South America has its fair share of natural wonders, from the breath-taking Iguazu Falls to the dense jungle of the Amazon rainforest, but for sheer jaw-dropping beauty, it's really hard to beat the splendour of the Andean altiplano. This arid, high altitude zone covers large stretches of Peru, Bolivia and Chile, and it is home to some of the most amazing sights on the continent.
Bolivia and Tiahuanaco
Bolivia is generally held to be at the centre of the altiplano region, and the Tiahuanaco World Heritage Site just to the north of the present capital, La Paz, is held by most archaeologists to be the cradle of civilization in the Americas. Although most people instantly think of the Incas when they think about Andean cultures, the oldest structures at Tiahuanaco date back to around 300BC, making the Tiahuanaco Culture a great deal older. You can see the family ancestry in the building techniques, however, with the same monumental blocks of dressed stone used to build huge, astronomically-aligned temples and vast ceremonial plazas.
What's amazing is that such a complex civilization arose in such seemingly inhospitable surroundings. Although there is more predictable rainfall in the west, towards the popular South America holiday destination of Lake Titicaca, most of the area around Tiahuanaco is technically a desert, with low to no rainfall throughout the year. To get around this, the inhabitants developed a cunning system of raised fields, separated by shallow canals. Fish lived in the canals, providing food and also fertilizing the irrigation water. As with similar systems in Mesopotamia, in this way, enough surplus food could be provided to feed a priestly and warrior elite - giving rise to the first South American empire.
The Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats
The arid conditions of the altiplano are even more evident further south in Bolivia, at the bizarre and wonderful salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni. Peru holidays often take in an extension to Bolivia just to visit Uyuni because it really is like nowhere else on earth. Formed by the evaporation of an entire inland sea, the Salar de Uyuni is a giant ocean of salt, completed with cactus-festooned â€˜islands' and studded with giant red volcanoes. Travelling across the vast, shining horizons of the Salar is an amazing experience, and one that forms the highlight of many peoples' holidays in South America. You can even travel across Uyuni from Bolivia into Chile and the famous enigmatic Atacama Desert. This other-worldly landscape of brightly-coloured lakes, red deserts and snow-capped mountains makes for a fantastic journey from Bolivia to Chile: much more interesting than just flying from La Paz to Santiago.
Machu Picchu and Andahuaylillas
The other real highlight of the South American altiplano is the Peruvian highlands, which formed the heart of the Inca Empire. Here you can visit not only really well-preserved Inca sites such as the famous Machu Picchu, (which is the focus for so many Peru holidays) but also take the time to visit some of the smaller, more typical altiplano villages such as Andahuaylillas, with the beautiful painted frescos which adorn its chapel. Both here and in the former Inca capital of Cusco, you can see the unique mix of Inca and Spanish colonial architecture which is one of Peru's great treasures. In Peru the scenery is also slightly more verdant, particularly if you visit just after the November-March rainy season, when the hills are green and lush. Visit in September or October and things look much more stark and arid, and much more like the rest of the altiplano.
These days, with much improved roads and also better air connections between towns and cities in Bolivia and Peru, travelling across the altiplano isn't just restricted to locals and backpackers who don't mind roughing it a bit, so it really is open to all. However, logistics and organisation in countries like Bolivia is still not for the faint-hearted, so if you're planning a holiday in South America it makes sense to use a specialist tour operator like RealWorld who are used to managing the various peculiarities of the altiplano and can ensure that you can sit back and enjoy the amazing scenery.