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Land of winds > The land > Geography | Issue 01. Jul.-Aug.2010
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

The Andes

The Andes
The Andes range is a mountain chain along the western coast of South America and the world’s longest continental range, with over 7,000 km (4,300 mi) long, 200 km (120 mi) to 700 km (430 mi) wide, and of an average height of about 4,000 m (13,000 ft). The name is derived from the Quechua word Anti, which means East, since those mountains where the eastern border of the ancient Inca Empire or Tawantinsuyu.

[Picture 01]
Andes, in Wikipedia.


The Andes can be divided into three sections: the Southern, the Central and the Northern Andes. The Darwin range, in the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego (literally, Great Island of the Land of Fire) is the extreme southern edge of the Andes, with natural jewels such as the Fagnano Lake and the extraordinary Magellan Forests of canelo (Drimys winterii) and southern beech trees. Crossing the Strait of Magellan towards the north, the Andean range is the natural boundary between Argentina and Chile. Nine of the ten highest peaks of the range rise along this boundary and one of them, Aconcagua, with 6,962 m (22,841 ft) above the sea level, is the highest peak of the Americas. The Fitz Roy or Chaltén mountain (sacred place to the Tehuelche people) is one of the marvels in this Patagonian section; another are the ice fields such as the glacier Perito Moreno, which flow into many lakes, most of them encompassed in National Parks both in Argentina and Chile. It is worth noting the good number of guanacos (Lama guanicoe) and the presence of the condor in this region. The Andes dive definitely into the Pacific Ocean through a labyrinth of fjords forming one of the most magnificent landscapes of the South Cone. Further north, in the territory of the Mapuche people, the forests of pehuenes or araucarias (Araucaria araucana) and colihues (Chusquea culeou) are remarkable natural gifts that announce the transition to the arid pre-range and the northern Argentinian-Chilean high plateau.

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Tierra del Fuego, in Wikipedia.
(Cami) Fagnano Lake, in Wikipedia.
Aconcagua, in Wikipedia.
Monte Fitz Roy, in Wikipedia.


The Central Andes start from the Chilean “Norte Grande”, southern border of the Aymara people territory in Chile. Snow peaks, deserts, huge salt flats and dream lakes combine here to form astounding sceneries (Isluga National Park, Lauca-Lago Chungará National Park). On the Argentinian side the Andes split in two ranges, which enclose an area of high intermontane basins called the Altiplano or puna, a high plain 3,000 m above the sea level that descends gradually to the eastern warm valleys or yungas. Some of the major peaks in this section of the range are Ojos del Salado, 6,891 m (2,615 ft); Llullaillaco, 6,739 m (22,110 ft); and Incahuasi, 6,638 m (21,719 ft). Ancient home to Diaguita and Atacameño peoples, at present this region is inhabited by Chilean Aymara and Argentinian Kolla. Characterized by grasslands with curious green, brown and yellow forms such as icho scrublands, yaretas, tolas and cardones (of the plant family Cactaceae), this is a semiarid climate. The Altiplano is rich in fauna, which includes camelids (llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and guanacos), armadillos (small placental mammals, known for having a leathery armour shell), chinchillas (nocturnal rodents), condors, cougars, flamingos and vizcachas (rodents).

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Volcán Isluga National Park, in Wikipedia.
Diaguita, in Wikipedia.
Yareta, in Wikipedia.
Andean Condor, in Wikipedia.


When the Andes enters Bolivia they are already split in two ranges (Cordillera Occidental and Cordillera Oriental or Real) which get more and more distant from each other demarcating a huge high plateau known as “meseta del Collao”. This tableland, the world’s second largest after the Tibetan Plateau, is bordered by the Atacama Desert (a virtually rainless plateau) and the Amazon Rainforest, and includes Ampato, Parinacota, Uturuncu and Licancabur active volcanoes. This section of the Andes is home to Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake (3,810 m), Lake Poopó and both the Salar de Coipasa and the Salar de Uyuni (the latter is the world’s largest salt flat and lithium deposit). In Bolivia are also placed some of the highest Andean peaks such as Nevado Sajama, 6,542 m (21,463 ft, the highest peak in Bolivia); and Illimani, 6,462 m (21,122 ft, the highest mountain in the Cordillera Real, and the second highest peak in Bolivia lying just south of La Paz).

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Altiplano, in Wikipedia.
Atacama Desert, in Wikipedia.
Lake Titicaca, in Wikipedia.
Poopó Lake, in Wikipedia.
Salar de Uyuni, in Wikipedia.
Illimani, in Wikipedia.


