Travel: The Complete Guide to Andes

By Hutchison, Peter | The Independent (London, England), October 14, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Travel: The Complete Guide to Andes


Hutchison, Peter, The Independent (London, England)


T he vast range of mountains that spans the South American continent, from Venezuela to the southern tip of Argentina, is always impressive, often unrivalled for magnificence. This is the home of the soaring condor, and travellers had better come prepared.

WHAT AND WHERE ARE THE ANDES?

Stretching south from Venezuela in the north for 5,500 miles, the Andes are the longest mountain chain in the world, running through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina almost to the tip of South America. Geologically the Andes are simply friction ripples on the earth's surface, created as the Pacific sea floor pushes eastward under the continental land mass.

Running parallel to the Pacific coastline of South America, the Andes start as a range of hills in Venezuela and quickly rise to summits over 15,000ft. In Ecuador the highest peak of Chimborazo rises to 20,704ft. Peru pushes the limit to 22,205ft with Huascarn, and the highest point in the chain is the Argentine summit of Aconcagua, at a breathtaking 22,831ft.

Down the length of the Andes the mountains divide, forming different chains and creating valleys of undulating hills and highland grasslands dotted with deep, blue and sulphuric green lakes.

WHY WOULD I WANT TO GO THERE?

The scenery is nothing short of spectacular and extremely varied. Snow- capped peaks rise into the cobalt blue skies for the length of the Andes. The gentle slopes of Cotopaxi and the perfect symmetry of Chimborazo in Ecuador contrast dramatically with the jagged towers of Torres del Paine in Chile.

Below the snowline, farms of highland campesinos dot the landscape, where they scratch a living from the poor soil - growing maize and potatoes, and grazing llamas and alpacas for wool and meat.

In southern Peru and through Bolivia to the south, the Andes reach their widest point where the expansive high plateau of the altiplano. Here, on scrubby grasslands, puna and low trees survive the harsh sun and extreme temperatures at 12,000ft. At the northern end of the altiplano Lake Titicaca stretches for over 110 miles, creating magical sunsets as the deep blue waters create a mirror of continental proportions. Further south, closed valleys have created the atmospheric Lake Districts of Chile and Argentina. And further south still, glaciers grind and crush all in their way, before splintering and crashing into lakes and the sea.

After llamas and alpacas, the sight of an Andean condor soaring on thermals is one that few forget. Many of the flora and fauna you might see have specialised in high altitude survival techniques.

IS THE CULTURE EQUALLY IMPRESSIVE?

Despite the efforts of conquistadors otherwise, Andean traditions have survived in surprising quantity. Modern Andean culture manifests itself in intricate textiles and music. The sound of panpipes and the manic strumming of the charango form a common accompaniment to the hundreds of Andean festivals that are celebrated with extravagant costumes, intricate masks and dances. Each usually tells a tale that reflects the region's complex history.

The Incas take the limelight historically. Their prominence lies in the fact that they ruled an area stretching right the way from Ecuador and Colombia to northern Chile and Argentina, at the time of the Spanish conquest. Their legacy is a well-developed system of paved roads in the central Andes, impressive masonry work and a centralised state which imposed Quechua as the lingua franca of the empire (it is still widely used today).

However, to give the Incas all the glory is neither correct or fair.

The facts are that the Incas simply assimilated into their culture the textile methods, metal working skills, construction techniques and administrative systems of various Andean and lowland South American cultures, including the Tihuanakans, Huari, Nascans and Chavn.

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