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Land of winds > The land > Geography | Issue 02. Sep.-Oct.2010
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

The Bolivian Andes

Los Andes bolivianos
The Andean region of Bolivia, situated at the western part of the country, covers almost 30% of its territory, an area of approximately 307,000 km2. It is noticeable that being only a third of the country, this region is home to its most important towns, probably its most beautiful landscapes, and also its most distinctive peoples. The area is, in addition, the birthplace of many of the instruments, rhythms and melodies that have nourished Andean musical tradition for centuries.

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The region is embraced by two branches of the Andes that run along the western edge of the country, from the South to the North: the Cordillera Occidental and the Cordillera Central or Real (Western mountain range and Central or Royal mountain range). Between both of them, the altiplano or puna (highland plain) is found, a surface covered by low hills, steppes and saline lakes at 3,000m above sea level. Some sources also mention a third mountain range consisting of foothills along the eastern slope of the Central Andes in Bolivia, known as the Cordillera Oriental (Eastern mountain range).
The Sub-Andean region lies to the east of the Andes, forming a series of valleys among a rainy and heavily forested belt of rugged terrain known as the yungas, which descends to the eastern plains of Bolivia, an extension of the Amazon River basin.

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Región andina (Bolivia), in Wikipedia [es].
Cordillera Occidental (Bolivia), in Wikipedia.
Cordillera Central (Bolivia), in Wikipedia.
Cordillera Oriental (Bolivia), in Wikipedia.

The Cordillera Occidental, mostly volcanic in origin, forms the natural boundary between Northern Chile and Bolivia. On the southernmost part of this border, just southwest of spectacular Laguna Verde (Green Lagoon) in Bolivia, it is located the Licancabur volcano (in Kunza language “the country’s mountain”). It is one of the highest active stratovolcanos in the world (5,920m), and its symmetrical figure dominates the landscape of the Salar de Atacama area (Chile).

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Volcán Licancabur, in Wikipedia.

This region is rich in different minerals and it is often struck by sand storms and covered with thick fog, major disturbances that make this part of the range almost uninhabitable. Ascending northwards along the western range, both the fabulous Uyuni and Coipasa Salt Marshes are found. The latter is the world’s largest salt flat (12,000 km2) and the largest lithium deposit (10,000 tons, found in the crystallized salt). The place is also well known among tourists for its impressive scenery consisting of exotic lagoons, which colour is caused by sediments, and blackened mountains that emerge from the ground evoking images of a white coastline dotted with islands. In addition, the Salar de Uyuni is the location chosen by three Andean flamingo species to nest.

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Salar de Coipasa, in Wikipedia [es].
Salar de Uyuni, in Wikipedia.

The central part of this branch of the range houses other salt marshes (Ollagüe, Carcote) and numerous volcanoes such as the Ollagüe (5,870m) and the Tunupa (5,432m). The former volcano displays fumarolic activity and a switchback road leads to disused sulphur mines on its upper portion. The latter owes its name to the Kolla’s god of volcanoes and lightning (Kolla people belong to the Aymara ethnic group).
Further north, some of the highest snow-capped mountains of Bolivia are found. One of these, the Nevado Sajama (6,524m), an extinct stratovolcano, is the highest peak in Bolivia. Its slopes are occupied by groups of queñua growing as high as 5,200m above the sea level (one of the world’s highest altitudes trees can be found). The Sajama is located in Sajama National Park, where, lying on the border of Chile and Bolivia, there are also two other stratovolcanoes, the Parinacota and the Pomerape, known as the Nevados de Payachatas (Aymara name that means “twins”).

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Nevado Sajama, in Wikipedia.
Nevados de Payachatas, in Wikipedia.

South of the Cordillera Central or Real, there are large tin deposits and Cerro Zapaleri (5,653m) fixes the tri-border with Argentina and Chile and the starting point of the range in this arid scenery of barren landscapes.

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Cerro Zapaleri, in Wikipedia.

    Eres luz del Ande, ciudad de La Paz,
    Con tu poncho blanco.
    Duerme el Illimani su sueño feliz,
    Historia de piedra.