This vast area is populated by different groups of Quechua and Aymara peoples, and the Kallawaya and Chipaya minorities, and most important Bolivian cities (Potosi, Oruro, Cochabamba and La Paz) are placed here in a unique natural environment. In the yungas (such as Chicaloma and Coroico, home to the Afro-Bolivian minority) the most popular crops are corn, coca and fruit (requiring warm climates), while tubers such as potatoes, oca and olluco, and cereals like quinoa are grown on the Altiplano.
From the yungas in Bolivia to the north, the eastern border of the range is occupied by subtropical and tropical humid Andean forests, a hotspot of biodiversity. Among the animals found in these habitats are the hummingbirds, the Mountain Tapir or danta, the Spectacled Bear or jukumari, the Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkey, the mountain-toucans, the Andean Cock-of-the-rock and the tanagers.
Crossing Lake Titicaca, both subranges join together to form the Peruvian range between the coastline and the huge Amazon region of the country. In the Central Andes of Peru are placed the old Inca capital of Cuzco and the renowned ruins of Machu Picchu, Saqsaywaman and Ollantaytambo. At this point, it is worth mentioning that traditional Quechua culture originated in central Peru, at least a thousand years before the rise of the Inca Empire in the early 1400’s. Other stunning features of this region are the city of Arequipa, at the foot of the ice-covered cone of El Misti, a volcano towering over the city; and the peak of Nevado Ausangate, 6,384 m above sea level, where the Quelccaya glacier (the largest tropical glacier on Earth) is located and whose surroundings host the Qoyllur Rit’i Festival (see).

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Cusco, in Wikipedia.
Machu Picchu, in Wikipedia.
Sacsayhuamán, in Wikipedia.
Ollantaytambo, in Wikipedia.
Arequipa, in Wikipedia.


Along the northern half of Peru, the range split in two subranges (Cordillera Blanca, the world’s highest tropical mountain chain, and Cordillera Negra) separated by an intermediate depression known as Callejón de Huaylas. Huaraz and Chimbote cities can be found in this spectacular scenery, as well as Conococha Lake and the Cañón del Pato (Duck Canyon). Huascarán (6,768 m) is another remarkable mountain situated in the Cordillera Blanca range; its southern summit is the highest point in Peru and all the Earth’s Tropics.
Once again the Andes get narrower as they cross the Ecuadorian border. The range continues to separate the Pacific Ocean from the Amazon basin. Among the Ecuadorian Andes highest peaks are Cotopaxi (the world’s highest active volcano, 5,897 m) and Chimborazo (the country’s highest mount, 6,313 m, whose summit is the point on the Earth’s surface most distant from its center, because of the equatorial bulge). Other active volcanoes in Ecuador are Tungurahua (5,023 m.) and Pichincha (4,794 m), whose capital Quito wraps around the latter’s eastern slopes. Farther north, Otavalo valley (the core of traditional Ecuadorian Quechua culture) is crowned by the peaks of Imbabura, Cotacachi, and Mojanda volcanoes, while several important towns such as Riobamba, Latacunga, Cuenca and Ambato lie in long valley south of Quito known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes.

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Huascarán, in Wikipedia.
Cotopaxi, in Wikipedia.
Chimborazo (volcano), in Wikipedia.
Otavalo, in Wikipedia.


Situated to the north of Ecuador, almost on the border with Colombia, Nudo de los Pastos (the Pastos massif) is the place where the northern section of the Andes begins, consisting of two parallel ranges, the Cordillera Occidental and the Cordillera Oriental, separated by the River Cauca Valley. In Colombia, north to the border with Ecuador, the Andes split in three ranges, western, central and eastern (Cordillera Occidental, Central y Oriental). Between the Central and Eastern Cordilleras lies the Magdalena River, while the Eastern Cordillera is also drained by both the Orinoco River and the Amazon River basins, and is the only one that extends to Venezuela
In this region, the Quechua peoples’ linguistic dominance vanishes in favour of a rich ethnic patchwork including the Páez, the Guambiano, the Kamsá, the Tunebo and the Kofán, among other peoples.
The Colombian Andes house major cities such as Bogotá, Cali and Medellín. The range’s highest peaks are Cumbal Volcano (4,764 m), Nevado del Ruiz (5,321 m.) and Nevado del Huila (5,750 m).
The three Colombian ranges turn into a myriad of valleys and lower hill ranges that flows into the Caribbean Sea (where Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao islands represent the submerged peaks of the extreme northern edge of the Andes range), the Chocó and the Venezuelan plains.
This brief trip across the Andes geography and their human and natural environments hardly does justice to their extraordinary and unique sceneries. However, this is just the first step towards a deeper knowledge of their unusual landscapes, their long, steep and narrow paths and the many different peoples walking them. “Land of winds” will try to get closer to the range and discover both, its well- and its badly-kept secrets.
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