Exploring the Altiplano

La Paz lies in a bowl-shaped valley on the Altiplano (high plain) of the Andes. The main part of the city, where we lived, is at about 12,500 above sea level. The airport, which is located outside the city in the suburb of El Alto is about a thousand feet higher. Planes don’t so much land as drop precipitously over the mountains then skid to a halt on the runway. It’s quite exciting.

When you first arrive at the airport, you feel light-headed from the lack of oxygen, with a fluttering heartbeat. The usual cure is a few days of taking it easy while the body adapts, along with generous helpings of coca tea. The thousand-foot drop to the city does help a bit—though on days when the power went out, climbing the 15 floors to our apartment was still a killer.

What you definitely do not want to do is get in a truck and go for a field trip on the Altiplano two days after arrival. Our sponsors took us on just such an outing, and we pretty much felt like we were going to die. That was the worst headache of my life. But it didn’t put us off altogether. We were young and healthy and bombing around the Altiplano in our little VW as soon as it cleared customs.

We made several trips to Lake Titicaca and elsewhere, including a visit to the pre-Inca metropolis, Tiwanaku. This is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and a major tourist attraction, but at the time, it was just a pile of rocks out on the plain. A lone American archaeology student was researching at the site on a Fulbright grant. He was glad for our company as his only other companions were local villagers who liked to get drunk and throw rocks at him for entertainment. We got the personal tour package.

The Spanish had pulled most of the city down after the conquest, recycling the stones for use in churches and other buildings. Shards of Inca pottery were swept up into big piles by previous, poorly trained, excavators who were focused only on the earlier civilization. They had reassembled some structures based on pure guesswork. So, the site was a mess. But it was a really cool mess!

Some random photos of the Altiplano. Lake Titicaca to follow in my next post.

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