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SOUTH CORDILLERA

 
     
  Terrain - ALTIPLANO  

 

The term altiplano is generally used to refer to high valleys, basins and pampas or plains that occur between the mountain uplifts in the Andes east of the Atacama Desert.  This involves northeastern Chile, northwestern Argentina, southwestern Bolivia and parts of Peru.  It is a mainly a desolate area, and while not as arid or lifeless as the Atacama, it is not an easy area in which to scratch a living from the landscape, and this is treated under "Life in Dry Lands".  Some of the major mountain ranges are treated separately under the "Desert Ranges" and the "Andes of Peru and Bolivia".  

 

Welcome to the Altiplano, this is perhaps a typical view to east of Antofagasta in Chile, near the Argentine border. Click to see big picture (640x405 pixels; 80 KB)
And here is another view of an area in northwestern Argentina. Click to see big picture (611x459 pixels; 73 KB)
Perhaps the three defining physical features of the Altiplano are volcanoes, salt flats (some very large) and lakes (mainly small and saline). Click to see big picture (640x442 pixels; 92 KB)
Some of the salt flats or salars are immense.  This is the Salar Arizaro in Argentina.  There are even larger ones in Bolivia. Click to see big picture (640x434 pixels; 59 KB)
Salinas Grandes (Big Saltworks) in Argentina Click to see big picture (640x398 pixels; 70 KB)
Volcanoes are widespread, especially in the western side of the Altiplano.  Several are active, in the sense that they are likely to renew eruptions.  Here two phases of lava are visible, neither looking all that ancient. Click to see big picture (620x458 pixels; 92 KB)
Much of the western Altiplano is a bit like a pressure cooker, and it is not unusual to see steam vents, especially when the air is cool at dawn.  This is near the Chile-Bolivia border town of Ollague. Click to see big picture (640x403 pixels; 87 KB)
El Tatio Geyser Field (Geiseres de Tatio) at 4200 m. altitude to northeast of San Pedro del Atacama has become a tourist attraction.  There are some 80 geysers, best viewed at dawn, so you can either sleep up there or catch a tourist bus in the wee hours from town. Click to see big picture (640x212 pixels; 47 KB)
Rarer, but more sinister, are sulfur fumeroles, like these on Volcan Azufre east of Taltal in Chile.  Beware a change in wind direction.  These just about gassed me shortly after this picture was taken, and you can't hold your breath long at these altitudes. Click to see big picture (640x424 pixels; 87 KB)
Looking down a sulfur fumerole is as close to an earthly vision of traditional hell as one is likely to get. Click to see big picture (640x405 pixels; 85 KB)
But it is due to the bleaching effect of the thermal waters and gases, combined with staining by different oxides of iron, that give much of the Altiplano its rich hue of colors, not to mention many of its mineral deposits. Click to see big picture (640x194 pixels; 49 KB)
Unlike the adjacent Atacama Desert, there is some water available in the Altiplano, and this allows a wide variety of plants to take hold, some of them rather distinctive.  Much more about this under the heading of "Flora".   Click to see big picture (334x461 pixels; 82 KB)
Where there is vegetation, there are creatures to exploit it, such as these high altitude cameloids, the Vicuñas. Click to see big picture (640x414 pixels; 111 KB)
Not to mention three species of flamingo and a few other aquatic birds that prefer the isolation of the high saline lakes.  Again, much more under the heading of "Fauna".   Click to see big picture (370x448 pixels; 44 KB)
Even south of the Atacama, high plains or pampas are used for summer grazing.  This is Valle de los Patos near the international border between La Serena, Chile and San Juan, Argentina. Click to see big picture (640x417 pixels; 85 KB)