    You are the light of the Andes, city of La Paz,
    with your white poncho.
    The Illimani sleeps its happy dream.
    stone history.

    Los Kjarkas. “Chuquiago marka”. From the album of the same name.
Further north, approaching La Paz, the range is home to impressive snow-capped mountains such as Chaupi Orco (6,044m, on the border between Peru and Bolivia) and important cities like Potosí and Sucre. The Cordillera de La Paz is part of the same mountain chain and includes well-known summits such as the sow-capped Illimani Mount which is over 19,000 feet (6,462m) high, the Illampu or Nevado de Sorata (6,485m), the Mururata (5,869m), and the Huayna Potosí (6,088m). Chacaltaya range, with an elevation of 5,421m, is also located here, and the glacier on it was (until its unexpectedly early melting) the world's highest lift-served ski area.

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Chaupi Orco, in Wikipedia.
Illimani, in Wikipedia.
Illampu, in Wikipedia.
Mururata, in Wikipedia.
Huayna Potosí, in Wikipedia.
Chacaltaya, in Wikipedia.

The Cordillera Oriental consists of a series of less important mountain ranges running parallel to each other into the forested and flat eastern areas of the country. Their southernmost foothills disappear into the semiarid lowlands of Bolivia, called the Gran Chaco. The central section is formed by the Cochabamba mountain range, where the yungas, a transitional zone between the Andean highlands and the Santa Cruz tropical plains, are located. To the North, the Cordillera Central ends in a number of lower mountain ranges.
    El sol se levanta en el campo helado
    con tu pollera usada por los años,
    que baila en el viento del altiplano
    arreando ovejitas a la cordillera.

    The sun rises in the icy field
    [at the same time] as your worn out skirt,
    which dances in the Altiplano wind
    driving sheep towards the cordillera.

    K’ala Marka. “Mamita” From the album “Aguas claras”.
The Bolivian Altiplano (Spanish for high plain) or puna is part of the Meseta del Collao, an extensive area of high plateau that crosses Bolivia, surrounds Lake Titicaca and goes into the southern region of Peru. Despite farming-adverse climatic conditions, this area saw the flowering of several Aymara kingdoms and the Tiahuanaco culture (see). In addition it was the place where the llama and the potato, among many other species, were domesticated. The city of Oruro, Poopó Lake and Titicaca (straddling the Peru-Bolivia border and drained by the Desaguadero River, which flows south into Poopó) are located here. This terrain is home to a diverse assortment of shrubs like icho or paja brava and low grasses growing in clumps on the ground, which feed the family-based groups of vicunas. For centuries, the Aymara peoples that inhabit this region have been able to harvest an array of different crops (mainly the hundreds types of potato, quinoa and ulluco), and also to take advantage of high mountain pastures to graze their flocks of sheep and llamas.

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Altiplano, in Wikipedia.
Poopó Lake, in Wikipedia.

The valleys and yungas (cloud forests) lie to the east and form the Sub-Andean humid forest region between the drier Gran Chaco to the east, and the puna to the west. The climate is subtropical with temperature and humidity varying according to altitude (from 300 to 2,500m), latitude and slope exposure. This region is occupied by extraordinary and diverse forests ranging from foothill jungle to mountain jungle and mountain forest. It is also an important source for corn, coffee, citrus and coca and several native plants.

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Yungas, in Wikipedia.

The Bolivian Altiplano and the Cordillera Occidental are home to Aymara peoples such as Kolla, Lupaca, Caranga, Cana, Pacaje, Charca, Asanaque, Chicha, Qara qara... Small parts of the puna are inhabited by the minority Chipaya, grouped mainly in villages like Santa Ana (Oruro department). The Cordillera Central and the valleys are dominated by Quechua groups, while Afro-Bolivian people live in parts of the yungas (La Paz department) as Coroico and Chicaloma.
The geography described in these lines has been named using mostly the original terms. Such a diverse geography shapes the magical and desolated landscapes, which inspire musicians to compose their lyrics and melodies.


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