Published: July 2008

The High Plain

Altiplano Sky Reflect

The Altiplano

"Otherworldly" is the word for Bolivia's sky-high plain.

By Alma Guillermoprieto
Photograph by George Steinmetz

The Altiplano, or high plain, of South America is a place of superlatives: It holds the world's highest navigable lake, Titicaca, and the largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni. It is the second largest mountain plateau in the world, after that of Tibet—a landscape of ice and fire, wind and salt that stretches from northern Argentina to the harsh flatlands of Peru. Higher than many peaks in the Rockies, the Altiplano formed when an earthshaking collision between the Pacific Ocean floor and the South American mainland heaved up two Andean ridges flanking a mostly flat, high basin. Toward the southern rim of the Altiplano, where Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina meet, lava burbles in tall, jagged volcanoes; at their feet, on the shores of what was once a vast lake filling the basin, baby mud volcanoes erupt and hiss through the frozen soil. Perhaps nowhere on Earth does a landscape remind us so vividly that there was a time before human time. From a 4x4 racing across the Uyuni—that blinding mirror of salt—time drops away, and when a glittering moon rises directly across from the setting sun on this white plain, eternity seems very near.

Few trees survive in the wind-sheared expanses, and few crops can be coaxed out of the ground. But this echoing landscape is inhabited—by chinchillas and delicately hoofed vicuñas, alpacas, and llamas, by inquisitive foxes and, improbably, by large groups of flamingos, which find the exposed, barren expanses of the region's salt lakes a delightful place to breed. Humans live here too, in the millions, most in the wide expanse between Uyuni and Titicaca—an area known in the time of the Inca Empire as the Qullasuyu, the southeastern quarter. After independence from Spain in 1825, a new country—named for the liberator Simón Bolívar—was formed, encompassing most of the Altiplano.

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