Reaching 4100m, El Alto is one of the highest cities in the world and the fastest developing one in Bolivia.
by SeenThat on June 15, 2007
HighlightsLa Feria del AltoOn Thursdays and Sundays, the longest market in the world (according to Guinness) is assembled between La Ceja and Plaza Ballivian. Anything from used plastic bottles, through rusty iron parts belonging to unidentified machines, twenty years old newspapers and brand new, though black market, cars can be bought here (see separate entry).El Alto International AirportThe city of El Alto is split in two parts by the El Alto International Airport (see separate review); it can easily be reached by foot from La Ceja. La Ceja is where these two parts meet and thus it is the city's nexus. El Alto Bus TerminalLocals prefer the El Alto Bus Terminal to the one in La Paz because it does not charge a use fee, does not request identification and shortens trips by at least half an hour. However, bus tickets are more expensive here, there are less companies competing for the passengers, and getting good places is harder.La CejaThe few streets comprising this area are one of the main commercial centers in the country and it may be the biggest travel hub in the country. South of the unused railway, the area belongs to La Paz; the much bigger part north of it to El Alto. The area is crowded day and night, providing an additional proof to the claim that El Alto is the fastest growing city in Bolivia.ChacaltayaThe summit of this mountain is at 5395m above the sea level and just half an hour away from El Alto. It is possible to reach with a car up to 5300m and then continue by foot to the summit; it may be the only above 5000m peak in the world offering such a luxury.Huayna PotosiThe Huayna Potosi Mountain separates the Andean Plateau from the Zongo Valley and is almost ubiquitously visible from El Alto. Roughly an hour away from the city, it reaches 6088 meters above the sea level and is covered by snow during the whole year. The summit has a solid cornice and one of the best views in the Cordillera Real. It can be climbed by amateurs. TipsDuring the dry, cold winter, the Altiplano is amazingly dry. Metallic surfaces would usually carry a static charge and should be approached with care. Lip balm is essential. In the cold weather the sun looks inoffensive, but due to the altitude it burns quickly; a wide hat and good sunglasses are imperative.As in La Paz, packs of wild dogs take control over the city during the nights and early mornings; they should be avoided.El Alto is almost unavoidable if travelling on the Andean Plateau; sadly it may be the most dangerous place in the whole country. Bolivians are slow and well natured but don't let the outward sloppiness mistake you: criminal gangs control the area and according to the local newspapers they cooperate with the ubiquitous local police. Walking alone is not recommended even during the day; at night it would be a suicide. However, maintaining a no-nonsense attitude and moving quickly and efficiently through the area would ensure an eventless visit.Fried local food should be avoided, since the oil is re-used; sometimes it seems to be so for years. The tucumanas are the safest snack and can be found easily on the main avenues surrounding La Ceja; they are sold for around a dime each. The ubiquitous "sopa de fideo" (a plate of noodles with cheese sold for a dime) are dangerous and can cause a severe diarrhea. "Pesje" is a dish of quinua with milk and cheese; an excellent breakfast which is a bit hard to find but worth the effort.Best Way to Get AroundThe El Alto International Airport is the main gateway to the country, albeit an almost desolated one. A tax of almost fifty American dollars on departures (to be paid in cash) transformed it into an unpopular option. The main Bolivian air transport company had collapsed recently due to corruption; thus the only reliable company connecting Bolivia to America is American Airlines.Roughly circular, at first sight Bolivia looks as an easy country to plan a trip on it. The second sight reveals difficulties. A big part of the country is occupied by the Altiplano (the Andean Plateau), which rises up to four kilometers above the sea level. The oriental part of the country is within the Amazonian Basin and is partly flooded during January and February. The third important zone is what the locals call the Valleys - the steep slopes connecting the Altiplano with the Amazonian Basin. Such a complex environment is an invitation for troubles.Sadly, there are no good roads in the country. The only highway is a four lanes avenue (two in each direction) connecting downtown La Paz with El Alto and is only fifteen kilometers long. This reality transform any travel by car or bus into an almost Herculean task, even before taking into account the endless police control posts every few kilometers. Moreover, usually round-shaped countries offer several paths to reach a given location, but the roads and political situation in Bolivia do not allow doing so. For example, it makes sense for a tourist to begin the trip by visiting La Paz, then continuing to the Titicaca Lake and Copacabana and then reaching the southern Altiplano through Oruro... oops! There is no connection between Copacabana and Oruro since they belong to different political subdivisions of the country. The visitor needs to return to La Paz before continuing south. It is possible to travel between different "departamentos" only through the line connecting their capitals, and even that is not always possible.Taking inland flights is only a partial solution. The flights are relatively cheap but they are also unreliable, schedules are problematic and recently problems with ticket payments have been widely reported. The "no-direct-connection" problem exists also here. Even many international flights are sarcastically called "milk-trucks" because they stop in all the major cities along the way, leaving from La Paz, the plane will stop in Cochabamba and Santa Cruz before leaving Bolivia.
