Part of the joy of visiting South America is being immersed in the rich, hearty, and spirited Latin culture. But while experiencing it is one thing, understanding it is another. To do this, we must delve into the origins of the culture and what it means to be Latin American today. Not only will this help you to immerse more in the places you visit, but it will help you to relate and connect more to the communities you explore, and enrich your experience in this enigmatic part of the world.

In this article, we give you insight into how Latin America was developed, what defines the culture, and how you can experience it on your South America trip. First things first, though, we answer the golden question: “what’s the difference between South America and Latin America?”

What’s the difference between South America and Latin America?

Although the terms ‘South America’ and ‘Latin America’ are often used interchangeably, they don’t have the same meaning. Understandably, this causes a lot of confusion as the lines between the two definitions are somewhat blurred. The fact is that while the term ‘Latin America’ can refer to all countries in South America, the term ‘South America’ does not refer to all the countries in Latin America. Now you’re more confused, right? Let us explain.

What does the term ‘South America’ refer to?

The difference between South America and Latin America

South America is the name of one of seven continents or geographical landmasses that culminate to form our Earth’s crust, along with North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia, and Antarctica. It was named ‘South America’ because it lies south of Panama, the southernmost country in North America. South America is home to 12 countries: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, and Suriname. Therefore, the term is used to specify a region geographically, as opposed to culturally.

What does the term Latin America’ refer to?

Latin America is a conceptual region of our Earth grouped by peoples’ similarities in linguistic origins, etymological history, and culture. The region includes citizens of every country from the northern Mexican border to the southern tip of Argentina and Chile. This means that people from any country in Central America and the Caribbean (which are geographical regions of North America), and the continent of South America are within Latin America and considered ‘Latin Americans’. Therefore, the term is used to specify a region culturally, as opposed to geographically.

Why is Central America not part of South America?

To make things more confusing, there is also a region known as Central America which is a culmination of all the countries between Mexico and Colombia (in South America). These include Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua. These now-independent countries were previously territories of the Kingdom of New Spain, which formed in the 16th century (upon being colonized by Spain) and ended in 1821. Having been governed by a singular power for almost 500 years, the countries that form the region today share the same history, which is why they have been grouped under the term ‘Central America’. 

As a region colonized by the Spanish Empire, Central America’s history and culture share more similarities with South America. Despite this, it remains part of the continent of North America. This is simply because Central America is geographically connected to the North American landmass, not the South American landmass! 

What defines Latin America?

difference between south american and latin america

The term ‘Latin America’ references the Latin language, which is the common origin of the three main languages spoken in the region today: Spanish, Portuguese, and French. It’s a nod to the roots of its culture, which can be traced back to the 14th-16th centuries when Spain, Portugal, and France colonized Central and South America and developed the ‘New World’. Yet, the culture may have been developed as a result of European colonization in Latin America, but it doesn’t bare much resemblance to its colonizer’s culture.

While European kingdoms ruled Latin America, the majority of its people are native to Central and South America. They had formed their own values, traditions, and norms long before the Europeans arrived, much of which proudly remains at the core of Latin American culture today. The European’s biggest influence was in religion as a large part of the region’s colonization involved converting its people to Catholicism. Most Latin Americans still practice Catholicism and post-colonial churches can be found throughout the region.

Aside from the number of churches, the biggest tells of Latin America’s European influence can be found in its architecture. From Lima to Cartagena and even Guatemala City, the fascinating historic centers are characterized by their charming Spanish colonial style. Meanwhile, Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina stands out amongst its peers as being most heavily influenced by French colonial architecture, giving it the nickname ‘the Paris of South America’. 

African Influence on Latin America

The difference between South America and Latin America

While Latin America’s religion and architecture are most heavily influenced by Europe, its music, literature, dance, and art are more closely linked to its African influences. These influences filtered into the region during the Atlantic Slave Trade between 1526 and 1867. During this time, European merchants captured over 12 million Africans and shipped them across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas where they were sold as slaves. The slaves were largely dispersed across the Caribbean, Central America, Colombia, and Brazil where they worked on coffee and fruit plantations. Others were sent to developing port cities like Buenos Aires to work in the shipyards. 

Although the realities of life as a slave were horrifying, the resilient African spirit was never broken. Once they were free, they continued to celebrate their culture by gathering in groups to engage in joyful and uptempo dance and music just like they did back in Africa. This feverish dancing and music captivated local communities and since then, dances like the samba and rumba became a large part of life in Latin America from its city streets to its music channels.

When you visit these Afro-Latin regions of Latin America, not only can you hear African influences permeating the streets, you can see them too. From Guatemala to Brazil, there are large Afro-Latin communities where the fashion, architecture, and cuisine all reflect its peoples’ bold and colorful African heritage.

Can you find pre-Columbian cultures in Latin America?

Before the Europeans colonized Latin America, several indigenous communities thrived throughout, each with their own beliefs, rituals, gods, clothing, traditions, and so on. Many of them were sadly eradicated over time by their colonizers as they were killed or forced to conform to the ways of the New World. However, their influence and memory live on in Latin America today. 

The region’s greatest examples of indigenous cultures are the Aztecs from modern-day Mexico and the Incas from modern-day Peru. Although neither of these groups has existed for centuries now, their languages, cuisine, art, and architecture can be found throughout the region, particularly within the Andes mountains. Among mystifying ancient ruins, there are traditional farming communities, many of which speak indigenous languages or dialects and live in adobe houses. 

Its women, often seen herding alpaca or weaving, wear jewel-colored full skirts with white shirts covered by embroidered floral or geometric scarves and a black bowler hat. Their image and style have permeated throughout the art and textiles found in Andean countries of Latin America.

Influence of art in Latin American 

The difference between South America and Latin America

Since art is so heavily influenced by and reflected in Latin American culture, there’s no better way to understand the region than by reflecting upon its art. Just like the West was heavily influenced and shaped by Renaissance art, Latin America was influenced and shaped by its own forms of artistic expression, culminated by a mix of its indigenous, European, and African heritage. Unlike European art, Latino art often depicted everyday life in middle and low-class communities using bolder lines and brighter colors, creating more surrealist pieces. The famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo epitomizes this in her work. 

When visiting Latin America today, it won’t be long before you notice just how prominent art is in its communities. Its towns and cities are covered in incredible murals and they proudly display Latin American art collections in their architecturally astounding museums. It’s impossible to ignore art in Latin America and since it greatly informs its culture, you definitely shouldn’t.

Discover the incredible facts of Latin American culture firsthand

Now that you know all about the history and influences of Latin American culture, you’re ready to experience it first-hand. Our travel planners will help you to create your own unforgettable South America travel itinerary that allows you to explore and immerse in Latin American culture like never before. Get in touch by emailing us here or call toll-free at +1 855 217 9045.