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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.