What is the Altiplano?
The Altiplano is a high-elevation plateau, or plain, that stretches across large parts of southern Peru and western Bolivia and has small areas in Chile and Argentina. It is the widest part of the Andes mountain range and consists of several mountain basins that are connected together. The Altiplano has an average elevation of 12,000 feet above sea level, although it can reach well over 13,000 feet in some places. This area has been inhabited since before the Inca Empire by several cultures, the most well-known of which are the Tiahuanaco and Chiripa.
Interesting Facts about the Altiplano
Stretching around 600 miles at its widest point and covering an area of 40,000 square miles, the Altiplano is the largest and highest plateau in the world outside of Tibet. It is also home to Titicaca Lake, the highest navigable lake in the world, and Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. While such a high altitude sounds like the Altiplano might be cold, barren, and desolate, it is actually home to a number of plants, animals, and human settlements. The most populated cities here include: Puno in Peru and La Paz, El Alto, and Oruro in Bolivia.
Formation of the Altiplano
The Altiplano was formed when the floor of the Pacific Ocean ran into the South American continental mainland. This collision shoved the two masses together, pushing up two separate Andes mountain peaks and leaving the flat basin between the two. Volcanoes along the present-day border between Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile emitted lava that further enclosed the Altiplano. Some theories suggest that the tectonic plates under this area are weaker than those surrounding it. This weakness would explain why the basin did not also elevate during the tectonic plate collision.
During the Pleistocene era, between 2.58 million and 11,700 years ago, the basin was covered covered in pluvial lakes. These lakes fill with precipitation or water from melting glaciers and tend to evaporate when the climate becomes dry. Most of these lakes have since ceased to exist, with the exception of Lake Titicaca (previously mentioned). As of 2015, Lake Poopó, a body of saltwater, has been declared dry. Older, dried up lake beds have left behind large salt deposits like those found in the Salar de Uyuni and the Salar de Coipasa.
Climate of the Altiplano
The extreme elevation of this area has a significant effect on its climate, which is generally described as cold and dry. The average annual temperature ranges between 37.4° and 53.6° fahrenheit. Depending on the exact location, the moisture in the air may range from humid in the northeastern region to arid in the southwestern region. Precipitation or rainfall is just as varied and has an annual average of as little as 7.8 inches in the arid regions to as much as 31.5 inches in humid areas. The southwestern area of the Altiplano is both the coldest and driest region, particularly during the winter months of June and July.
Biodiversity of the Altiplano
The Altiplano is largely covered by the puna grassland ecoregion, which belongs to the montane grasslands and shrublands biome. The climate, elevation, and high saline content of the soil work together to create a harsh environment for plants and animals. Large trees, for example, can rarely be found. Grasses and shrubs are the most common types of plants as they are able to survive the conditions, although even these are not able to grow everywhere in the Altiplano. Specific plant species include: Jarava ichu, Azorella compacta, and Festuca dolichophylla. Interestingly, these plants tend to grow in patches rather than over large, solid areas.
Common animal species include: fox, chinchilla, llama, guanaco, vicuña, and alpaca. Several species of birds can also be found here, including the: Andean condor, yellow finches, giant coot, puna teal, and Darwin’s rhea. Others fly over the area on their migratory routes and many flamingos rely on the saltwater lakes here as breeding grounds, although the recent loss of Lake Poopó will significantly limit their breeding area.
Economy of the Altiplano
Alpacas and llamas have become important sources of food and wool for the people of the Altiplano. In fact, herding and caring for these animals is one of the most common economic activities in the area, along with the mining industry. This area is rich in minerals which are extracted and exported around the world.
The economy of this region is considered one of the poorest in the world. Of the roughly 6 million individuals who live here, approximately 75% of them live at the poverty line and 55% live in conditions of extreme poverty. Because a large area of the Altiplano has an arid climate and barren soil, agriculture is difficult to produce. Small family farms produce minimal harvests, which is evident in the high levels of malnutrition and large numbers of child mortality. Potatoes, which are native to the Andes, are one of the few crops that can survive here. Other agricultural crops grown here include maca (a tuber), barley, and quinoa. Additionally, this region lacks the infrastructure and financial resources to access larger markets and credit from banks which hinders development.
Culture of the Altiplano
Although this area has been influenced by pre-Inca cultures, the Inca Empire, and Spanish colonists, it has still retained its indigenous identity. Today, the culture most commonly associated with the Altiplano is the Aymara. It has a population of around 1 million, which is largely concentrated around the Lake Titicaca area. The origin of the Aymara is disputed. Most researchers agree that it dates back to around 800 years ago, although some believe it can be traced to 5,000 years ago. When the Aymara arrived, they pushed the Uru tribe out of the area. In the 15th century, the Aymara came under the control of the Inca Empire.
The Aymara indigenous peoples speak the Aymara language, which has only 1 surviving relative in the world, Kawki or Jaqaru, spoken in the central region of Peru. Some individuals speak Spanish as a second language. Aymara women can be recognized by their use of bowler hats, a custom that began in the 1920’s. Another typical piece of clothing worn by these women is the aguayo, a brightly colored cloth used for carrying supplies or children.