One of the most breathtaking places in the world, the Altiplano, Spanish for “high plain” may be unknown to most travellers who choose to stay in South America’s great cities such as Buenos Aires and Lima. The Altiplano, which actually extends over four countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Chile), is a landmark of South America, and one of the most beautiful natural settings in the world (according to me!).
The Altiplano is a place of extremes. Extreme temperatures ( they can reach 44º during the day and drop down to -20º at night) and high altitudes averaging 3300m make for some truly unforgettable natural settings. Salt flats, like the Uyuni and Surire, contrast with the largest lake in South America, Lake Titicaca, and visitors will be treated to a wide range of animals such as flamingoes, llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and condors. The Altiplano is home to countless Indigenous communities, including the Aymara and Quechua, who have lived here for more than 15,000 years. Being a vast territory at the widening of the Andes, it is a territory rich in natural resources. This is the home of our favourite whole grain, quinoa. The home of a rich variety of potatoes, alpaca fur, and precious metals, primarily copper, making it desirable for mining activity from international mining companies.
A place of great contradictions, this dreamlike environment is under threat from outside industry, eager to industrialize agricultural production and extract all the metals in the rich Andean deposits. It is at this crossroads I encountered the Aymar Sawuri cooperative, a group of 15 indigenous Aymara women intent on preserving their cultural traditions and protecting their unique territory and heritage. Each member of the cooperative weaves on her handmade loom in her home, just as the community has for millennia. All of the products the master weavers create are made from alpaca wool sourced in their backyard, and processed without any chemicals, dyes or additives. The beauty of keeping production small and focusing on quality over quantity is that it allows each weaver to support her family on her own schedule, but also benefit from actively preserving her culture.
The Chilean Altiplano, like Chile itself, is arresting and confronting upon first glance. It takes a good connection to locals, a perspective into their shared history to understand the beauty and the extremes of the culture. Wrapping up in an alpaca scarf and getting a strong maté is a great way to start.