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What is a Cordillera?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A cordillera is a major mountain range, classically the principal mountain range of a continent. This term is most commonly found in the Americas, especially in South America, with the Andes being the most notable cordillera of South America. In addition to being a major geographical feature, a cordillera can also be an important cultural feature, and a popular vacationing spot. Many nations actively promote their cordillera regions, encouraging tourists to visit the mountains.

This term comes from the Spanish word for “rope.” “Cordillera” means “little rope,” referring to the way in which a mountain range lies across a map, and for those who are not familiar with Spanish, the double-L is pronounced like a “Y,” so the word is pronounced “cord-y-era.” This distinctive double-L construction can also be seen in other words of Spanish origin, such as “llama” and “tortilla.” The word can also be used as an adjective, “cordilleran.”

In addition to the Andes of South America, several other mountain ranges around the world can be referred to as cordilleras, including the Coast Range of the United States, the Rocky Mountains, the Arctic Cordillera, and the Alps. These major mountain ranges typically form as a byproduct of uplift, a process in which two tectonic plates collide, causing a mountain range to emerge as the land starts to buckle. Glaciers and the elements may also contribute to the formation and gradual breakdown of a cordillera.

Mountainous terrain is a very distinctive environment. The cordillera is often dry, with sparse plants and harsh weather. It can also be extremely cold, and oxygen levels can decrease at great heights. Traditional residents of the cordillera have adapted to the difficult way of life in a variety of creative ways, ranging from breeding hardy animals which can survive at high altitude to living a nomadic lifestyle which allows people to travel down the slopes in the harsh winter months to find more favorable weather.

A cordillera can create a substantial geographical barrier. Regions ringed by mountains may become quite isolated as a result of the fact that people cannot readily travel over the cordillera, and sometimes mountain ranges can act as a natural wall against invaders, the spread of disease, and the dissemination of new cultural trends. The cordillera's dry, cold environment can also act as a remarkable preservative, which explains why astounding archaeological finds are often made in mountainous regions such as the cordillera of Peru.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a cordillera?

A cordillera is a vast chain of mountain ranges that often consists of parallel folds extending along the length of a continent's edge. This term is derived from the Spanish word 'cordilla', a diminutive of 'cuerda' which means rope, reflecting the long and interconnected nature of these mountain systems.

Where can you find a cordillera?

Cordilleras can be found on various continents. The Andes in South America are one of the most famous examples, stretching over 7,000 kilometers. North America's Rocky Mountains also form part of a cordillera system, as do the Himalayas in Asia, which include Mount Everest, the world's highest peak.

How are cordilleras formed?

Cordilleras are typically formed by tectonic plate interactions, such as subduction, where one plate dives beneath another, leading to mountain-building processes. For instance, the Andes were formed by the subduction of the Nazca Plate beneath the South American Plate, a process that continues to shape the landscape today.

What is the ecological significance of cordilleras?

Cordilleras play a crucial role in biodiversity, acting as barriers that affect climate and vegetation patterns. They create microclimates and diverse habitats, supporting unique species adapted to these environments. The Andes, for example, are home to thousands of species, many of which are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth.

Do cordilleras affect the climate?

Yes, cordilleras significantly influence regional and global climates. They act as barriers to atmospheric circulation, leading to the formation of rain shadows on their leeward sides, where dry conditions prevail. The presence of cordilleras can also contribute to the creation of microclimates, providing varied conditions within relatively small areas.

Are there any cultural or historical significances associated with cordilleras?

Cordilleras have been central to the cultures and histories of the people who live near them. They often hold spiritual significance and provide resources for indigenous communities. Historically, they've posed challenges for exploration and settlement, while today, they attract tourists and adventurers from around the world, contributing to local economies.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By orangey03 — On Jul 19, 2011

My aunt and uncle live in the appropriately named mountain community of Cordillera, Colorado. They belong to the Club at Cordillera, and when we have family retreats, we get access this awesome place with its beautiful views.

The Trailhead Family Center is part of the club. It is a two-story lodge made of logs. It has a pool, a big lawn, and a recreation center inside. This place is also set up for youth camps at certain times during the summer. Our extended family is rather large, and we love to come here to relax inside after a hard day of hiking and enjoying the scenery.

By kylee07drg — On Jul 19, 2011

Though I have never lived anywhere near the mountains, I have had an irrational fear of volcanoes since childhood. This fear keeps me from visiting any of the awe-inspiring active cordilleras in the world, even the ones right here in the United States.

I used to pretend like slow lava was gaining on me, and I would jump on the bed to escape it. After I realized a few years later that there were no volcanoes within a dangerous range, I started to develop other cordillera-related fears, such as fear of earthquakes and landslides. Though a part of me would love to climb and explore, the biggest part would rather stay far away from potential death.

By Perdido — On Jul 18, 2011

I vacationed in the Andes Cordillera two years ago. It truly is beautiful. The area is quite independent because of its natural resources.

One of those is tourism. I ran into so many other Americans during my stay that I can see how lucrative the industry must be for the area. There were people there of many other nationalities, also, making an area that would otherwise be sparsely populated have quite a few explorers roaming around.

Another resource of the Andes is copper. I learned while visiting that copper mining allows for almost half of Chile’s exports.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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