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ALTIPLANO DREAMING: A Photographic Voyage Through Bolivia & Peru

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A collection of some of my favorite photographs from my epic adventure through South America in 2005. In this post I combine beautiful images with short descriptions that offer a snapshot into the history, culture and geography of the Andean countries of Peru and Bolivia.

TOUCHING THE VOID: Pequena Alpamayo (5370m). Cordillera Real, Bolivia.

First summited in 1962 by South Africans Irene and Keith Whitelock (makes me proudly South African!), this was the very first major alpine peak I climbed in my life. Looks a little serious for a debut ascent right?

Fortunately I was in the company of two amazing guys and climbers from Denmark and the US. Apart from stumbling into the right bar at the right time to meet them, I also had a brand new 60m rope and the exuberance of youth.

FINAL FRONTIER: The Chile/Bolivia border-post.

Driving from the eastern edge of the Atacama in Chile - the driest desert in the world with just 3 rains on average every century - to the Bolivian altiplano, it feels like you're being transported to another planet. Yet this frontier has been fraught with skirmishes for over a century.

The War of the Pacific (1879-1883), saw Chile vying for vast stretches of Peruvian and Bolivian coastline, from Arica to Copiapo. Gradually run to the ground, Bolivian forces signed a truce in 1884 which gave Chile control over its entire coast, a region rich in minerals, not to mention its strategic significance as a naval base.

Today, Bolivia continues to hanker over the lost territory, while being somewhat mollified by Chile's sly policy of unrestricted traffic of Bolivian merchandise through the corridor.

GATES TO GOD: An otherworldly colonial era church entrance near the Peru/Bolivia border.

Since the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century Bolivia - as with most of South America - has been dominated by Catholicism.

The colonial religious composition was however a complex one; Franciscans, Mercedarians, Dominicans advocated their faiths (often ruthlessly) alongside indigenous forms of spirituality, particularly Aymara animism.

Today, despite an indigenous representation of around 65% (comprising 36 ethnic groups) and a mestizo population of about 30%, three quarters of Bolivia's 12 million people are nominally Catholic.

INDIGENOUS INSPIRATION: Cuzco, Peru.

Indigenous peoples make up almost half of Peru's population of 28 million. Descendants of Siberian nomads who crossed the Bering Strait around 12 000 B.C., human being reached what is present day Peru in the 6th millennium before Christ.

The Norte Chico (also known as the Caral or Caral-Supe) civilization of Peru is the oldest known civilization in the Americas, as well as one of the six principal sites where civilization, including the development of agriculture and government, independently emerged in the ancient world. The other sites are Mesoamerica, the Indus Valley, China, Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The Caral civilization flourished between the fourth and second millennia BC, with its city, Huaricanga, (in the Fortaleza area) dating to around 3500 B.C. It began a slow decline in about 1 800 B.C., giving way to the next great civilization, the Chavin.

THE LION CITY: The Incan citadel of Saksaywaman. Cuzco, Peru.

According to Incan legend, King Tupac's father Pachacuti coined the city of Cuzco the 'lion city'. He proclaimed that the tail was the sacred Urubamba river, that the body was the great square and the houses that surrounded round it, but that a head was missing. Thus the Inca decided to complete the body of the giant, symbolic feline by constructing a fortress on a high plateau to the north of the city.

However archeological and anthropological evidence confirms that the Kilike people in fact built the stone fortress of Saksaywaman during the 12th century A.D. They were abruptly overrun by the Inca in the 13th century, whom then added to the complex architecture of this magnificent World Heritage Site.

DOMINO CHRISTO: Cuzco, Peru

Taking advantage of a weakening Inca empire, Pizarro and his conquistadors sacked Cuzco in 1533. Atahualpa and Huascar, Incan heirs to the throne of Huayna Capac fought over their father's succession and despite Huascar's eventual capitulation, King Atahualpa strained to consolidate power.

As a consequence of the iron grip of Spanish presence, the Inca religion disappeared rapidly and was quickly replaced - for the most part at least - by bishoprics that staked administrative claim to wide swaths of territory.