Despite its humble size, the El Alto International Airport is the Andean Plateau main airport and serves mainly the people arriving to or departing from La Paz. It is located above La Paz, on the plateau itself. Neighborhoods popped out around it and in 1985 became a new city, called El Alto; even today downtown El Alto is split in two by the runway. Another peculiarity of this airport is its altitude: the runway is at 4019 meters above the sea level (above 12000 feet).Reaching the AirportReaching the airport is easy. From downtown La Paz there are minivans marked "Aeropuerto" which cover the short distance through Bolivia's only highway (it is ten miles long) and cost less than half a dollar. From La Ceja - the commercial area connecting La Paz with El Alto it is a five minutes walk to the airport's main gate.The TaxThe airport is almost inactive due to the taxes issue; most Bolivians prefer to cross overland to Peru and take a flight from there. There are two taxes to be paid by departing passengers and they are not included in the tickets, so that paying in cash is the only open option. The airport tax is a sweeping twenty-four American dollars - double of the usual at the biggest airports in the world. If that wasn't enough, there is a second tax called "Impuesto de Salida Aerea" or "Air-exit Tax" which amounts to 176BOB or almost twenty-three American dollars. The result is that a passenger pays almost fifty dollars before he gets his first coffee. Most people decide to skip the opportunity.The Passengers TerminalThe tiny terminal offers few opportunities of entertainment; thus, it is recommended to arrive as late as possible to the flight. In the basement are located the free public toilets, an oddity in Bolivia. There is a small coffee shop called "Dolce Café Espresso" that offers rudimentary coffee and basic snacks. The other option for a coffee is the stall of the popular Alexander Coffee (see picture); its coffee is good but it must be take away to one of the few coaches available for the passengers use. Burger King has one of its few branches in Bolivia here, at the second floor; their biggest meal costs four dollars. In front of it is the Restaurante Mirador, in direct sight of the runway; however, in the many times I crossed this airport, it was never open. The lucky customers of Athina Tours (a leading travel agency in La Paz, which I do recommend) can enjoy the only VIP room in the terminal, which is placed in front of the Burger King. The ViewEl Alto offers spectacular views. Seconds after the take off, the grounds drops sharply when the Andean Plateau breaks down and the city of La Paz appears on the almost vertical slopes leading to the Amazonian Basin. Keep the camera prepared.
