Published: July 2008
The Altiplano
"Otherworldly" is the word for Bolivia's sky-high plain.
By Alma Guillermoprieto

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.

The intense geologic activity beneath the Altiplano has endowed Bolivia with extraordinary mineral riches. Silver ore extracted from a single mountain at legendary Potosí helped finance the Spanish crown for centuries and, some economists argue, created the wealth without which Europe's rise to power couldn't have happened. In the early 20th century, tin from newer mines provided the raw material for much of the world's canning industry, making it possible to keep young men in the trenches of World War I for years on end.

The Altiplano is still a source of wealth. After nearly a decade of building up the necessary infrastructure, Apex Silver Mines, a U.S. corporation, is preparing to take ore from another hill, San Cristóbal, which appears to consist almost entirely of silver, zinc, and lead. And another U.S.-owned mine, San Bartolomé at Potosí, may be the world's largest source of pure silver.

Yet in the midst of all these riches—which also flow from plentiful deposits of oil and natural gas in Bolivia's lowlands—the country's per capita income is only about $3,200 a year. Immense wealth and immense poverty have challenged—and defeated—even Bolivia's few enlightened rulers, as well as persistent efforts by international goodwill organizations. Few countries can match Bolivia's disheartening history of dictatorships, coups, and purely venal rule. One former dictator, Gen. Luis García Meza Tejada, is still in jail for political murders and corruption, and three presidents between 2003 and 2006 did not serve full terms of office.

A casual observer would say that nearly all Bolivians are brown skinned and most are poor, while a smattering of people at the top of the social heap are well-off and white. But racial distinctions are never so simple. The more potent divide may be the one between the half of the population that speaks only Spanish and the remainder, the indigenous inhabitants of Bolivia, who speak one of the country's 36 other official languages—including Aymara and Quechua, the majority languages of the Altiplano—and often also speak Spanish.

Bolivia today is undergoing profound change, and those bringing it about are the very people whom various forms of despotism have kept in a state of paralyzed submission for centuries. Marching for their rights, challenging authority, exploding with rage often enough, the descendants of the first peoples are trying to make a new world for themselves—one in which they will occupy the center. The year 2005 saw their greatest triumph: Voting as a block, they elected Evo Morales, an Aymara from the Altiplano, to the presidency. What comes next is anybody's guess, but it will almost certainly not be a return to submission.