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


Salar de Uyuni

Southwest Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni

The day before yesterday, I wrote about two things I wanted to see in Bolivia. I mentioned the Salar de Uyuni in passing and concentrated on the “Death Road” linking La Paz and Coroico. The Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat (over 10,500 square kilometers and 4,000 square miles).

On a couple of occasions, I have seen one of the largest salt flats in the United States: the so-called “Devil’s Golf Course,” located adjacent to the lowest point in the continental United States, Badwater in California’s Death Valley.

There is something about the Salar de Uyuni, however, which is even more spectacular. The flats are frequently covered with a shallow sheet of water that reflects the sky above (as in the photo).

Another View of the Salar de Uyuni, When Dry

It is supposed to be difficult to reach the salt flats except on a jeep tour from Uyuni or Tupiza in Bolivia or San Pedro de Atacama in nearby Chile. If I went, I’d probably need a sleeping bag and a whole lot of other things that I rarely travel with. But it does look like an awesome place.

Interestingly, beneath the salt flats is the world’s largest supply of lithium, as much as 50-70% of the world’s total reserves. The current government doesn’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs (that is, tourism) in return for destroying one of the world’s most incredible beauty spots and extracting all the lithium.

Bolivia’s Death Road

Map of Bolivia’s Death Road Connecting La Paz with Coroico

I have always wanted to go to Bolivia. I was close to it in 2014, but I got sick in Puno, near the border, and decided to head on to Cuzco directly instead.The two things I am most interested in seeing in Bolivia are the Salar de Uyuni—giant salt flats in the southwest of the country—and the so-called World’s Most Dangerous Road, connecting La Cumbre (near La Paz) at 4,670 meters, or 15,260 feet, all the way down to Coroico in the Yungas Valley rain forest at 1,525 meters, or 5,003 feet. That’s a drop of almost two miles.

The “Death Road” portion, shown as a red dash line in the map above, is largely a single lane unpaved highway subject to frequent landslides. Vehicles traveling uphill have the right of way, which means that downhill vehicles must sidle within inches of a drop of potentially thousands of feet. During rainy season from November to March, rain and fog could be deadly. In the dry season, the problem is rock slides and dust. The highway is dotted with frequent crosses where vehicles have gone over the side, killing 200-300 travelers a year.

Passing on the Death Road

Now there is a paved road to Coroico that is much safer. The only problem is that the new road is frequently closed because of landslides. Today, the Death Road is mostly used by cyclists going downhill. Even then, eighteen have plunged to their deaths since 1998.

Eighteen-Wheeler on the Edge

Needless to say, I think that having any alcohol before venturing on this road is tantamount to suicide.

Why do I want to see the road? The key word here is “see.” There is no way I would drive the road. I wouldn’t mind just going to a good vantage point and then turning around. I’m not altogether sure I would even trust another driver to conduct me down this road. Besides, I’m not all that interested in going to Coroico. Rain forests mean mosquitoes, and that would scare me even more.


The Driest Place on Earth

The Driest Place on Earth

As we in Southern California swelter through a seemingly endless series of hot, humid weather, my mind turns to the Norte Grande of Chile, where the Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth. At one time, I desperately wanted to take the Ferrocarril Antofagasta a Bolivia (FCAB), which ran passenger trains between Antofagasta, Chile and Oruro, Bolivia, from which it was possible to change trains to La Paz.

Years ago, I saw a television documentary about one such trip: I was instantly sold. Unfortunately, although trains still run along the FCAB route, they are all freights.

In My Invented Country, Isabel Allende describes fleeing Chile by this train in 1973 after her cousin Salvador was killed with the participation of the CIA. She remembers an endless, hot, dry expanse.

The FCAB Today

The FCAB Today

Another refugee from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship was writer Ariel Dorfman, who has this to say about the Atacama in Desert Memories: Journeys Through the Chilean North:

Less rain falls on these sands than on any other similarly blighted expanse on Earth. I talked to men born in Arica, a woman brought up in Pisagua, men and women who had never ventured forth from the nitrate town of María Elena or who have never left the oasis of Pica, which produces the most fragrant oranges your tongue has ever rolled over, and none of them had felt one drop of rain on their bodies in their lives….

Oh yes, it rained once, some years ago, in Antofagasta. Two millimeters. And several residents died in the ensuing mudslide…. That semi-sprinkle had not reached Antofagasta itself, though there was an unusual front of turbulence sweeping in from the sea, so the reporter on the local radio was already trying to calm down a populace that had begun to panic, a woman had called in to say—much to our cruel mirth—that she thought she had felt a drop of rain on her cheek, and what should she do, should she evacuate her children?

We might smirk a bit at that, though with our California drought, we ought to be prepared for anything. With luck, we might see some appreciable rain this winter … or else!




The Guano Economy

Guano Island Off Peru

Guano Island Off Peru

When Peru finally won its independence from Spain in the 1820s, there was no short quick route to prosperity. Much of South America’s economy was primarily agricultural, based on large haciendas, many of which had just changed hands from Spanish loyalists to officers of the revolution. It took about twenty years before Peru discovered that its primary source of wealth was actually bird sh*t. There were a number of islands off the coast of the Atacama Desert in the south that were covered to a depth of several meters with a centuries’ long accumulation of guano. Europe, which was trying to recover from the ravages of the Napoleonic Wars, needed the fertilizer to insure rich crops.

Mining the guano was no picnic. Peru imported thousands of laborers from China to dig up and bag the guano for shipment to a customer base that was willing to pay top dollar for the … stuff. Native Peruvians did not breathing in the noxious particles, so it was mostly immigrants who worked the islands. For about thirty years, Peru was sh*tting pretty, until it hit the fan. (Had enough of the puns yet?)