by SeenThat on June 19, 2007
La CejaA few years before I arrived at Bolivia for the first time, a wild hailstone created a mudslide that caused to a small section of the Andean Plateau to slide down upon the city of La Paz. Many people and a neighborhood just disappeared in a couple of hours. The result was an area reminiscent in its shape of an inverted eyebrow (ceja, in Spanish), sitting on the busy interface between the cities of La Paz (on the slopes toward the Amazonian Basin) and El Alto (on the Andean High Plateau).The few streets comprising this area are one of the main commercial centers in the country and it may be the biggest travel hub in the country. South of the unused railway, the area belongs to La Paz; the much bigger part north of it to El Alto. The area is crowded day and night, providing an additional proof to the claim that El Alto is the fastest growing city in Bolivia.The SafetyThe area is almost unavoidable if traveling on the Andean Plateau and has many attractions of local nature; nonetheless, it may be the most dangerous place in the whole country. Bolivians are slow and good-natured but don’t let the outward sloppiness deceive you, criminal gangs control the area and according to the local newspapers they cooperate with the ubiquitous local police. Walking alone is not recommended even during the day; at night it would be a suicide. However, maintaining a no-nonsense attitude and moving quickly and efficiently through the area would ensure an eventless visit.The Bus TerminalLocals prefer the El Alto Bus Terminal to the one in La Paz because it does not charge a use fee, does not request identification and shortens trips by at least half an hour. However, bus tickets are more expensive here, there are fewer companies competing for the passengers, and getting good places is harder.The AirportThe city of El Alto is split in two parts by the El Alto International Airport (see separate review); it can easily be reached by foot from La Ceja. La Ceja is where these two parts meet and thus it is the city’s nexus. The RestaurantsThe area features an overwhelming number of restaurants; all of them serve just local food. The prices here are slightly higher than in downtown La Paz. Nonetheless, a complete meal will seldom cross the $2 mark. In the restaurants, the food is relatively safe (though the dishes prepared with re-heated oil should be avoided).The Daily MarketThe streets surrounding La Ceja host a huge daily market; care should be taken while walking there.The FeriaOn Thursdays and Sundays, the longest market in the world (according to Guinness) is assembled between La Ceja and Plaza Ballivian. Anything from used plastic bottles, through rusty iron parts belonging to unidentified machines, 20-year-old newspapers and brand new, though black market, cars can be bought here (see separate entry).
by SeenThat on June 18, 2007
The MountainHuayna Potosi separates the Andean Plateau from the Zongo Valley and is almost ubiquitously visible from El Alto. Roughly an hour away from the city, it reaches 6088 meters above the sea level and is covered by snow during the whole year. The summit has a solid cornice and one of the best views in the Cordillera Real. The AltitudeBefore attempting to climb the mountain, acclimatization at 4000 meters should be achieved (that's the altitude of El Alto City). If arriving directly from sea level, that means staying more than a week at the city, walking around, drinking lots of water and exercising lightly. The sun radiation at such altitudes is extreme; sunglasses and a hat are imperative during daylight. As well the area is extremely dry; lip balm would be useful for most people.Climbing the Huayna PotosiThe mountain is considered to be one of the easiest 6000 meter peaks in the world. It includes only one technical stretch in the form of a vertical thirty meters ice wall. Except for the rainy season (January-March), it is possible to climb it at all times. In the last years, climate is changing rapidly in Bolivia and that can mean an unexpected delay in the case of an off-season rain.The PackagesMany tourism agencies at Sagarnaga Street in La Paz offer climbing packages o the Huayna Potosi. Most of them wait until they have three clients, hence, short delays should be taken into account - or considered to be part of the acclimatization period. There are two basic deals. The professional one takes two days and the one for beginners takes three. The difference is that beginners are taught to use crampons and to climb a vertical ice wall. The beginners' package costs around a hundred dollars, the professional one slightly less. All deals include a mountain climbing guide and assistant, meals, private transport to the mountain, carrier mules for baggage, porters, camping and cooking gear, and technical climbing equipment (mountain climbing shoes, crampons, ice axe, ropes, carabiners, tends, mattress, gloves, gaiters, harness, rain jacket, rain pants).The RouteThe easy and most popular route to the summit climbs a few moraines and follows gradual glaciers with a few short steep sections until reaching the summit. The EventThe beginners' package begins with a training session in the old glacier - near the refuge - where basic mountaineering and cramponing techniques are taught, including how to walk on ice and snow and the use of the ice axe and ropes, it is suitable for people who have no experience climbing.After sleeping at the alpine refuge, the second day for beginners (or the first one for professionals) begins by walking until the High Camp, which is located at a plateau at 5200m. The easy walk takes around five hours and it allows further acclimatization to the altitude.The last day begins very early. At 2am the climb to the summit begins. The main obstacle in the way is a thirty meters tall glacier wall. However, after crossing it, a gentle ramp leading to the summit is reached. The summit is accomplished after some six hours. Afterwards begins the descent all the way down to the base camp and the return to the city.The ViewFrom the summit there is an impressive view of the Cordillera Real. There are six peaks of more than 6000m in the area and more than twenty of above 5000m. Moreover, to the east is the Upper Amazon Basin and to the west the strikingly blue Titicaca Lake.
