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    Land of winds > The land > Geography | Issue 09 (Mar.-Apr. 2012)
    By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

The Bolivian Altiplano


The Bolivian Altiplano

The Bolivian puna or Altiplano is part of the Meseta del Collao, a vast high plain stretching from southern Peru to northern Chile and northwestern Argentina, and whose name, according to several authors, would derive from the Aymara term qullawi, "the Colla’s place", the Colla or Qulla being one of the most important Aymara kingdoms settled in the surroundings of the Titicaca Lake.

The Titicaca Lake breaks through the Andean mountain range that descends sourthwards splitting it into several ridges. The Altiplano extends between those ridges, located at an altitude that ranges from 3000 to 5000 metres. In Bolivia, this area is framed by summits scattered along the three Andean branches that cross the country. It is a rough and desolate landscape modelled by the climate and weathered factors (cold and with low rainfall) and dotted with deserts and salt flats.

The main features of the northern half (La Paz and Oruro departments) are the Titicaca Lake, the Desaguadero River and two saline lakes known as Uru Uru and Poopó. To the south, the high plateau turns into a dessert and the landscape is dominated by the Salar de Coipasa and the Salar de Uyuni or Tunupa (the world’s largest salt flat). This southern half (Potosí department) is crossed by a few intermittent rivers (Grande de Lípez, Pucamayu, Lauca, Lacajahuira) and features scattered lagoons such as the Colorada or the Q’ara.


Altiplano, in Wikipedia.
La Paz Department (Bolivia), in Wikipedia.
Oruro Department, in Wikipedia.
Potosí Department, in Wikipedia.
Lake Titicaca, in Wikipedia.
Desaguadero River (Bolivia), en Wikipedia.
Uru Uru Lake, in Wikipedia.
Poopó Lake, in Wikipedia.
Salar de Coipasa, in Wikipedia [es].
Salar de Uyuni, in Wikipedia.


Picture 01. Salar de Uyuni 01.
Picture 02. Salar de Uyuni 02.
Picture 03. Salar de Uyuni 03.
Picture 04. Salar de Uyuni 04.
Picture 05. Salar de Coipasa.
Picture 06. Poopó Lake (with flamingos).
Picture 07. Poopó Lake.
Picture 08. Lake Titicaca 01.
Picture 09. Lake Titicaca 02.
Picture 10. Laguna Colorada.


The steppe flora includes desert shrubs (the tola and the yareta), tuft grasses (ichu and paja brava) and some cacti. The fauna of this arid land comprises the armadillo or quirquincho (kirkinchu), the Andean flamingo (parina or pariwana), the condor (kuntur or mallku), the puma, the vicuña, the llama (qarwa), the fox, the Andean ostrich or suri, the mountain vizcacha (wisk’acha) and the chinchilla among others.


Picture 11. Tola (Baccharis tola).
Picture 12. Ichu (Stipa ichu).
Picture 13. Quirquincho (Chaetopractus nationi).
Picture 14. Andean flamingos (Phoenicopterus andinus).
Picture 15. Andean condor (Vultur gryphus).
Picture 16. Vicuña (Vicugna vicugna).
Picture 17. Suri (Pterocnemia pennata).
Picture 18. Mountain viscacha (Lagidium viscacia).


The economy of the region is primarily based on salt and minerals extraction, which includes potassium, lithium, tin, silver, copper, tungsten, antimony and zinc. Traditional crops like the potato (and its freezed-dried subproducts, the chuño and the tunta), the oca (with a chuño-like subproduct known as khaya) and the olluco or papalisa are the backbone of rural economy, alongside grains such as barley, wheat, quinua, kiwicha or cañihua (kañiwa) and legumes like beans and peas. Finally, in addition to sheep goats, cattle and pigs, farmers also keep llamas and vicuñas.


Picture 18. Different variants of Andean potatoes and other tubers.
Picture 19. Chuño.
Picture 20. Oca (Oxalis tuberosa).
Picture 21. Olluco (Ullucus tuberosus).
Picture 22. Quinua (Chenopodium quinoa).


The catalogue of Aymara place-names throughout the Bolivian Altiplano’s topography includes Challapaya, Acopata, Pusi Huanko, Chilahuala, Unupata, Colliri, Totorani, Maramara, Aullagas, Quillacas... However, this area is also home to the Uru or Chipaya, a native culture settled in the provinces of Carangas and Sabaya (Oruro department) whose numbers declined dramatically.

The most important towns and villages in the region are La Paz (the country’s capital city), El Alto (originally a suburb of the capital it has now became an independent city), Oruro (department’s capital and venue for famous Carnival) and Challapata.

The list of tourist attractions in the department of Potosí includes the “Eduardo Averoa” Andean National Fauna Reserve (Sud Lípez province), with snow-capped volcanoes and steppe-like landscapes; and the already mentioned Salar de Uyuni and its environs. In the Oruro department, one of the “must-dos” is visiting the city of Oruro at Carnival time; also the Lake Poopó and the surrounding area (Quillacas sanctuary, Challapata) are worth visiting for both the scenery and the traditional gastronomy. Finally, the impressive archaeological remains of Tiwanaku/Tiahuanaco are located in the middle of the La Paz plateau; major towns around the Lake Titicaca are Achacachi, Carabuco, Guaqui or Jesús de Machaca; and, of course, the capital city of La Paz, which looks amazingly lively and inviting during the “entradas” (literally, “entrances”, appearance on the streets) or flokloric parades (such as the Fiesta del Gran Poder), when both visitors and locals can enjoy the country’s traditional rhythms, styles and dances.


La Paz, in Wikipedia.
El Alto, in Wikipedia.
Oruro, in Wikipedia.
Eduardo Averoa Andean National Fauna Reserve, in Wikipedia.
The Carnival of Oruro, in Wikipedia.
Fiesta del Gran Poder, in Wikipedia [es].


Picture 23. Sud Lípez landscape.
Picture 24. Uyuni’s surroundings landscape.
Picture 25. Salar de Chiguana, on the Sud Lípez Altiplano.


El altiplano boliviano es un espacio de paisajes casi mágicos que atesora riquezas naturales y culturales únicas. Es cuna de historias y leyendas transcurridas en sus salares y desiertos. Y es donde música, canto y danza rinden homenaje a esos paisajes y a esas historias.


Picture A


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