Since the beginning of time humanity has strived to discover what is unknown, and mysterious. In modern day, a lot of that discovery takes place on other planets, or in the deep dark depth of the oceans on Earth, but years ago large portions of our own planet was left undiscovered and unknown. As a result, countless men – and, importantly, women – have stepped up to fearlessly travel the globe and discover more about the place we all call home.
A lot of the most famous discoveries have taken place in the “New World” – otherwise known as South America, or Latin America. Here at The Latin America Travel Company, learning more about these countries and their history is of deep interest and importance to us, but these discoveries have never just been limited to this one continent. Ferdinand Magellan of Portugal, for instance, proved the world is indeed round, while Leif Eriksson is regarded as the first European to reach North America, and Sir Edmund Hillary was the first man to reach the peak of Mount Everest.
At one time in history, nothing had been discovered, and everyone was an explorer. While it would be impossible to give all of these discoveries the recognition, they no doubt deserve, it is possible to learn about the events that changed the course of history, and world as it was once known – and the explorers behind them. From Marco Polo to Aloha Wanderwell, our history books are full of brave explorers and their stories of new lands, people, animals and more.
Of course, in modern times there is a whole new way to tell our stories – social media! Travel is one of the most posted topics on Instagram, and the photo sharing site is full of applauded travel influencers who share their stories of jetting around the world. Wanderlust has never been greater, and there is a reason that seeing these travel images of spectacular new places interests us.
But just imagine what it would have been like, if the explorers who discovered these unknown lands and travelled on some of the world’s most epic adventures of all time had been able to share their journeys on Instagram. That’s exactly what we have done in our new illustrative series.
Hiram Bingham III – Discovered Machu Picchu (1875 – 1956)
An American academic, explorer and politician, Hiram Bingham III is the discoverer of the ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, which he made public in 1911 with the guidance of local indigenous farmers.
The discovery of Machu Picchu was not Bingham’s first expedition; in 1906 he travelled the same Andean route taken in 1819 by Simón Bolívar from Venezuela to Colombia in an attempt to enhance his ability to teach Latin American history, and then in 1908 he followed the old Spanish trade route through the Andes from Buenos Aires to Peru
Christopher Columbus – Discovered America (1451 – 1506)
Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer, navigator, and colonist. One of the most famous explorers – and people – in history, Columbus led the first European expeditions to the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. He initiated the permanent European colonisation of the Americas, as well as discovering a viable sailing route from there back to England – connecting America to the rest of the world.
Columbus was the son of a wool merchant, born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451. He was an avid sea person from a young age, getting a job on a merchant shop as a teenager and staying at sea until 1470. When his boat sank, he floated to shore on a scrap of wood, and it was this that prompted him to begin studying maths, astronomy, cartography and navigation – the skills he needed to change the world forever.
The legacy of Columbus is controversial – not least because he ultimately died in 1506 after four failed attempts to sail from Europe to Asia, returning to Spain essentially empty handed. His discovery of the Americas was an accident, an accident that had severe consequences for the native inhabitants; disease and environmental changes caused the deaths of thousands of native America, all while Europe benefitted greatly. He was a daring and path-breaking explorer who revolutionised the world – but he also brought with it catastrophe and destruction.
While Columbus remains a controversial figure, Columbus Day does continue to be celebrated in many US states.
Nellie Bly – Travelled around the world in 72 days (1864 – 1922)
“Around the World in 80 Days” might be the famous film, but Nellie Bly managed to smash that with her record-breaking trip in 72 days. The fastest journey of her era, she became famous in 1889 aged just 25. While this may be what she’s most famous for, it’s not her only accomplishment.
“Nellie Bly” is actually a pen name, with her real name being Elizabeth Cochran Seaman. This is because she was a pioneering journalist in an age where the media was dominated by men. In fact, it was her hands-on approach to stories that eventually developed into what we now know as “investigative journalism”, and she cemented her legacy as one of the foremost female journalists in history with her investigation into one of New York’s most notorious mental hospitals. As part of this, she pretended to be mentally ill for 10 days, staying in the asylum itself.
In 1903 her millionaire husband, Robert Seaman, died, leaving Bly in charge of a massive manufacturing company where she went on to patent several inventions related to oil manufacturing – including the steel barrel that was the model for the 55-gallon oil drum that is still widespread across the USA today. She returned to journalism during her later years, covering WWI and the all-important suffragette movement.
