Top Ten Journeys and Voyages in Latin American History

From Christopher Columbus to Fidel Castro

The history of Latin America is full of epic journeys and voyages, from Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage of discovery to the 1959 journey of the Granma. Here you’ll find the legendary journeys and expeditions that helped define the modern world in chronological order.
Santa Maria, Columbus' Flagship. Andries van Eertvelt , painter (1628)
Christopher Columbus, the legendary explorer, was a bit of a crackpot. Today he's famous, so it seems inconceivable that the Spanish monarchs would stall him for years before funding his crazy-sounding journey west - and then giving him three bargain-bin ships to do so. He remained a crackpot even after his most famous journey, stubbornly believing to the end of his days that he had indeed found a route to the Orient after all. But crackpot or not, Columbus still must get credit for boldly venturing west when few dared to do so and his 1492 voyage is perhaps the most famous of all. More »
Portrait of Christopher Columbus (1520) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Public Domain image

Columbus would make four trips to the New World and back in all, and the first one is the most important for obvious reasons. His second journey, made in 1493, is often overlooked, but it, too, was very important. Columbus brought 17 ships and over 1000 settlers with him on his second journey, including some men who would become very important in the New World, such as Diego Velázquez and Juan Ponce de León. These settlers would make the first lasting colonies in the New World and would shape the formative years of the Spanish colonial era. More »

03
of 10

Alonso de Hojeda Explores the Coast of South America

Amerigo Vespucci, Florentine mariner whose name became "America". Public Domain Image

In 1499, explorer Alonso de Hojeda set out with four ships to explore the recently discovered lands to the west. On board, he had a navigator named Amerigo Vespucci, who would later become a famous explorer in his own right (and lend his name to America as well). Hojeda discovered and explored the north-eastern coast of South America, and even gave Venezuela its name: it means "Little Venice" and he called it that because the natives there had their homes high up on poles to escape floods. Hojeda's expedition proved conclusively to many in Europe that Columbus had discovered lands previously unknown and not a new route to the Orient.

Ferdinand Magellan. Public Domain Image

In 1519, explorer Ferdinand Magellan set sail in five ships. His mission: find a new route to the Spice Islands. He did not intend to sail all the way around the world, but his expedition would be the first to do so regardless. He lost four of his ships along the way and Magellan himself died fighting with natives in the Philippines, but under the leadership of Juan Sebastián Elcano, the surviving ship, the Victoria, limped back into Spain in 1522, three years after it had departed. Its holds were full of spices. More »

Juan Ponce de Leon. Artist Unknown
Juan Ponce de Leon, explorer and conquistador, made two journeys to present-day Florida, in 1513 and again in 1521. According to popular legend, he was seeking the Fountain of Youth: this may or may not be true. Nevertheless, he discovered Florida and explored much of the coastline. His second journey was one of settlement and colonization, but quickly turned into a disaster when local natives, fed up with Spanish raiding parties, ferociously attacked. Ponce de León himself was hit with a poisoned arrow and died shortly thereafter. Ponce de León's settlement was abandoned and it would be a long time until the Spanish successfully colonized Florida. More »
06
of 10

Cabeza de Vaca Walks Back to Mexico

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. Spanish Postage Stamp

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca was a member of Pánfilo de Narváez's 1527 expedition to explore and loot Florida. They found no cities of gold: only bugs, swamps and increasingly hostile natives. The expedition was a true fiasco and nearly all of the 300 or so men who made up the expedition died. Cabeza de Vaca survived, enslaved by one of the Florida tribes. He escaped and met up with three other survivors of the expedition - the only survivors, as it turned out - and they headed west. It took them years to do so, but they walked back to Spanish Mexico from Florida, exploring the gulf coast of the present-day USA as they did.

The conquest of America, as painted by Diego Rivera in the Cortes Palace in Cuernavaca. Diego Rivera

Another accidental expedition, Francisco de Orellana's discovery of the Amazon River started out as a search for El Dorado led by Gonzalo Pizarro in 1541. When Pizarro and Orellana became separated, Pizarro returned to Quito. Orellana, however, along with about 50 men, discovered the Amazon River and let it carry them to the Atlantic, where they made their way to Spanish Venezuela. Along the way they had many adventures, including a skirmish with some warrior women. The Spanish, impressed, called them "Amazons" after a legendary tribe of fierce female warriors and the river has been the Amazon ever since. More »

Sir Walter Raleigh. National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Walter Raleigh, the famed English Elizabethan courtier, became convinced that he could find El Dorado, the legendary lost city of gold. He believed it was hidden in the highlands of present-day Venezuela and in 1595 he set out to find it. After months of exploring the steamy jungles of Venezuela - avoiding the Spanish, because he was technically trespassing in Spanish lands - he found nothing but remained convinced he was close. He got a second chance in 1617, but likewise turned up nothing. His futile search brought about his disgrace and downfall: he was beheaded in 1618. More »
09
of 10

Charles Darwin Goes to Galapagos

The HMS Beagle. Artist Unknown

Between 1831 and 1836, the HMS Beagle, a British survey ship under the command of Robert FitzRoy, circled the globe, making maps and gathering scientific data. On board was young naturalist Charles Darwin, who would go on to great fame for his Theory of Evolution. The Beagle's most famous stop was in the Galápagos Islands, where Darwin would get the first inklings of the theories that would later make him famous. The ship made several interesting stops, however, including the Strait of Magellan, Patagonia and New Zealand.

The Granma. Photographer Unknown

In 1956, Cuban Revolutionary Fidel Castro had a problem. In exile in Mexico, he had a small army of men willing to fight the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista back home in Cuba, but no way to get there. With their limited funds, the rebels purchased a used yacht - the Granma - named after the previous owner's grandmother. The Granma was only designed for 12 and had a maximum capacity of 25, but a total of 82 rebels including Fidel, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and Raúl Castro piled in and set sail in November of 1956. They survived the grueling trip only to be ambushed in Cuba by government forces, but the survivors launched the Cuban Revolution. More »

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Minster, Christopher. "Top Ten Journeys and Voyages in Latin American History." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/journeys-and-voyages-latin-american-history-2136336. Minster, Christopher. (2017, March 2). Top Ten Journeys and Voyages in Latin American History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/journeys-and-voyages-latin-american-history-2136336 Minster, Christopher. "Top Ten Journeys and Voyages in Latin American History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/journeys-and-voyages-latin-american-history-2136336 (accessed November 22, 2017).