The South American continent is composed of several biogeographical regions harbouring the highest biodiversity on the globe, encompassing five of the world's biodiversity ‘hot spots’. Nonetheless, the patterns and processes responsible for shaping its astonishing species diversity are largely unknown. Here, we present a review of current South American phylogeographical knowledge based on published articles on this topic. An appraisal of the literature reveals emerging phylogeographical patterns in the biota of South America. The striking phylogeographical divergence observed among organism lineages in South American studies is suggestive of high levels of undocumented species diversity. The interplay between Pleistocene climatic oscillations and Pliocene/Miocene orogenic events has contributed to shaping the current diversity and distribution of modern lineages in both the tropical and temperate regions of South America. Although older divergence times were observed for a range of species, most herpetofauna underwent an intraspecific lineage split much earlier than other organisms. The geographical ranges of species associated with forest habitats were reduced mainly during glacial cycles, whereas species associated with open vegetation domains have shown variable responses to climatic oscillations. The results suggest a highly complex mosaic of phylogeographical patterns in South America. We suggest future research directions to promote a better understanding of the origin and maintenance of the South American biota.