The Andes form the backbone of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. It is the longest unbroken mountain chain in the world, soaring higher than any range except the Himalayas in South Asia. Some of the Andes’ snowcapped peaks tower more than 20,000 feet (6,000 m) above sea level.
The Andes have shaped not only the physical geography of the Andean nations, but also the economies and lifestyles of the people who make their homes in this region.
The Andes stretch some 5,500 miles (8,850 km) all the way from the Caribbean Sea to the southernmost tip of South America. At places in Peru and Bolivia the mountain range is nearly 500 miles (800 km) wide. Its rocky walls divide the Andean nations ...view middle of the document...
Between the cordilleras lie highland valleys and plateaus. The high plateaus range from 6,500 to 16,000 feet (1,980 to 4,900 m) above sea level. Plateau regions are known by different names in different countries: the altiplano, or “high plain,” in Peru and Bolivia, and the páramos in Ecuador. The climate in the Andes varies with elevation. At very high elevations, the vegetation is known as alpine tundra. Alpine tundra usually grows above the timber line, the boundary above which continuous forest vegetation cannot grow. Only plants that can survive cold temperatures, gusting winds, spotty precipitation, and short growing seasons grow in the alpine tundra.
The highest altitudes of the Andes are in the midsection of the mountain chain. Mountaintop areas here are snow-covered and cold all year long. Further north, however, the picture changes. Mountain temperatures there are warmer, rains more frequent, and rain forest growth thick and lush.
Inland, the eastern slopes of the Andes descend to forested tropical lowlands. A dramatic contrast exists between the cold, dry mountains and the steamy lowlands. In Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, these forested regions are called the selva. The rain forests of the Amazon River basin begin in the selva. Jaguars, hummingbirds, monkeys, and toucans inhabit this ecosystem, but not many people do.
People have always been drawn to the Andes because of the area’s natural resources. The soil is mostly rich and suited for growing a variety of crops, depending on the elevation. The mountains contain a wealth of gold, silver, tin, copper, and other minerals. At the same time, the mountains often have served as barriers to trade among the Andean countries and with the outside world.
One way in which the people of the Andes have adapted to mountain living is by “vertical trade.” In a typical Andean market town, people from villages at different elevations meet to trade their crops. Because people grow crops suited to their own climate zone, here they trade “up” and “down.” Tropical foods such as bananas and sugar cane, grown in the tierra caliente, may be traded for the potatoes and cabbages that grow in the tierra fría. Village farmers, highland cheesemakers, coastal fishermen, and peddlers all meet in the Andean market town.
The original inhabitants of the highlands, before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, were groups of Native Americans. Indians still make up between 25 and 55 percent of the populations of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. Andean Indians, who have lived for centuries at altitudes up to 17,000 feet (5,200 m) have developed unusual physical characteristics, such as larger hearts and lungs, that let them live and work in the thin, oxygen-poor air.
Ecuador takes its name from the Equator, which cuts across the country. About one fourth of the 12.9 million Ecuadorians are of Indian descent. They speak Quechua (KECH wah), the language of the...