South America is a continent composed of twelve countries and one French colony. The Spanish-speaking countries are: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. (Portuguese-speaking Brazil is treated separately in this encyclopedia.) The former colonies of Guyana and Suriname use English and Dutch, respectively, as their official languages, although many in their populations speak indigenous languages. The same can be said for the French colony of Guiana, the home of the cayenne pepper, where French is the official language. The geography of South America is even more varied than that of North America, with long coastlines, lowlands, highlands and mountains, and tropical rain forests. The climate varies from tropical, lying as the continent does across the Equator, to alpine in the high Andes, the backbone of the continent.
The South American continent stretches from about 10° above the equator to almost 60° below it, encompassing an area of 6,880,706 sq mi (17,821,028 sq km). This is almost 12% of the surface area of the earth. It is about 3,180 mi (5,100 km) wide at its widest point, and is divided into 10 countries. The continent can be divided into three main regions with distinct environmental and geological qualities: the highlands and plateaus of the east, which are the oldest geological feature in the continent; the Andes Mountains, which line the west coast and were created by the subduction of the Nazca plate beneath the continent; and the riverplain, between the highlands, which contains the Amazon River. The South American climate varies greatly based on the distance from the equator and the altitude of the area, but the range of temperatures seldom reaches 36°F (20°C), except in small areas. The Amazon basin is the largest river basin found in the world, covering an area of about 2.73 million sq mi (7 million sq km).
The cookery of South America reflects this rich diversity of culture and geography. The indigenous cookeries of pre-Columbian South America have gradually merged with imported cuisines from Europe and Asia. While the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors introduced their own culinary traditions to the native peoples of South America, indigenous ingredients changed the cuisines of the Old World.
Argentina is a massive South American nation with terrain encompassing Andes mountains, glacial lakes and Pampas grassland, the traditional grazing ground of its famed beef cattle. The country is famous for tango dance and music. Its big, cosmopolitan capital, Buenos Aires, is centered on the Plaza de Mayo, lined with stately 19th-century buildings including Casa Rosada, the iconic, balconied presidential palace.
Capital: Buenos Aires
Dialing code: +54
Currency: Argentine peso
President: Mauricio Macri
Population: 41.45 million (2013) World Bank
Paraguay is a landlocked country between Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia, home to large swaths of swampland, subtropical forest and chaco, wildernesses comprising savanna and scrubland. The capital, Asunción, on the banks of the Paraguay River, is home to the grand Government Palace and the Museo del Barro, displaying pre-Columbian ceramics and ñandutí lacework, the latter available in many shops.
Currency: Paraguayan guaraní
President: Horacio Cartes
Population: 6.802 million (2013) World Bank
Official languages: Spanish, Paraguayan Guaraní
Brazil, a vast South American country, stretches from the Amazon Basin in the north to vineyards and massive Iguaçu Falls in the south. Rio de Janeiro, symbolized by its 38m Christ the Redeemer statue atop Mount Corcovado, is famed for its busy Copacabana and Ipanema beaches as well as its enormous, raucous Carnaval festival, featuring parade floats, flamboyant costumes and samba music and dance.
Dialing code: +55
Currency: Brazilian real
President: Michel Temer
Population: 200.4 million (2013) World Bank
Official language: Portuguese
Bolivia is a country in central South America, with a varied terrain spanning Andes Mountains, the Atacama Desert and Amazon Basin rainforest. At more than 3,500m, its administrative capital, La Paz, sits on the Andes’ Altiplano plateau with snow-capped Mt. Illimani in the background. Nearby is glass-smooth Lake Titicaca, the continent’s largest lake, straddling the border with Peru.
President: Evo Morales
Currency: Bolivian boliviano
Population: 10.67 million (2013) World Bank
Official languages: Spanish, Paraguayan Guaraní, Aymara
Peru is a country in South America that's home to a section of Amazon rainforest and Machu Picchu, an ancient Incan city high in the Andes mountains. The region around Machu Picchu, including the Sacred Valley, Inca Trail and colonial city of Cusco, is rich in archaeological sites. On Peru’s arid Pacific coast is Lima, the capital, with a preserved colonial center and important collections of pre-Columbian art.
Dialing code: +51
Population: 30.38 million (2013) World Bank
Official languages: Spanish, Quechua, Aymara
Colombia is a country at the northern tip of South America. It's landscape is marked by rainforests, Andes mountains and numerous coffee plantations. In the high-altitude capital, Bogotá, the Zona Rosa district is known for its restaurants and shops. Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast, has a walled colonial Old Town, a 16th-century castle and nearby coral reefs.
Dialing code: +57
President: Juan Manuel Santos
Currency: Colombian peso
Population: 47.12 million (2013) World Bank
Official language: Spanish
Chile is a long, narrow country stretching along South America's western edge, with more than 6,000km of Pacific Ocean coastline. Santiago, its capital, sits in a valley surrounded by the Andes and Chilean Coast Range mountains. The city's palm-lined Plaza de Armas contains the neoclassical cathedral and the National History Museum. The massive Parque Metropolitano offers swimming pools, a botanical garden and zoo.
Dialing code: +56
Currency: Chilean peso
Population: 17.62 million (2013) World Bank
Official language: Spanish
Ecuador is a country straddling the equator on South America’s west coast. Its diverse landscape encompasses Amazon jungle, Andean highlands and the wildlife-rich Galápagos Islands. In the Andean foothills at an elevation of 2,850m, Quito, the capital, is known for its largely intact Spanish colonial center, with decorated 16th- and 17th-century palaces and religious sites, like the ornate Compañía de Jesús Church.
Dialing code: +593
Currency: United States Dollar
President: Rafael Correa
Official language: Spanish