Pre-Columbian beliefs also fused with Christianity to create new forms of folk Catholicism that incorporated indigenous cosmologies and symbolism.

PLATANOS PARA LA VENTA: Fruitseller, Bolivia.

Smiles aside, political instability and arduous topography have curbed modernization of Bolivia's agricultural sector, which employs roughly 30% of the workforce.

Comparatively low population growth coupled with low life expectancy and a high incidence of disease has rendered a fluctuating labor supply and prevented industries from prospering. Unbridled inflation and corruption also have impeded economic development.

The good news for Bolivia however is that in recent years the pillars of its economy (mining, agriculture and textiles) have rejuvenated tremendously, boosting the 95th biggest economy in the world's economic standing and boding well for times ahead.

The challenge will nevertheless be how to bolster socio-economic indicators without compromising Bolivia's vast cultural and geographical wealth.

VALLEY OF DREAMS: Huascar Lake, Cordillera Blanca, Peru.

I learned an incredible amount about the fascinating culture and history of Peru during the 10 weeks I spent there...one of the most memorable adventures of my life. I would spend a week or so in a town, explore ancient sites and then head to the mountains for a week to go climbing.

Searching for my own personal meaning and connection to the place I was in, the local people, seemingly inseparable from the stunning landscape, were poignant reminders of the both the motherly and mystical qualities in nature.

WINDOWS TO THE OTHER SIDE: General Cemetary. Sucre, Bolivia.

As you enter Sucre’s general cemetery, a bold sign above the imposing white entrance warns Hodie Mihi Cras Tibi: Today Me, Tomorrow You. The palpable energy of the cemetery compels the visitor the contemplate the inexorable transition from life to death.

Congruent with the ubiquitous Latin American spirit of paying homage to those who have passed on, the general cemetery is the focal point for the annual Todos Santos (All Saints) festival, when locals visit the cemetery in droves to honor the souls of their love ones.

DIRECTORS OF DESTINY: Cordillera Vilcanota, Peru.

In Andean indigenous cosmology, mountains are believed to be spirits that direct the destiny of human beings. The Cordillera Vilcanota ('house of the sun'). For the Quechua, Mount Ausangate (6 345m) is considered the principal diety (apu) in their worldview.

Ausangate has been sacred to many of Peru’s cultures throughout history. Incan legend tells of two comets shooting from its summit to forewarn of the imminent death of Pachacuti's father, the founder of the Incan empire. Thereafter, Incans made offerings of precious metals to the mountain apu to appease its wrath and immense power.

Today, the indigenous Q’eros community of Quechua people revere the mountains of the Cordillera Vilcanota, believing they are divinities to be protected. The apu’s servant cat Ccoa has his court in the belly of Ausangate in a palace that only great shamans dare tread. The glaciers of Ausangate (some 460) are where the spirits of the dead await salvation.

Around 50,000 people make the perilous annual pilgrimage to Ausangate each June during the festival of Q’olloy Rit’I, “The Star of the Snow.” Although it is not known exactly when the ceremony began, it likely has its origins in ancient Andean peoples' reverence of the heavens and mountains. With the introduction of Catholicism, pilgrims began bearing crosses during the ceremony, placing it in the snow to honor both Jesus and the apu.

LOCO LITTLE ONES: Hanging out with some amusing, happy-go-lucky kids during a pit-stop along a steep hiking trail, Peru.

Quechua kids playing around at a rural hospedaje. While Quechua and Aymara are the dominant local languages alongside the lingua franca of Spanish, Peru is incredibly diverse linguistically.

There are an estimated 93 languages in Peru - with 11 having gone extinct - of which 91 are indigenous. In terms of language endangerment levels, 7 are institutional, 5 are vigorous, 37 are developing, 29 are in trouble, and 15 are dying.

Increasing urbanization,declining youth populations continuing traditions, the proliferation of Spanish as a national language and slowness to record oral languages are all risk factors which jeopardize the age-old cultural tapestry of Peru.

Words & Images: Matthew Schroeder

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