After much of the guano was shipped overseas, it was discovered that the Atacama Desert was rich in nitrate fertilizers, which were a good substitute for the organic stuff. At this point, the main actors in the business were Peru, Bolivia (which then had a seacoast), and Chile. Bolivia arbitrarily raised the taxes on mining nitrates. As many of the companies supervising the mines and transporting the fertilizer were Chilean, they demanded tax relief. Bolivia refused, and Peru backed Bolivia.

What Kind of Bird Izzat?

What Kind of Bird Izzat?

In 1879 began the War of the Pacific, with Chile arrayed against both Peru and Bolivia. As Chile had better military leadership and weaponry, it won handily after a number of bloody sea and land battles. The upshot was that Bolivia lost its access to the sea (though they still have admirals for some reason), and Peru lost its State of Tarapacá, including Tacna, Arica, Iquique, and Pisagua. (Eventually Tacna was ceded back to Peru some years later.)

In the end, the British took over the nitrate mining industry, with most of its associated profits. Bolivia suffered the most, as it lost all access to the Atacama Desert. Peru was outraged at having been occupied by Chile, though it fought a fairly successful guerrilla insurgency. Nonetheless, it had suffered a humiliating defeat with repercussions lasting to the present time.

As to the profits from fertilizer mining, they dwindled rapidly; and Peru went from being a wealthy country to being an economic basket case.

For more information, click here for a good illustrated review of the 19th century guano mining industry.


Puno Gets No Respect

Bicycle Repair Shop in Puno

Bicycle Repair Shop in Puno

As one who lived the first seventeen years of his life in Cleveland, Ohio, I am well aware that some places come as a major disappointment to travelers. Cleveland was usually referred to as “The Mistake on the Lake” and, parodying the Chamber of Commerce motto of “The Best Location in the Nation,” “The Worst Location in the Nation.” And on the old Dobie Gillis TV show, wasn’t that hippie Maynard G. Krebs always going to see a movie called The Monster That Devoured Cleveland.

Well, Puno is one of those cities that gets no respect. A major entrepot for goods being trucked from Peru to Bolivia and vice versa. It is also one of Peru’s major centers of indigenous population, including both Quechuas and Aymaras.

If you take a look at the books written by travelers, you get a pretty dim view of the place. Paul Theroux (The Old Patagonian Express) and Christopher Isherwood (The Condor and the Cows) didn’t even give the place a chance: They arrived at night and left that same night on a boat bound across lake Titicaca for Copacabana, Bolivia. Since there are now no boat crossings to Bolivia—unless one is on an expensive catamaran tour—that option no longer exists.

When Patrick Leigh Fermor visited in the early 1970s (Three Letters from the Andes), he didn’t have much good to say about the place:

There was little for the eye to feast on outside. Puno is an assembly of corrugated iron roofs, sidings and goods yards sprawling round a church like a Gothic mud pie. We picked our way through the debris and squatting Aymara Indians—treading softly lest we tread on their dreams—to a ramshackle lacustrine port where an old steamer lay at anchor, brought piecemeal overland long before the railway, so that each plate was cut down to the weight a mule can carry, and sometimes a llama, then welded and riveted together again on the lake shore.

Fermor describes being met at the train station by a gaggle of unruly Aymara porters “seizing our luggage and bickering and punching each other all the way across the tracks to the repellent Ferrocarril hotel,” which had mislaid all the partys reservations.

Some years later, Michael Jacobs (The Andes), had this to say about Puno: “Neither of us was keen to stay any longer than necessary in Puno, which looked, under bright sunlight, even uglier than I had remembered it. The sun accentuated its resemblance to a waste tip of dirty brown boxes washed up by the lake.”

In Cut Stones and Crossroads, Ronald Wright damns the city with faint praise: “Puno has improved: I’ve found a hotel with hot water and a restaurant with hot food.” In The White Rock, Hugh Thomson considers Puno a “‘one-nighter,’ if that.”

Given all that bad publicity, I am sure that I will enjoy Puno. There isn’t much to see in the city proper (or should I say improper?), but there are the burial towers at Sillustani and the Islands of Taquile and Amantani in the middle of the lake. Plus, I will be trying to outlast the soroche I am sure will overtake me there at the elevation of 12,500 feet. Hey, nothing can surprise me: I’m from Cleveland.



The High Point of My Trip


Puno on the Shore of Lake Titicaca

Puno on the Shores of Lake Titicaca

If my upcoming Peru vacation is a success, it will be because I was able to withstand life at 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) altitude. The high point (both literally and figuratively) of my trip will be at Puno, a somewhat ungainly city on the shores of Lake Titicaca. There will be short times during which I will be at 15,000 feet (4,570 meters) or more as I go over mountain passes between Arequipa and Chivay, between Arequipa and Puno, and between Puno and Cusco.

The hotel at which I will be staying—the Casa Andina Classic Tikarani on Jirón Independencia—provides oxygen for its guests as well as mate de coca if I am beginning to feel the onset of acute mountain sickness, or soroche, as the natives call it.

In the end, it is possible I am making too much of all this, but I will be traveling by myself. I have to be prepared to take immediate action in case I am one of the 1-2% of travelers in danger of High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). If that happens, I will immediately return to Arequipa and figure out a Plan B that involves visits to Tacna, Peru and Arica, Chile, cities that figured in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), in which Bolivia lost its seacoast. (Even so, they still have admirals.)

If I find I can take the altitude, I’ll spend a night on Isla Taquile, which involves a 400 foot climb up a trail to reach the center of town. There, I will spend a night with one of the local families before returning to Puno by launch the next day.

After Puno, I head downhill to Cusco, and later still further downhill to Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu.