Flora and Fauna of the Heights
Gigantic or minuscule, ostentatious or almost imperceptible...such are the flowers of the Andes. Their
appearance matters little; they all share in common having successfully adapted themselves to one of the
cruelest natural environments on the planet. Despite the severity of a climate that is often hostile, with altitudes
where the lack of oxygen and the cold limit the possibilities for any type of life to exist, Andean flowers persist in
their stubborn effort to survive.
Traveling the Andes also implies journeying across its captivating countryside and natural scenery. Doubtlessly
inseparable from these are the assorted species of Andean plants, such as the beautiful colors of the cantuta tree flower
or k'antu - the sacred flower of the Incas - that beautify the inter-Andean valleys or the frailty of the porporo or passion
fruit flowers, determined climbers of the mountain slopes.
The conscientious observer also receives his reward. Hidden among the clumps of ichu grass or under the shadow of
rock piles are tiny flowers whose petals seem to reverberate with color. Delicate and ethereal, like the light of sunset,
flowers on the highland plateaus (the dwarf nettle, jaychampi or chinchircuma) remind us that beauty is a luxury that
certain creatures can afford even at these altitudes.
The diversity of Andean plant life is such that it is difficult to group them by shapes, colors, or sizes. There are those
useful to man, like the prickly pears and aloes, others of strange appearance like the llicsa-zapatitos or the chochos
(Andean lupine), and still other singular specimens, chiefly for their ecological characteristics. Standing there, as
if defying time, are the huge Raimondi Puyas or Titankas (Puya raimondi), colossal watchmen of the high Andean
slopes. They grow to be ten meters tall and possess the biggest inflorescence in the world. And, the queñual tree
forests, habitat - unique and exclusive - of several wildlife species like the Giant Conebill (Oreomanes fraseri) and
various insect eating bird species. They are, as well, the preferred refuge for huemels, South American foxes, deer,
and mountain lions.
But it is not just the plants that marvel the person lucky enough to travel the Andes. Although few know it, the mountain
wildlife is also diverse and spectacular. This is the home of the silent puma and the evasive gray-tailed deer, the solitary
guanaco, and the ocelot. Likewise, of the vizcacha and the Andean fox. In the skies above abound a huge variety of
birds: hummingbirds, eagles, falcons, parrots and parakeets, as well as a large number of small seed eating birds. The
highland plateau (puna), located on Andean lands at altitudes greater than 3,800 meters, possesses a very harsh climate,
characterized by huge swings in temperature throughout the day: intense cold at night and hot during the day. The puna
is, in summary, a land of extremes. This is the kingdom of the majestic Andean condor and the svelte flamingo, of
ducks, grebes, and geese that live in the extensive wetlands or swampy areas.