Tiwanaku

Tiwanaku: Gate of the Sun

I must think I’m going to live forever.Trapped in my apartment during the quarantine, I am thinking more and more about returning to Peru and including the altiplano of Bolivia. Here I am at age 76, thinking of a strenuous trip at high altitude to one of the most fascinating (albeit difficult) places on Earth.

In 2014, I spent some time on the western shore of Lake Titicaca, on the Peru side. I even took a tour on a launch to Isla Taquile and one of the Uros Isles, but as the boat left the dock, I discovered that I was beginning to suffer the effects of food poisoning. The former afternoon at Sillustani, I ate something in a farmer’s house that violently disagreed with me. What is more, I was hours away from a toilet. Under the circumstances, I was not able to appreciate the beauties of Lake Titicaca, and in fact I took no pictures that day.

Map of Lake Titicaca, Showing the Location of Tiwanaku at Lower Right

Just as I returned to Tierra Del Fuego after breaking my shoulder there in 2006, I plan on returning to the Peruvian side of the lake, and adding some parts of Bolivia to the mix. I find myself suddenly interested in the Aymara-speaking peoples of the Andes.

A funny thing happened to me in Puno during my last visit. It was a bitterly cold morning, as it frequently is at that altitude (12,000 feet or 3,700 meters). I had neglected to bring a scarf with me, and I badly needed one. Enter a poor Aymara woman laden down with hand-knitted handicrafts. I walked up to her and brought a beautiful scarf at a reasonable price. Apparently, I made that woman’s day. She broke into a big smile and was almost prepared to welcome me into her family.

Over a thousand years ago, there was an Aymara empire centered at Tiwanaku in modern-day Bolivia. It lasted until AD 1100 when a massive and persistent drought led to a drop in the level of Lake Titicaca, leaving the Aymara fields high and dry. Hundreds of years later, the Inca took over; but their empire was short-lived once the Spanish conquistadores began to move in.

Walls of the Kalasaya Complex at Tiwanaku

Since the eco-catastrophe that destroyed the Aymara empire a thousand years ago, the Aymara have become a scattered people indulging in subsistence agriculture and the herding of llamas and alpacas.

The World’s Highest Capital City

La Paz, Bolivia, at Night

If you want to land in a capital city so high up that you will get an immediate nosebleed and tumble headfirst down the steps of the airplane, you would pick La Paz, Bolivia. The average altitude of El Alto, where the airport is located, is 13,615 feet (or 4,150 meters). The city itself is about 2,000 feet lower, about the same altitude of Lhasa, Tibet.

In The Old Patagonian Express, Paul Theroux talks about his accident-proneness at high altitude. Taking some aspirin in his hotel room, he drops the water tumbler into the sink. Trying to pick up the pieces, he cut himself badly and decided to seek medical attention:

But I had not gone two blocks when the new towel I had wrapped around my hand was soaked with blood. It did not hurt, but it looked dreadful. I hid it under my arm so as not to alarm pedestrians. Then the blood dripped on the sidewalk and I thought: God damn. It was deeply embarrassing to be walking through this large gray city with a blood-soaked towel on my hand. I began to wish I had tried the rubber band. I left spatters of blood on the crosswalk, and more spatters on the plaza. I asked directions to the pharmacy and saw, when I looked back, that there was a pool of blood where I had paused, and a horrified Bolivian watching me. I tried not to run: running makes your heart beat faster and you bleed more.

Of course, if Theroux had been trying to cope with the altitude by taking aspirin, his blood was not likely to clot soon. He should have chewed coca leaves with an alkaloid, or drank some mate de coca tea. But then, this was the 1970s, and this was not generally known to gringo travelers.

Bolivia has had a violent political history, with presidents changing office approximately once a year—or even more often. In 1948, some angry rebels yanked President Gualberto Villaroel from the balcony of his palace and proceeded to lynch him from a lamppost in the plaza. Fortunately, the present government is a little more stable