If you spend much time traveling the the Western parts of South America, you'll spend time in the Andes mountains. I've been in the Andes mountains off and on over most of my trip.
The Andes is the longest mountain range in the world, stretching out over approximately 7,000 kilometers, the entire length of South America. It's also the highest mountain range outside Asia—the highest in the world, of course, being the Himalayas. The average height of the Andes is about 4,000 meters.
The Andes actually comprise several mountain ranges, including two primary ones—the Cordillera Oriental and Cordillera Occidental—and some smaller ones. In between the two primary ranges is the altiplano, or high plain. This area is in the central part of the Andes, mostly in Bolivia, and averages about 3,300 meters in altitude.
Since arriving in Bolivia several weeks ago, I've been mostly in the Andes. I started with a 4-day tour in Southern Bolivia (between 4,000 and 5,000 meters), then went to La Paz (about 3,600 meters), then to Lake Titicaca (3,812 meters), Cusco, Peru (3,310 meters), Lima (sea level, as it's on the coast), Trujillo (on the coast), Cuenca, Ecuador (2,500 meters), and now Quito (2,850 meters).
From Cusco to Lima was an uneventful 24-hour bus ride. Lima to Trujillo was also not too bad, and only about 10 hours. Trujillo to the border wasn't a big deal and another 10 hours, or so (the border crossing into Ecuador was crazy—busy, apparently dangerous, and expensive). Although all these drivers pass cars and trucks, I didn't feel that death was imminent.
Traveling by bus through the Andes can be a harrowing experience. Maybe it's just the bus drivers in Ecuador. The trip from the Peru/Ecuador border to Cuenca (5 hours) was a bit scary because of the steep cliffs off to the side and the near zero visibility due to fog, but the trip from Cuenca to Quito was particularly coronary-causing.
I had just met Matt from North Carolina at the bus terminal and he would be getting off the bus a couple hours before Quito for an adventure into the outback of Ecuador—into the more remote parts of the Andes (I envy him!!!). Matt is a photographer for a local paper in North Carolina and brought a small digital camera and a rangefinder—a Voigtländer (the oldest name in cameras—1756). I swear that our bus driver thought he was driving a Ferrari in a Formula I race. Or maybe he gets a thousand-dollar bonus for arriving early. Or maybe he's just really competitive. Matt and I were both beside ourselves—we couldn't help laughing. The way this guy was driving this big bus was just ridiculous. A blowout or a slick spot on the road or a broken axle and you would've had 50 dead people—most likely a crumpled wad of sheet metal and guts recovered from the bottom of a thousand-foot cliff. It was one of the more exciting 9-hour periods of my entire trip. Psycho.
Tomorrow, I'm headed to Cali (1,000 meters), then Bogotá ("2,600 meters closer to the stars", their catchphrase) , and finally—for South America—Cartegena (sea level on the northern coast of Colombia). So, I still have some ground to cover in the Andes. Let's hope for sane bus drivers. I'd really like to live to enjoy Central America.