DixPix Photographs

     

SOUTH CORDILLERA

 
     
  Social Aspects: LIFE IN DRY LANDS, ATACAMA & ALTIPLANO  

 

Life away from the main cities in the dry, and often high, areas of South America is downright harsh.  To some extent this page overlaps the pages of DixPix devoted to gauchos and huasos, religion, ceremony, and agriculture.  The desert and altiplano maintain such a tight grip on the life styles in their areas, however, that it seems more natural to consider them separately.

 

For those of us arriving from more pampered lives, be it by 4x4 vehicle or on horseback, one of the most striking things about the altiplano is the utter bleakness. Click to see big picture (640x351 pixels; 64 KB)
And in the Atacama Desert, bleakness is joined by lifelessness.  The occasional isolated grave site brings the nature of the land into focus. Click to see big picture (640x382 pixels; 90 KB)
To be sure, where there is water there can be cities with all the amenities for the few that can afford them. This is La Paz, capital of Bolivia, and the Incas ruled an empire from the altiplano city of Cuzco in Peru.  This is not the lifestyle being considered. Click to see big picture (640x414 pixels; 111 KB)
To start with, the altiplano is windy, and very cold, it can snow at any time, in fact snow is the main precipitation for much of the area. This shot is from an abandoned airstrip in northern Argentina. Click to see big picture (640x389 pixels; 84 KB)
Access to many parts of the altiplano and Atacama are on difficult roads, or require pack animals or just plain walking.  This is what the road into El Indio Mine looked like in 1975 when it was just a prospect.   Click to see big picture (316x480 pixels; 79 KB)
And much of the altiplano lies over 4000 meters altitude.  The accompanying discomfort is known as "puna" and can be severe for those not acclimatized.  Here an empty gas drum has been imploded or crushed to a triangular shape as the author careless forgot to remove the bung when descending to sea level.   Click to see big picture (477x445 pixels; 57 KB)
In response to the difficult conditions, many altiplano inhabitants chew the mildly narcotic coca leaves.  Here they are, the small nuggets are a cactus ash, put in the other side of the mouth to provide extractive alkalinity.  Other cultures employ other alkaline inducers.   Click to see big picture (541x480 pixels; 95 KB)
The coca plant grows best part way between the altiplano and the Amazon Basin. Here a gold placer mine near Tingo Maria (Peru) is seen against the "white gold" of a coca plantation.  Well, its "white gold" when it is turned into cocaine. Click to see big picture (633x480 pixels; 159 KB)
Some coca plantations are legal, others aren't.  Here a straight sector of a road has been pillared to prevent planes from landing and picking up loads of the local coca leaf. Click to see big picture (599x480 pixels; 119 KB)
The coca plant itself (Erythroxylum coca, Erythroxylaceae family) is of innocuous appearance, with handsome flowers and cheerful berries.  Coca tea is a very good remedy for the problems of altitude (puna). Click to see big picture (640x314 pixels; 76 KB)
Back to the world of the rural altiplano.  In many areas, life is semi-nomadic, searching for forage for animals, temporary holding corrals such as this dot the landscape. Click to see big picture (638x416 pixels; 124 KB)
And much of life revolves around the tame cameloids, llamas and alpacas.  This is shearing time near Huancavelica, Peru. Click to see big picture (640x392 pixels; 122 KB)
Home base for a small settlement may look more like this. Click to see big picture (640x375 pixels; 77 KB)
But there is also farming, locally in both the Atacama and the Altiplano, and they depend on other animals besides the cameloids. Click to see big picture (640x299 pixels; 93 KB)
But what can be farmed depends on what can be irrigated.  Here, near the town of Viraco in southern Peru, ancient Incan irrigation flumes precisely define the agricultural potential. (1966, things may have changed) Click to see big picture (640x415 pixels; 118 KB)
Alas, where there is enough water for irrigation, there is usual steep topography, which also limits agriculture.  A valley in northernmost Argentina. Click to see big picture (627x415 pixels; 106 KB)
In the altiplano, a major percentage of the houses are built of rock-- well that's what there is most of.  The Alegre house, northern Argentina near Socompa. Click to see big picture (640x395 pixels; 93 KB)
As temporary shelters, some of these can be rapidly contrived. Click to see big picture (640x427 pixels; 122 KB)
Elsewhere, even rocks may be rare, or for whatever reason people prefer to build with mud bricks.  This is from near the Argentine-Bolivian border. Click to see big picture (640x439 pixels; 119 KB)
Typical of thousands of small, isolated settlements, Esquina la Guardia, Argentina. Click to see big picture (640x396 pixels; 115 KB)
This may be a pleasant sort of place as a child among family and animals, but young adults find little opportunity, and many gravitate to town or city slums with only rudimentary education. Click to see big picture (640x393 pixels; 90 KB)
And under the thumb of the Catholic Church, indigenous families tend to be large.   Click to see big picture (296x480 pixels; 59 KB)
The traditional women's dress in the altiplano is colorful and extremely varied, a treat to see.  This is not for special occasions, this was the standard dress.  Alas, few of the younger generations are following the tradition.
To both north and south, the dry lands of the altiplano finally give way to regions with more rainfall.  This is from the Catamarca area of Peru, north of the dry altiplano. Click to see big picture (640x401 pixels; 85 KB)
As for the Atacama Desert, towns and cities mainly hug the coast, or are along the few drainages from the Andes.  This photo from above Vallenar, Chile, portrays some of the unchanging rhythms of the rural life. Click to see big picture (640x368 pixels; 76 KB)
In Peru especially, hard-scrabble mining towns mushroom where there is some hope of finding minerals of value in the deserts. Click to see big picture (602x480 pixels; 136 KB)
But as with the altiplano, most attempts to wring a living out of the desert are difficult and isolated.  (Likely on a par with trying to make a living in the crowded slums of Lima.) Click to see big picture (623x398 pixels; 72 KB)
And again in Peru, this woman searching through a garbage dump symbolizes the plight of many tied to the dry lands. Click to see big picture (640x372 pixels; 114 KB)