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month 2007

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A LT I P L A N O
WHERE BOLIVIA MEETS THE SKY

PHOTOGRAPHS

BY

GEORGE

STEINMETZ
THE CLOUD-SCRAPING PLAtEAU OF tHE ANDES IS AN OtHERWORLDLY REALM WHERE FLAMINGOS GLIDE ABOVE A LAGOON HEAtED BY UNDERGROUND SPRINGS AND COLORED CARNELIAN BY ALGAE (ABOVE); WHERE WIND ERODES ROCK INtO A MODERNISt SCULPtURE PERCHED ON A NARROW BASE (LEFt); AND VEHICLES SEEM tO FLOAt ON A SHIMMERING SALt FLAt FLOODED BY AUtUMN RAINS (OVERLEAF).

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MOONLIGHt ILLUMINAtES INCAHUASI ISLAND, AN OUtCROPPING OF CACtI AND ANCIENt CORAL IN tHE UYUNI SALt FLAt. A MASSIVE LAKE AS MUCH AS 450 FEEt DEEP

COVERED tHIS AREA 16,000 YEARS AGO. WHEN It DRIED UP, It LEFt BEHIND A 4,085-SQUARE-MILE BASIN OF SALt, tHE WORLDS LARGESt SUCH DEPOSIt.

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he Altiplano, or High Plain, of South America is a place of superlatives: It holds the worlds highest navigable lake, Titicaca, and the largest salt deposit, Salar de Uyuni. It is the second largest mountain plateau in the

world, after that of Tibeta landscape of ice and fire, wind and salt that stretches from the northern tip of Chile and Argentina to the harsh flatlands of Peru. Higher than many peaks in the Rockies, the Altiplano formed when an earth-shaking collision
between the Pacific Ocean floor and the South American mainland heaved up two Andean ridges flanking a mostly flat, high basin. On the southern rim of the Altiplano, where Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia meet, lava burbles in tall, jagged volcanoes; at their feet, on the shores of the vast lake that once filled 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. Racing in a 4x4 across the Uyunithat blinding mirror of salttime 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 inhabitedby chinchillas and delicately hoofed vicuas, alpacas, and llamas, by inquisitive foxes and, improbably, by large populations of flamingos, which find the marshy edges of the Salar salt lake a delightful place to breed. Humans live here too, in the millions, most in the wide expanse between Uyuni and Titicacaan area known in the time of the Inca empire as the Quyasuyu, the Eastern Quarter. After independence from the Spanish empire, the Altiplano became part of the country that in 1825 was christened Bolivia. The intense geologic activity beneath the
This is the text for the author and photographer contributors notes. Hopefully three lines should be enough to say something nice about each. 66 national geo graphic
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Altiplano has endowed Bolivia with extraordinary mineral riches. Silver ore extracted from a single hill, the legendary Potos, financed the Spanish crown for nearly 300 years and, some economists argue, created the wealth without which the European Renaissance couldnt have happened. In the early 20th century, tin from two newer mines provided the raw material for much of the worlds 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 raze yet another hill, San Cristbal, which appears to consist almost entirely of silver, zinc, and lead. Meanwhile a corporation based in India is setting up shop to extract iron ore from El Mutn, a hill overlooking Brazil. Yet in the midst of all these richeswhich also flow from plentiful deposits of oil and natural gas in Bolivias lowlandsthe countrys per capita income remains less than $1,500 a year. Immense wealth and immense poverty have challengedand defeatedeven Bolivias few enlightened rulers, as well as persistent efforts by international goodwill organizations. Few countries can match Bolivias disheartening history of dictatorships, coups, and purely venal rule. One former president, Luis Garca Meza, is still in jail for drug trafficking, and five consecutive presidents between 2003 and 2006 did not serve full terms of office. A casual observer would say that nearly all

Borne high on the great rocky spine of the Andes, the South American tableland known as the altiplano stretches north to south for 500 miles through western Bolivia. Plants, animals, and people endure harsh living conditions at more than 12,000 feet above sea level.

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 is the one between the half of the population that speaks only Spanish and the remainder, the indigenous inhabitants of the Altiplano, who speak one of Bolivias three other official languagesAymara, Quechua, and Guaranior any one of a few dozen others (some nearly extinct) and who may or may not 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 themselvesone 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 anybodys guess, but it will almost certainly not be a return to submission.
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NEAR tHE tOP OF POMERAPE VOLCANO, At AN ALtItUDE OF ALMOSt 20,000 FEEt, THE RELENtLESS SUN DOESNt JUSt MELt SNOWIt VAPORIZES It INtO SPIKY FORMAtIONS

CALLED PENItENtES. AS tHE GLOBAL CLIMAtE WARMS, SNOW LINES CREEP EVER HIGHER UP tHE SIDES OF SUCH PEAKS ALONG tHE BOLIVIACHILE BORDER.

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REFLECtING tHE COLOR OF tHE SKY, SCALDING MUD POtS SPAttER, HISS, AND BELCH OUt StEAM tHAt StINKS OF SULFUR At SOL DE MAANA, OR MORNING SUN. THIS

PRIMORDIAL LANDSCAPE LIES SOME 15 MILES SOUtH OF LAGUNA COLORADA, tHE GEOtHERMALLY HEAtED RED LAGOON WHERE FLAMINGOS THRIVE.

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THE PAISLEY SWIRLS OF A WILD GRASS CALLED PAJA BRAVA PAttERN tHE ALtIPLANO BENEAtH RARE tHUNDERCLOUDS. FEW OtHER PLANtS CAN SURVIVE tHE EXtREMES

OF tHIS LOFtY WINDSWEPt DESERt, WHERE A WARM DAY MIGHt REACH 50F AND tHE AVERAGE RAINFALL BARELY AMOUNtS tO 12 INCHES A YEAR.

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TO FIND NEW GRAZING, VICUAS DASH ACROSS A CORNER OF tHE UYUNI SALt FLAt. JUSt tHREE FEEt tALL, tHESE tINY RELAtIVES OF LLAMAS AND CAMELS PRODUCE

WOOL SO SOFt AND LIGHt It WAS RESERVED FOR INCA ROYALtY. HUNtED ALMOSt tO EXtINCtION, tHEYRE NOW PROtECtED AND MAKING A COMEBACK.

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THE SHADOW OF Mt. SAJAMAAt 21,463 FEEt, tHE COUNtRYS HIGHESt PEAKJUtS OVER tHE RUGGED COASt tHAt ONCE BELONGED tO BOLIVIA. tHE LAtE 19tH-CENtURY

WAR OF tHE PACIFIC ENDED WItH CHILE IN POSSESSION OF tHE COASt, BOLIVIA LANDLOCKED, AND RELAtIONS BEtWEEN tHE tWO COUNtRIES EMBIttERED.

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DOMEStICAtED LLAMAS, RELEASED FROM tHEIR PEN IN EARLY MORNING, SPREAD ACROSS A SPRING-FED PAStURE At tHE EDGE OF tHE UYUNI SALt FLAt. SUCH CREAtURES

HAVE PROVIDED COMMUNItIES IN tHE ALtIPLANO WItH FOOD, WOOL, AND StURDY BACKS tO BEAR BURDENS SINCE BEFORE tHE tIME OF tHE INCA.

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