In broad terms South America for the tourist can be divided into the mountain world of the Andes, the flat, dry plains of much of the south of South America, and the jungles and water-laden lands of the Amazon and its tributaries.
The mountain world of South America is formed by the Andes, part of the chain of mountains that run the length of the Western Hemisphere, from Alaska in the north to Cape Horn in southernmost Chile. The Andes themselves rise in Colombia and extend southward for more than four thousand miles. Strings of mountains, cordilleras, the Andes occasionally protect fertile valleys, but more often are separated by high, cold table lands. Higher and even more spectacular than the Canadian Rockies, the Andes are second only to the Himalayas in height. The Andean world includes parts of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Western Argentina.
In several South American countries it is almost possible to dial-a-season, or more precisely, drive-a-season. Bogota, Colombia, for example, has a temperate zone climate similar to early fall year-round. To move to spring, merely drive down the mountain an hour where the climate affords permanent spring. Farther down are the tropics, a hot summer’s day.
Traveling in these high mountains requires some physical adaptation. Visitors get splitting headaches and find themselves gasping for breath. Lying between Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca, at 12,500 feet, is the world’s highest lake navigable by steamship and South America’s second largest. La Paz, capital of Bolivia, sits at twelve thousand feet; Cuzco, at eleven thousand; Quito, capital of Ecuador, at nine thousand feet. The native Indians live at altitudes up to seventeen thousand feet and are able to do so because their lungs and hearts are bigger than normal. The air sacs in their lungs are permanently dilated to provide maximum surface for oxygen transfer and they have an extra two quarts of blood needed for the extra red corpuscles to carry the oxygen.
The Andean Indian of the mountain plains and the Indian of the jungles live in different worlds from the Spanish and Mestizo of Lima or Santiago. The Indian lives a marginal, agricultural existence.