There Is No High Like Bolivian Altiplano High

We have spent the last week in Bolivia after crossing its border with Peru by bus and spending a couple of nights in Copacabana (the one in Bolivia was actually the inspiration for the name of the much more famous neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro). Although there was basically nothing to do in the sleepy lake town of Copacabana, it did offer some terrific views of a Lake Titicaca.

Lake Titicaca

20131209-110841.jpg

20131209-111038.jpg

Lake Titicaca is beautiful, huge, and high. It is the biggest lake in South America and is frequently referred to as the highest navigable lake in the world. The lake sits at 12,507 feet above sea level in the Altiplano (high plains) region of the Andes mountains that stretches from Peru through Bolivia. Everything in this area is at some serious altitude, including the de facto capital of Bolivia, La Paz, where we are now, and the Bolivian salt flats where we are going next. More on that later.

On our second day in Copacabana, we took a day trip to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), a sacred site for the Incas. According to Inca beliefs, the sun god was born here and there are loads of ruins on the island to explore, which we did. There are a variety of options for touring Isla del Sol (half-day guided tour, full-day guided tour, full-day guided tour with a boat taking you from north to south), but we opted for the make-your-own-adventure option. After being dropped off on the north side of the island, we immediately ditched our group and started hiking the 8km (about 5 miles) to the southern part of the island where our boat would be waiting to take us back to Copacabana. It was a beautiful hike and gave us the opportunity to see the snow-capped mountains in the distance, some Inca ruins, and spectacular views of the lake. Definitely worth the minor hassle of paying 3 “tolls” along the way (nobody warns you about this before going to the island).

20131209-111212.jpg

20131209-111242.jpg

20131209-111312.jpg

From Copacabana to La Paz

Our bus trip to La Paz was mostly uneventful with the notable exception of having to leave our bus and take a boat across the lake while our bus barged across. Definitely an odd sight:

20131209-111532.jpg

La Paz

20131209-111700.jpg

Unique. That is probably the best word to describe La Paz. For the trivia inclined, La Paz is regarded as the highest capital city in the world at an average elevation of roughly 12,000 feet above sea level. For the accuracy inclined, La Paz is not technically the capital of Bolivia (Sucre is), but since most of the government has migrated here Bolivians generally regard it as the capital.

The city is built in a valley in the Altiplano, and has climbed the slopes as it has expanded. Strangely, the wealth here seems to have trickled downhill, and the city gets wealthier as you descend with the poorer areas uphill. Everything here is on a hill, usually a pretty steep one. In order to get a better sense of this weird city, we signed up for a tips-only walking tour of the city the day after we arrived and learned even more about how unique this city really is.

Or trip started at San Pedro Prison, made famous by a literally incredible book titled Marching Powder that described the history of the prison. Weird doesn’t do this place justice. We highly recommend the book and/or some googling for more insight into the prison, but here are some highlights. The inmates, mostly accused of drug charges, have to purchase their own cells. There is an elaborate and formal system for purchasing cells that mirrors a proper real estate transaction, complete with title transfers and witnesses signing deeds. The prices of the cells vary based on the prison neighborhood you buy in. In these cells, provided some well-placed bribery is accomplished, inmates have televisions, microwaves, and all kinds of other comforts. These comforts include cocaine, which is manufactured in the prison and smuggled outside for sale. Until very recently, tourists would take tours of the prison run by the inmates after which they could even spend the night if they bribed the right people. Allegedly this is still possible, although we were told that it is much harder to do now. Why would anyone want to pay to spend the night in a Bolivian prison, you ask? Drugs. Cheap and, reportedly, good. Also until very recently (2-3 months ago), families would stay in San Pedro because they could not afford to rent/own housing in the jail and outside. This arrangement included children, who went to school during the day at a school across the plaza from the prison.

Another highlight of our tour was the Witches Market, where you can buy anything from “follow-me-powder” that will make someone trail you like a love-sick puppy to llama fetuses. Yes, llama fetuses. People here buy these llama fetuses to bury in the foundations of their homes and part of a pre-building ceremony/party in order to bring good luck to the home. Evidently still-born llamas are quite common, so they have a large supply of these. Lest you think we are joking, here is photographic evidence:

20131209-111827.jpg

So that’s La Paz. We are staying in a very nice house we found through AirB&B with a generous and helpful live-in owner and some other travelers. It has been a very relaxing base (for example, last night we watched Home Alone 2 together) from which we can explore the city. We have another two days here, so hopefully there will be more interesting La Paz anecdotes to pass along before we head to the Bolivian salt flats late Tuesday night!

5 thoughts on “There Is No High Like Bolivian Altiplano High

    1. RTWFlyers Post author

      Now that we are only 4,000 feet above sea level we feel like superheroes! Ok, not really, but it is definitely a noticeable difference.

Leave a Reply