by SeenThat on July 8, 2007
One of the most exciting aspects of visiting the Andean High Plateau is the opportunity to see urban life above 4000 meters (13123 feet). In Nepal, settlements at such an altitude are tiny; plants barely exist there and provide little nourishment to the scarce yaks. Just north of Nepal, Lhasa is the only example of Urban Tibet, but it is substantially lower and smaller than its Bolivian counterparts. Bolivia's Andean High Plateau has two substantial cities above the 4000m line: Potosi and El Alto.ClimateThe Andean Plateau's climate is very dry for most of the year, except for three rainy months - namely January to March. Despite the altitude, the closeness to the equator assures relatively mild temperatures; they seldom go below the zero Celsius. In recent years, denizens report a quick change in the climate, with higher temperatures, stronger winds, and less rain appearing in a more random fashion. Glaciers on the surrounding mountains are receding.InsectsA striking characteristic of such an altitude is the almost complete lack of insects. Ants and cockroaches are not to be seen; the flies are so rare that they become a welcomed guest. Mosquitoes are considered by the denizens to be a mythical species invented by gringos to frighten naughty children. A friend of mine solved the insects' problem by adopting a spider brought from the Amazonian Basin as a pet.BirdsFew wild birds live in the area and they do prefer the Titicaca Lake surroundings. Doves have adapted well to the altitude and happily beg for bread in all the city's plazas. However, it is one of the only places I know where sparrows are not to be seen.VegetationThe natural vegetation is scarce but distinctively bigger than the one growing on the Himalayas at similar heights. Actually, the plateau is a traditional grower of potatoes, in all the two-hundred varieties indigenous to the area.Trees do not grow up in the wild, but within the urban areas they manage to achieve maturity - albeit in a humble size - if carefully tended. However, the Aymara culture considers trees to be the hiding place of evil spirits; thus, trees left without a little fence or wall of bricks protecting them, are usually destroyed.PetsFew cats - feral or pets - can be spotted in the Bolivian cities; dogs seem to be the main denizens of the area - apparently outnumbering even humans. Some of the dogs may seem cute, but they should be treated with extreme care and avoided at all costs. The local newspapers are full of stories about dogs attacking and maiming humans, adults and children alike.PhysiologyIt is important to understand the physiology of altitude before reaching the area. The main point to keep in mind is that the body reacts in two main ways to the unnatural environment. The most important reaction is the increased production of red-cells in an attempt to improve the blood's capacity to trap atmospheric oxygen. This process is slow and may take up to two weeks, depending on environmental and personal parameters. The second reaction is immediate and may cause some discomfort; in an attempt to force up the red-cells concentration in the blood, the body expels any unnecessary water through frequent urination. Keeping well hydrated during the first days in the area is thus imperative. The main sign of mild altitude sickness are dizziness and headaches; trying to walk in a straight line is a good and simple test to check out the situation. Since one of the symptoms - dizziness - attacks our capability to evaluate the results, it is a good idea to ask a friend to check out our dexterity.Humans Humans do acclimatize to such an altitude, but the result is not as good as living at sea level. People born and living on the plateau are relatively slow and live in a constant effort to save oxygen. "God, thank you for the air," is a sentence I have often heard in Bolivian Church services.Sports are a most telling event regarding human activity and soccer being the most popular sport in Bolivia, I assisted to a game played in La Paz by two leading local teams. The game's pace was slow and most players were obviously trying to minimize their runs after the ball, despite their being native to the area. In full agreement with my casual impressions, the FIFA recently banned soccer games at such altitudes, since expecting visiting teams to fully acclimatize before playing is not feasible and any other solution would lead to an unfair game.The Bottom (Top?) LineMost humans are shore-dwellers and seldom climb beyond the 1000m line. Doing that is an amazing opportunity to realize how big and diverse our planet is, and beyond that what an amazing and elastic machine our body is, being able of acclimatizing to extreme conditions with relative ease while allowing us during the process to continue writing journal's entries.
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