras - San Diego Zoo
Kapok Tree - photo by Mohsin Kazmi

Further Reading and Exploration


South America – Encyclopedia Brittanica

SOUTH AMERICA EXPLAINED – Geography Now!

Creatures of the Amazon Rainforest – National geographic Documentary

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