Marco Polo – Explored Asia and opened up a pathway from the Far East to Europe (1254-1324)
Everyone knows who Marco Polo is – potentially just thanks to the game of the same name (we all know the one) – but the man behind the game is even more impressive. A trader, traveller, and adventurer, Polo voyaged to Central Asia and China in an era where most of the world was a mystery, and a lot of people still believed the world was flat. He helped introduce the European world to the Asian culture, writing a truly influential book entitled The Travels of Marco Polo where he outlined the geography of Asia, described the people, the customs, and the tales of life that fill their stories and history books.
Polo began his travels when he was just a teenager, following in the footsteps of his father and uncle who also travelled to China to meet with Kublai Khan. Leaving at 17, Polo wouldn’t return to his birthplace of Venice for 24 years, travelling the course of 15,000 miles along the Silk Road and across the oceans – even visiting parts of the Alaskan coast hundreds of years before Vitus Bering. His travels were dictated to a
romance writer he befriended while in jail, and it was his descriptions of the Mongolian empire’s paper money that led Europe to change the way it dealt with its currency. Ultimately, the modern European world owes a lot of its modern-day society to Marco Polo.
Sir Walter Raleigh – Led expeditions in South America in search of the legendary “El Dorado” (1552 – 1618)
An English gentleman who was a favourite with Queen Elizabeth I, Raleigh was one of the most notable figures to emerge from the Elizabethan era. Born into a very well-connected English family, Raleigh attended Oxford University before he sailed to America in 1578 with Sir Humphrey Gilbert, his half-brother. It was this expedition that prompted his later plans to establish colonies in the country, sponsoring his first English colony on Roanoke Island in 1585.
Raleigh was instrumental in establishing the English colonisation of North America, after being granted a royal patent to explore Virginia which paved the way for future settlements. However, it was his fruitless quest to discover the legendary “El Dorado” City of Gold” in 1594 that he’s perhaps most famous for. The trip was his attempt to re-establish favour with the Queen, after he wed her maid of honour without her permission, and upon his return he published an extremely exaggerated account his journey.
Aloha Wanderwell – The “World’s Most Widely Travelled Girl 1922-1930” (1906 – 1996)
Canadian born Aloha Wanderwell was an internationalist, explorer, author, filmmaker, aviatrix, and all-round female role-model for any aspiring young girl out there. She began her travelling career in 1922 with her future husband, Walter Wanderwell, after responding to an ad declaring “Brains, Beauty & Breeches – World Tour Offer for Lucky Young Woman…Wanted to join an expedition!” The pair travelled the world, where Aloha would perform travel lectures while a silent movie, Car and Camera Around the World, played next to her.
Wanderwell’s achievements are countless: the first woman to drive around the world, she drove through 43 countries aged only 16, travelled 380,000 miles to 80 different countries during the 1920s, filmed the first flight around the world, was the first person across India and Cape Town to the Nile, and was the first woman to fly Brazil’s Mato Grosso. Not only this, but Wanderwell spoke 7 languages, including Russian, Chinese, and Japanese.
Once, Aloha and Walter Wanderwell were taken hostage by bandits along the Great Wall of China, where Aloha charmed their way out of captivity by teaching their captors how to construct a machine-gun nest, and properly work a belt-fed automatic weapon. There’s a rumour she joined the French Foreign Legion at one point disguised as a young boy, and it’s a known fact that she was made an honorary Colonel in the Siberian Army. She was also there in the background when King Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened for the first time.
Amerigo Vespucci – Discovered the distinction between North and South America as separate continents (1454 – 1512)
An Italian explorer, financier, navigator and cartographer from Florence, it wasn’t until 1502 that Vespucci made the discovery that would put his name in the history books: that Brazil and the West Indies were not Asia’s eastern outskirts, but they were a separate, unexplored piece of land that would become known as the New World. Eventually, the continents of America became known as “the Americas” a name derived from the Latin version of Amerigo’s own name.
However, Vespucci is known as “the most controversial character in the history of discovery”, variously considered by historians as either a bold explorer or a conceited liar. In either 1503 or 1504 he claimed – or someone using his name did – that in 1497 he had sailed to the New World and discovered Brazil, before Columbus made his history voyage. It’s now considered pretty much certain that Vespucci never left Spain in 1497, although he did make a voyage to Brazil in 1501 and may well have discovered the River Plate and explored the Patagonian coast.
