No picture can explain the greatness of the Andes (but I'll take some and get them on the website soon!). The vast mountain range begins in Northern Venezuela, stretch across Columbia, down through Peru, Bolivia, and end in Chile. Only the Himalayas are larger.
I am writing to you from Quito, Ecuador, which is nestled high in the hills, 2850 meters above sea level (9348 feet). Kevin and I were dizzy from the loss of breath immediately upon arriving in Quito. It was hard to adjust to Quito's altitude after coming from the San Blas islands, which is only at sea level. Quito is the one of the highest capital cities in the world, second only to its nearby Andes neighbor La Paz, Bolivia, nearly 4000 meters (13,120 feet) high. If we're having trouble breathing here, imagine being in La Paz!
Around Quito, the temperature is related to altitude--the higher the altitude, the cooler it is. Even higher than here lies valleys of moist cloud forests and peaks of spongy grassland, called páramo. The area is so high that despite the cold, the sun's ultra violet rays are quite intense. The grasses trap water and slowly release it into streams that provide water to the towns below.
Geologically speaking, these mountains are fairly young and are still growing! Remember those huge tectonic plates I told you about in Central America? (Inside the Heart of a Volcano) There's a similar one out under the Pacific Ocean called the Nazca plate, which is pushing under the South American Plate. Also, 100 km out at sea, there is a trench as deep as the Andes is high! Who figures out this stuff?!
Today, Kevin is headed toward the west side of the mountains, the Pacific Coast, and I'm staying in the mountains. The Pacific Coast is in the "rain shadow" of the Andes. That means that as storms come from the East, carrying rain, they get caught in the high mountains and rain themselves out. Essentially, Kevin is headed towards a dry desert. However, from April to December it often has a gray mist that comes in from the ocean called garúa. Despite the garúa, this is one of the driest places on Earth.
So, what happens to all that rain trapped on the east side of the Andes? It falls on the lowlands to make the wet tropical Amazon rainforest. These lowlands form a "basin," a big bowl of wetland, that drains into the Amazon river and heads east to the Atlantic. Kavitha and Shawn will be working with environmental groups in the rainforest to help protect the lungs of our planet.
As for me, I'll be staying in the Andes for a while. I want to learn more about the descendents of the Incas. It's amazing to me and quite admirable that some of them still follow their traditional lives of farming potatoes and raising sheep and llamas. What a magical world!
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