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Things You Didn't Know About the Andes Mountains

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The world’s longest mountain range, the Andes and its towering peaks form a 4,500-mile-long barrier that hugs the western edge of South America, separating dry coastal desert from the humid rainforest interior. Craggy snow-capped volcanoes and glacial lakes punctuate this beautiful, sometimes desolate landscape. The traditional inhabitants of the Andes used techniques passed down through the generations to nurture the crops they plant in the altiplano’s unforgiving soil, and centuries-old mines reveal clues to the mineral wealth that waits beneath the surface. Want to discover these amazing mountains for yourself? Here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about the Andes.

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The Andes Are Home to Incredible Biodiversity

View of a Guanaco llama in Chilean Patagonia, a part of the Andes' Mountains.
Credit: espiegle/ iStock

One of the reasons for the Andes’ abundance of wildlife is that it comprises two distinct climate zones: the dry and wet Andes. Almost 600 species of mammals call this mountain range home, among them pumas, jaguars, and rabbit-like viscachas. The four camelids — llamas, alpacas, guanacos, and vicuñas — are most closely associated with the Altiplano or high plateau region. Llamas and alpacas are the domesticated cousins of rarer guanacos and vicuñas; locals use them as pack animals and keep them for their meat and wool. Meanwhile, spectacled bears prefer to inhabit the region’s cloud forests. Birdlife is similarly varied, with more than 1,700 resident species. Above dramatic canyons, Andean condors soar overhead in search of prey, while flightless rheas run around high-altitude scrubland, and remote mountain lagoons house populations of pink flamingos.

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More Than 4,000 Varieties of Potatoes Grow in the Andean Highlands

Harvest of native potatoes in the fields of Chincheros in Cusco, Peru.
Credit: Carlos Sala Fotografia/ Shutterstock

The Andes are also home to around 30,000 types of native plants, some of which have had a global influence. It’s likely that potatoes were first grown in the Andes about 8,000 years ago. Many centuries later, they became a staple of the Incan table and were later introduced to Europe. Each May, Peruvians celebrate National Potato Day to mark the tuber’s contribution to the global diet. Year-round, it’s common to see multiple varieties of potatoes — from blue to yellow, red, pink, and purple — on sale at local markets. Shriveled, black potatoes called chuños are freeze-dried in the Andean sunshine. Their bitterness is an acquired taste, but if you can stomach it, they make a great ingredient for soups and can be stored for decades.

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One Andean Plant Can Be Used to Treat Malaria

Close up of the growing medicinal plant, cinchona pubescens.
Credit: blickwinkel/ Alamy Stock Photo

Cinchona pubescens, commonly known as red cinchona, is an Andean plant that is used to treat malaria because its bark has a high quinine content. The first records of the plant being used for medicinal purposes date from about 1630. In those days, Spanish colonziers ground the bark to a fine powder and mixed it with wine to treat fever. Almost 200 years later, French chemists managed to isolate quinine from the cinchona bark. Realizing they were onto a good thing, the Dutch created a hardier variety which would thrive on the Indonesian island of Java. By World War II, approximately 80% of the world’s quinine production had switched to this part of Asia.

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The Mineral-Rich Mountains Have Brought Us Gold, Silver, and Lots of Salt

View of the Salinas Grandes in the Argentina Andes.
Credit: Ksenia Ragozina/ Shutterstock

Mines litter the Andean region. By the time the Spanish arrived in Peru, the Incans were already mining gold, which they prized highly. They considered this precious metal sacred because it represented the blood of the sun god Viracocha. It’s still mined today; in 21st-century Peru, you’ll find one of the world’s highest gold mines. Yanacocha, located in the country’s northern highlands, is the largest of its kind in South America. Across the border in Bolivia, Diego de Huallpa stumbled upon silver at Cerro Rico de Potosí in 1545, and today this vast deposit remains an important silver mine.

Aside from precious metals, salt production has long been an important source of income to Andean communities. The salt mines of Maras (near Cusco, Peru) are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and date from pre-Hispanic times. The slopes of the surrounding valley, located at about 11,000 feet above sea level, have been cut into stepped terraces. Stone retaining walls enclose around 4,500 salt wells, enabling workers to harvest the salt. Further south, in northern Argentina, Salinas Grandes is the third-largest salt flat in the world, a vast white crystalline surface under a cobalt sky and an almost endless view stretching to distant mountains on the horizon.

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Many of the Mountains in the Andes Are Active Volcanoes

A view of Cotopaxi, an active volcano in the Andes Mountain range.
Credit: PatricioHidalgoP/ iStock

The Andes were formed millions of years ago when the oceanic tectonic plate off the west coast of South America subducted under the continental plate. On this type of plate boundary, magma forms beneath the surface and periodically forces its way out in the form of volcanic eruptions. As a result there are more than 200 potentially active volcanoes in the Andes, which form part of the Ring of Fire around the Pacific Ocean. Those found in Ecuador, including Mount Chimborazo, comprise the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a scenic north-south route popular with visiting tourists. Another notable volcano is Ojos del Salado. Located on the border between Chile and Argentina at 22,615 feet in elevation, it is the highest volcano in the world, though it hasn’t erupted for at least a thousand years.

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The Highest Point on Earth Is in the Ecuadorian Andes

An aerial view of Mount Aconcagua in the summer.
Credit: Alex Photo Stock/ Shutterstock

Ask most people where the highest point on Earth is, and they’re likely to give you the same answer: Mount Everest. Indeed, the 29,029-foot Mount Everest is indeed the tallest mountain on the planet — but only when calculated from average sea level. (Incidentally, if you take your measurement from the base of the mountain, then Mauna Loa in Hawaii is significantly higher.) But our planet isn’t a perfect sphere, and there’s a bulge at the equator. Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador measures 20,564 feet above sea level, but it’s so close to this equatorial bulge that scientists have calculated that its peak is more than 6,800 feet further from the center of the earth than the summit of Everest.

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Archaeological Sites Abound in the Andes, Including Incan Mummies

Old antique mummies found in Alcaya, Bolivia.
Credit: Meinzahn/ iStock via Getty Images Plus

At its peak in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Inca Empire stretched from present-day Ecuador south to Chile. Today, the most significant archaeological sites of this civilization are concentrated in Peru, most famously Machu Picchu and other ruins scattered throughout the Sacred Valley, such as the hillside fortress at Ollantaytambo and the circular agricultural terraces of Moray. However, lesser-known Espíritu Pampa (also called Old Vilcabamba) may be the most deserving of the epithet, “Lost City of the Incas.” It’s thought that explorer Hiram Bingham was searching for this ancient settlement — the final Inca capital and last bastion of resistance against the Spanish — when he stumbled upon Machu Picchu instead in 1911. Espíritu Pampa was abandoned in 1572 and was finally excavated in the 1960s. Even now, it’s hard to reach, accessible only via a rudimentary walking trail.

Some of the most fascinating discoveries to come from the Andes are those of a number of exceptionally well-preserved Incan mummies. In 1995, the frozen body of a young girl was recovered from Mount Ampato in the south of Peru after a partial thaw caused by a volcanic eruption. Nicknamed Juanita, she’s displayed in a museum in Arequipa, Peru. Thanks to the icy conditions, Juanita retained much of her skin, hair, internal organs, and even the contents of her stomach. In a museum in Salta, Argentina, three similar mummies known as the Children of Llullaillaco were recovered in 1999 from Llullaillaco volcano, located on the Argentina-Chile border.

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