South America is the southern and smaller of the two continents of the Western Hemisphere. It is a great triangular landmass, linked to North America by the narrow Isthmus of Panama and lying largely east of the longitude of Florida.

No single characteristic can possibly typify South America. It has tremendous diversity, not only in its landscapes and climates, but also in its villages, cities, and people. There are, however, certain characteristics common almost everywhere. Most prevalent is the economic weakness that afflicts almost every country of the continent. Culturally, the languages, customs, and traditions introduced centuries ago by Spanish and Portuguese colonists are still in wide use throughout South America. And the great majority of the people adhere to one religion—Roman Catholicism.

Extremes of wealth and poverty have long existed in South America, with most of the population being either very rich or very poor. The rich group, a small minority, consists largely of property owners. The poor are landless, usually illiterate workers and peasant farmers who have little political influence. This pattern is gradually giving way as an entirely new class emerges—a middle class of literate workers with the purchasing power to buy more than just the bare necessities. This new middle class is creating a large demand for consumer goods, many of which are being produced on the continent for the first time.

While such social and economic changes are occurring rapidly in some areas, in others they have scarcely begun. Political instability, a chronic lack of investment money, and enormous foreign debt continue to be serious problems. Perhaps even more serious is the rapidly expanding population in much of the continent; it threatens to outrun food production and is jamming already overcrowded cities. Finding solutions to such problems is the challenge facing every country of this continent.

Facts in brief about South America
Area: 6,886,000 mi2 (17,866,000 km2). Greatest distances—north-south, 4,750 mi (7,645 km); east-west, 3,200 mi (5,150 km). Coastline—20,000 mi (32,000 km).
Population: Current estimate—385,200,000; density, 56 per mi2 (22 per km2).
Elevation: Highest—Aconcagua in Argentina, 22,835 ft (6,960 m) above sea level. Lowest—Valdes Peninsula in Argentina, 131 ft (40 m) below sea level.
Physical features: Chief mountain ranges—Andes, Brazilian Highlands, Guiana Highlands. Chief rivers—Amazon, Madeira, Magdalena, Orinoco, Paraguay, Paraná, Pilcomayo, Purus, São Francisco, Uruguay. Chief gulfs—Darién, Guayaquil, San Jorge, San Matias, Venezuela. Chief islands—Falkland Islands, Galapagos Islands, Marajó, Tierra del Fuego. Chief lakes--—Maracaibo, Mirim, Poopó, Titicaca. Largest deserts—Atacama, Patagonia. Highest waterfalls—Angel, Cuquenán.
Number of countries: 12.