It has been said that 57 million people were living in the Americas when Columbus landed here in 1492. The arrival of the Europeans in this isolated area of the world brought many problems for the local people. With their gunpowder and horses, the Europeans had a distinct military advantage and were able to destroy powerful empires. They also introduced foreign diseases, such as smallpox, measles, and typhus, which wiped out entire communities. But what a boon for the Spanish crown -- explorers discovered precious "jewels" here, including corn, potatoes, chocolate, and, of course, gold and silver. Thus began the age of colonialism. Amazingly, 400 years after the Spanish conquest of South America, millions of indigenous people have managed to hold on to their pre-Columbian past. That's what makes South America so unique. Visitors can explore the ruins of old Inca palaces, hike along Inca trails, witness colorful local celebrations that honor the sun or Pachamama (Mother Earth), and visit museums filled with amazing artifacts -- gold chest plates, alpaca ponchos, tightly woven textiles, hand-carved silver figurines, wonderfully descriptive ceramic jugs -- that give testament to the rich cultural heritage that existed here before the arrival of the Spanish.

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