It was his account of the journey that aroused the most interest – as well as being confusing and vague; in it, Vespucci portrayed South America as an amalgamation of naked, promiscuous cannibals who were anarchic, without kings, laws, or regular meal times. It was Martin Waldseemüller, a geographer at the time, who coined the name America in honour of Vespucci in 1507, only realising his mistake in 1513 – but by then it was too late. America had caught on.
Ferdinand Magellan – First person to sail across the Pacific Ocean (1480 – 1521)
A Portuguese explorer who organised the Spanish expedition to the East Indies in 1519, which led to the first circumnavigation of the Earth ever – completed by Juan Sebastian Elcano following Magellan’s death.
The expedition set out with a fleet of five ships in 1519, although only one of these would return three years later, with 18 crew members remaining of the original 270. The voyage was long, and dangerous, and Magellan himself was killed in battle on the voyage. It was a journey that revolutionised how people saw the world; it was suddenly clear that you could travel around the world by sea, making it much larger than was once imagined.
Magellan was also the first European to note the Megallanic penguin, hence why it was consequently named after him.
Captain Cook – Discovered New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef (1728 – 1779)
A British explorer from Yorkshire, Captain James cook was an experience explorer, navigator, cartographer and captain in the Royal Navy. He created detailed maps of newfoundland ahead of his voyages to the Pacific Ocean, and it was during these that he made the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands. He also achieved the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand.
The voyage began due to a rare planetary event that was only going to be possible in the southern hemisphere. In 1769, Venus was due to pass in front of the sun, and the British government decided to send an expedition to observe the phenomenon. Cook was chosen as commander of the HMS Endeavour, which travelled onwards after the solar event to New Zealand.
Cook was to travel to the south Pacific islands twice more, the third time exploring the island of Hawaii. After the theft of a ship’s boat, difficulty arose between the islanders and the explorers. When Cook tried to take the local leader hostage as a result, he was stabbed and killed.
David Livingstone – Navigated Africa with an aim of freeing the country from slavery (1813 – 1873)
David Livingstone was actually not a predominant explorer. A Scottish physician and congregationalist, Livingstone became a Christian missionary, which is what eventually led him to explore Africa, spreading the Christian beliefs as he went. He became one of the most popular British heroes of the 19th century, with a fairytale-esque “rags to riches” inspirational story, and his accomplishments are seemingly endless: a protestant missionary martyr, a scientific investigator, explorer, imperial reformer, anti-slavery crusader, and advocate of commercial and colonial expansion.
In 1855, Livingstone discovered what we now know was “Victoria Falls”, and he reached the mouth of the Zambezi on the Indian Ocean in May 1856 – making him the first European to cross the width of southern Africa. On his return to England, he publicised the horrors of the slave trade, which led to private funding for another expedition to central Africa. He spent the rest of his life investigating further into the revulsions of slavery, while also attempting to find the source of the Nile.
Sacagawea – Native American who joined the Lewis and Clark expedition (1788 – 1812)
Possibly the most famous female explorer in history, Sacagawea was a Lemhi Shoshone woman who helped during the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805 – with a new-born baby on her back. She travelled with them for thousands of miles, from North Dakota to the Pacific Ocean, helping to establish cultural contacts with Native American populations as they went. At only 18, she was the only female among a group of roughly 40 older men.
It was Sacagawea that saved the now famous expedition from certain defeat. On May 14th 1805, choppy waters caused their boat to capsize, spilling with it valuable supplies – gunpowder, medicines, instruments, books, clothing – without which the expedition would have certainly failed, with many of the explorers dying with it. It was Sacagawea who remained calm, rescuing the supplies from the water – all while having to take full care of her infant son.
Ernest Shackleton – Established a new record for the most southern point on Earth (1874 – 1922)
Ernest Shackleton was a British polar explorer who led a total of three different expeditions to the Antarctic, in an effort to reach the South Pole. In an era known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, he was one of the principal figures leading the way.
In 1901, Shackleton was chosen to go on the Antarctic expedition led by Robert Scott, on the ship “Discovery”, where they made their way closer towards the South Pole than anyone had come before. Upon their return, Shackleton became seriously ill, and it wasn’t until 1908 that he returned to the Antarctic, as the leader of the Nimrod expedition.
It was the Nimrod expedition that was responsible for the first ascent of Mount Erebus, the second highest volcano in Antarctica, but upon their return to base camp they discovered that the Nimrod had actually set sail two days earlier – without them. Shackleton and his party had to set fire to the camp in order to signal the ship, which eventually returned to retrieve them. Upon his return to England, Shackleton was knighted, and made a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order.
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