Bolivia is about one-third mountainous and two-thirds lowland. In western Bolivia and northern Chile the Andes mountains reach their greatest width, approximately 400 miles (650 km) between Arica (Chile) and Santa Cruz. Within this area are two of Bolivia's three major geographic and climatic regions: the highlands or Altiplano, between the Western and Eastern cordilleras of the Andes; and the high valleys and Yungas (lower valleys) of the Eastern Cordillera. The third and largest region is the lowland area east of the Andes -the Oriente, drained by tributaries of the Amazon River and by the Paraguay River and its feeders.
Two of every three Bolivians live in the highlands or Altiplano, which has an average elevation of about 12,000 feet (3,650 meters). Temperatures on the Altiplano are cool, with little seasonal variation but with strong contrasts between night and day. During the winter (June, July, and August), the thermometer may drop to freezing, but snow is not common because the winters are dry. Strong winds that sweep down from the icy peaks of the Andes make the season uncomfortable. The rains begin in November and last through February, often bringing serious landslides, especially in La Paz where much of the working population lives on the slopes of the valley that surrounds the city.
Many of the valleys that run down the sides of the Eastern Cordillera are narrow, but some, such as those of Cochabamba and Sucre, are of sufficient size to accommodate large populations and contribute substantially to the production of the nation's food. The climate in these higher valleys generally is agreeable, and during the winter many people from the highlands visit them to escape the discomforts of La Paz or Oruro. The agreeable climate and relatively healthful aspects of the higher valleys have been important factors in creating their high population density. Many of the Yungas, or lower valleys, are quite warm and humid throughout the year, although some have pleasant temperatures.
The eastern lowlands vary in climate and topography. In general this region is tropical. Portions of it become quite dry in the winter, with brief but severe drops in temperature caused by cold winds from the south. The southern (or Chaco) region has a number of rivers flowing across it during the rainy season but it is a veritable desert during the remainder of the year. Much of this region is treeless except along the streams and in small low spots where water is near the surface. The northern (or Pando and Beni) region of the lowlands is relatively hot and humid all year. Here are portions of the tall and dense rain forest characteristic of the upper basin of the Amazon River. The middle third of the lowlands is a blend of the two extremes. Here forest and prairie exist side by side, with prairie predominating toward the eastern limits near Brazil.
Bolivians generally are aware of their rich or potentially rich national resources, which include tin and silver in the highlands, petroleum in the lowlands, and great forests in the lowlands and the lower valleys. The anomaly of potential riches and existing poverty has been referred to as the "beggar sitting on a throne of gold."
A tremendous handicap in the development of these resources has been their unfavorable location. Mines in the extreme altitudes of the Andes, and petroleum, timber, and the better soils in the lowlands have failed to achieve the economic importance they deserve because Bolivia is blocked by the Andes to the west and long stretches of virtually uninhabited land to the east and north.
Plant and Animal Life
Both plant and animal life in Bolivia are distinctly typed by contrasting climates and by the geography in which they are found. Plant life may be divided roughly between the lush growth of timber, grasses, and other plants of the lowlands to a sparse distribution of mosses and tough grasses that are adapted to the cold, dry conditions of the high altitudes. Among the domesticated plants that are native to the highlands are two major sources of food, the potato and quinua, a small-grain cereal.
Important domestic animals include the llama and alpaca, both related to the camel and native to the Andes. These animals are used for transportation, wool, and often meat. They are gradually being replaced by the burro and by cattle and sheep, except at extreme heights. In much of the lowlands cattle and hogs are raised in ample though unknown numbers. Efforts are being made to stock this region with larger numbers of cattle based on the Brahma (Zebu) strain, which is resistant to the heat, diseases, and pests of the tropics.
The greatest variety of wildlife is found in the lowlands. Among the mammals are monkeys, deer, pumas, jaguars, anteaters, armadillos, skunks, squirrels, and rabbits. Reptiles include boa constrictors, lizards, and alligators. Bird life is abundant: besides the flightless rhea (a type of ostrich), there are many species of parrots, macaws, ducks, geese, quail, and doves. The condor, one of the largest of birds, lives in the higher elevations of the Andes.