Why you should visit South America's Altiplano

Reader's Digest Editors

Part desert, part grassland, the high Altiplano of South America has the air of the Wild West. Still home to its native people, it is a place where llamas graze and flamingos wade across isolated salt lakes.

Always chilly yet blessed with perpetual blue skies, arid yet home to massive lakes, the cradle of several ancient civilisations but relatively under-populated today, the Altiplano of South America is one of the globe’s geographical conundrums.

The high-altitude plateau extends for more than 1,000km (600 miles), spanning most of the terrain between Cusco in Peru and Jujuy in northern Argentina. Much of Bolivia sits on the Altiplano, as does a thin sliver of northeastern Chile.

Altiplano planes with flamingos wading

The name means "high plains" in Spanish, a reference to the fact that the plateau lies at an average height of 3,650m (12,000ft) above sea level.

Higher still are the surrounding mountains—two branches of the Andes and solitary snow-capped volcanoes that are among the highest peaks in South America—that demarcate the Altiplano to the east and west.

 

Seismic variations

A shaggy ginger llama in the Altiplano

Scientists have long disagreed about what process formed these high plains. The plateau is undoubtedly associated with the tectonic uplift of the Andes, caused by a collision between the Pacific and South American plates, but is it the remains of a once-great inland sea or merely the result of millions of years of Andes erosion?

One of the Altiplano’s defining features is the absence of an outlet to the ocean, despite its being a drainage basin for water coming off the mountains. What rivers do exist here empty into Lake Titicaca on the Bolivia–Peru border and other lakes on the plateau.

Titicaca is a geographical superlative in its own right, being the world’s highest commercially navigable lake. It is also home to ancient people, some of whom still dwell on reed islands, attracting tourists by the boatload.

Much of the Altiplano is high-altitude desert. In places that receive more moisture, grass, shrubs and cactus predominate. Wildlife is diverse, ranging from vicuña, a cousin of the domesticated llama and alpaca, to neon-pink flamingos, which breed along the shores of the salt lakes. There are also chinchilla, culpeo fox and the rabbit-like vizcacha.

 

Ancient peoples and new arrivals

people of the Altiplano

Humans have occupied the Altiplano for at least 3,000 years. The Tiwanaku culture emerged around AD 100 on the shores of Lake Titicaca and developed into the area’s most advanced civilisation. They built monumental temples and pyramids, made copper tools, cultivated a variety of crops and lived in mud-brick houses linked by paved streets.

By the 12th century, the Tiwanaku had faded, perhaps the victims of a prolonged drought. The vacuum was filled by the Inca, who would dominate the Altiplano until the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th century. Silver from a single mountain at Potosí bank-rolled the Spanish empire for centuries. Since the 20th century tin, zinc and lead have been mined by multinational companies.

The indigenous population remains in the rural parts of the Bolivian and Peruvian high plains, where the Quechua and Aymara languages—along with more than 30 other native tongues—are more often heard than Spanish. The Bolivian capital of La Paz is the Altiplano’s largest city, followed by Cochabamba in Bolivia and Jujuy in Argentina. Yet it is Puno on the western shore of Titicaca that is the Altiplano’s most evocative city. Birthplace of the Aymara civilisation, in modern times its crafts and culture have earned it the title of folklore capital of Peru.

 

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