The imposing spine of the Andes defines the west coast of South America, from Tierra del Fuego to the Caribbean Sea. I began my journey here in Patagonia, where glaciers have stripped peaks to bare rock. Just to the north the mountains form a monumental wall between the vast Pampas of Argentina and the littoral sliver of Chile.
I was born in the Andes, in the colonial city of Cuenca, Ecuador. The mountains have been my lifelong companions, and I still make my home at their feet. To those of us who are their children, they are alive. We listen to them, learn to read their moods, and respect their power. Sometimes they welcome us with their solid embrace. Other times they shake with fury, and we know to stay away. Still sacred to some, they speak to the souls of all, reminding us how vulnerable we are. There are millions of us, brown, white, and black, mestizo and mulatto, and we have all labored to help build this continent of sadness, magic, and irrepressible hope.
Over the months and miles I realized that my kinship extends to every part of the continent united by the history, language, and religion of the conquistadores. And yet, as close as we South Americans feel to one another, we also sense a strangeness. The mountains have been boundaries, allowing different cultures to grow up in proximity.
Closely identifying with European cultures, Chileans and Argentines view the Andes as a spectacular backdrop. Few live in the jagged heights, which become bitterly cold in winter.
From Bolivia to Venezuela, though, tropical air produces a transformation, making the high country habitable. The gradual cooling that comes with altitude brings a profusion of ecosystems to the short distance between the rain forests and the summits.
These variations in nature have parallels in human society: an explosion of musical forms and culinary specialties, native tongues and dialects, lifestyles and clothing styles, traditions and attitudes—all connected in the end by the lingering influence of Spanish rule.
Chile Bastions of society, the family and the armed forces have each undergone radical changes in the past decade. Looking after children was once exclusively women's work. Today young parents both pitch in. On a Saturday outing with his daughters, Rodrigo Abarca holds María Jesús while Macarena sits for a portrait. "They can really exasperate."
Still wielding great power, the Chilean military now operates under civilian authority. In the annual promotion ceremony at the Naval Weapons School, a Roman Catholic chaplain blesses the swords of new officers, who swear to defend the democratic constitution.
Bolivia In the tropical latitudes, where rainy and dry seasons alternate, festivals mark the year's cycles while bringing people together and offering relief from daily routines. Because every community has its own sartorial traditions, a hat's shape or a fabric's design shows where each participant comes from. Shying away from the changes overtaking their culture, Aymara women still dress like their ancestors even when going to town. Men, who venture beyond their villages more often, are quicker to adopt modern ways. Dressed in city clothes, a father waits with his family as a priest blesses their van, decorated for a ceremony of thanksgiving.