39 Historic Photos Of Expeditions Into Mesoamerica And South America, From Chichén Itzá To Copán

Published October 4, 2022

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, explorations into the jungles of South and Central America uncovered ancient ruins hidden under vegetation — revealing the rich history of the people who once lived there.

Maya Ruins Of Palenque
Chichén Itzá Temple
Facade At Chichén Itzá
Maya Palace Of Palenque
39 Historic Photos Of Expeditions Into Mesoamerica And South America, From Chichén Itzá To Copán
View Gallery

In the 19th century, rumors began to spread about the ancient ruins hidden away in the jungles of Mesoamerica and South America.

After all, the Maya had built a towering civilization centuries before Europeans made their way to the "New World." But when the civilization collapsed, the jungles reclaimed the Mesoamerican cities. And when the Inca Empire crumbled in Peru, Machu Picchu also became a lost city.

But 19th and 20th-century expeditions and explorations would uncover archaeological marvels that were once thought to be lost forever.

Early Expeditions Into The Jungles

After the fall of ancient empires in Mesoamerica and South America, Spanish explorers and conquistadors sometimes stumbled upon ruins in the jungles. And many Indigenous people in the regions knew of ruins on the Yucatán Peninsula, in the jungles of Central America, and in South America.

Still, the "golden age" of Central and South American expeditions did not begin until the 1800s. Stories from early explorations often inspired new journeys. Notably, drawings and paintings of jungle ruins encouraged later travelers to bring their cameras to capture what they saw in photographs.

In 1839, U.S. President Martin Van Buren appointed an explorer named John Lloyd Stephens as the American Ambassador to Central America. Not long afterward, Stephens set out to explore the ancient Maya ruins in the region with an English archaeologist named Frederick Catherwood.

Maya Ruins

British MuseumAn 1885 photograph of a Maya monument hidden in the jungles of Honduras.

With the help of a local guide, Stephens and Catherwood soon reached the ancient city of Copán in modern-day Honduras. It was one of a small number of Maya sites that were still known to Indigenous people.

"Working our way through the thick woods, we came upon a square stone column," Stephens wrote, according to World History Encyclopedia. "The sight of this unexpected monument put at rest at once and forever, in our minds, all uncertainty in regard to the character of American antiquities."

This expedition inspired many future journeys into the wilderness.

The Explorations Of Alfred Maudslay

In 1881, the British explorer Alfred Maudslay set off in search of Maya sites in Central America. But at first, he could not find any ruins in the jungle.

"It seemed as though my curiosity would be ill satisfied," Maudslay remembered, according to the Penn Museum, "for all I could see on arrival was what appeared to be three moss-grown stumps of dead trees covered over with a tangle of creepers and parasitic plants."

But then, the team cleared away the vines, moss, and plants. Underneath, they found carved monuments, unlike anything they'd seen before.

Alfred P. Maudslay

British MuseumAlfred Maudslay riding a mule on one of his expeditions.

"As the curious outlines of the carved ornament gathered shape it began to dawn upon me how much more important were these monuments, upon which I had stumbled almost by chance, than any account I had heard of them had led me to expect," Maudslay marveled at the sight.

Over the next two decades, Maudslay made eight expeditions into Central America. On one trip, he even brought his wife along.

And even though he was an amateur, Maudslay took a scientific approach. He carefully recorded his team's progress and brought back detailed drawings and photographs of Maya buildings and monuments.

The Historic Climb To Machu Picchu

On July 24, 1911, a Yale professor named Hiram Bingham III climbed the mountains of Peru, led by local guides. During this South American expedition, the archaeologist located the now-famous Machu Picchu.

Bingham did not discover the 15th-century Inca citadel. Local people already knew of the site. However, Bingham took the first photographs of the ruins and began the first archaeological excavations there.

The first documented trip to the Inca stronghold inspired many future trips. And today, Machu Picchu is Peru's most visited tourist destination.

Machu Picchu

Wikimedia CommonsAn early photo of the famous Inca site Machu Picchu, taken in 1914.

Unfortunately, Bingham and his team of researchers removed thousands of artifacts from Machu Picchu, according to NPR. And although Peruvian authorities were promised that the artifacts would be returned whenever they asked for them, it took nearly a century for Yale to reach an agreement with the Peruvian government to send back most of the artifacts.

Today, South and Central American expeditions like these are mostly remembered for capturing the imagination of the public. They also inspired fictional characters — Indiana Jones may have been based on Bingham.

These turn-of-the-century explorations shared key features. The amateur explorers and archaeologists on Central and South American expeditions were driven by curiosity. They also wanted to discover "American antiquities" that could rival the artifacts that had been found in the rest of the world.

Vintage photographs of these expeditions show that they were largely successful in this regard. But, unfortunately, not enough credit went to the local Indigenous people who made these historic journeys possible.

After looking through vintage pictures of Central and South American expeditions, read about why the Maya civilization collapsed. Then, check out stunning historical photos of Antarctic expeditions.

Genevieve Carlton
Genevieve Carlton earned a Ph.D in history from Northwestern University with a focus on early modern Europe and the history of science and medicine before becoming a history professor at the University of Louisville. In addition to scholarly publications with top presses, she has written for Atlas Obscura and Ranker.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.