On what may happen while traveling on the Andean High Plateau
by SeenThat on November 11, 2010
"SeenThat was wrong!" the traveler exclaims as the bus leaves the La Paz Bus Terminal with only a few minutes delay. Then, as soon as the bus reaches what looks like the main road next to the building’s entrance, it makes a sharp turn and re-enters the terminal from its other side. Some doubts appear in the traveler mind, but he soon drops them. Unceremoniously, the bus leaves again the terminal through a rapid access ramp to the only highway in Bolivia. Connecting La Paz with El Alto, it is 14 kilometers long. As the bus speed up towards the Andean High Plateau, the traveler repeats with satisfaction "SeenThat was wrong!"Interlude: 100 Years before ThatWhy travel by bus? Simply, not all the main attractions in Bolivia can be reached by plane. Renting a car is dangerous due to the raucous driving practices of the denizens. A foreigner driving a car becomes a clear and easy target for certain unpleasant events. Given the circumstances, reaching the terminus is almost unavoidable if wanting to explore the countryside.La Paz main bus terminal can be easily reached by foot from El Prado, the city’s main avenue. It occupies one of the largest buildings in town; the yellow painted, hangar-like structure was built in 1910 and its design is functional in the extreme. The departure bays are ordered on its two large sides, though some long distance buses depart from the backside. The very high ceiling of its interior covers up much of the commercial activity taking place there. Next to the bays’ doors are booths selling tickets and in the wide central corridor kiosks sell snacks. On the hangar’s backside are several stalls selling sandwiches, coffee and snacks. The toilets in this area are not recommended; the best is remembering that before leaving the hotel or visiting a coffee shop before reaching the terminal. A good coffee before a long and bumpy trip is a good idea in any case.The terminus serves inter-departmental destinations, connecting only between the Bolivian departments’ capitals, and a few international destinations. For the last it is recommended just reaching the border between the countries and then making a connection with a local bus on the other side; direct international buses are much more expensive and rather claustrophobic since they offer very few stops in these very long trips. Intra-departmental destinations, like Sorata, Copacabana and Coroico, are served from other areas, which I described in detail in the respective journals.Two points are to be kept in mind. First, a terminus fee (2 BOB) must be purchased separately before passing to the bays area. This fee is paid on a booth at the center of the building. The second is that the trip prices are not set. There is a maximum price for each destination – a large poster next to the entrance advertises them - but this fee is very high and seldom applied. The rule is checking out several booths before purchasing a ticket. Try finding out what denizens have paid for a place in the desired bus. Negotiating a price – or at least asking if a better one can be offered – is acceptable and expected. Once the ticket was sold, there is no place for refunds.Back to the La Paz - El Alto HighwayThe amazed traveler looks at the Illimani’s Amphitheatre appearing below the highway. Most of La Paz can be seen under the bus, gently surrounding the magnificent Mount Illimani. Soon, the bus stops at a toll gate. Then the landscape changes abruptly.El Alto downtown swallows up all the sights. The bus tortuously advances a few blocks and enters what looks as an open terminus. The El Alto International Airport is just a block away. Then it stops. People waiting for the bus there board it rapidly; most of them wanted to avoid the terminus fee at the departure point.Hawkers climb the bus trying to sell any imaginable thing. Booklets describing Andean foods, ice-creams, drinks and take away meals; next to them, the little guy helping the drier checks the tickets once again. Then he descends and begins shouting at the apathetic passers-by. He is attempting to fill up the bus. The bus wouldn’t move again until it is completely full, including luggage compartments. One-hour delay? Two-hours delay? Only the smiling llamas know.
by SeenThat on November 13, 2010
Comparing between the Andes and the Himalayas is almost unavoidable for travelers that have seen both of them. The Himalayas are much higher; the Bolivian Andes highest peaks are more than 2000 meters lower than the highest Nepali Himalayas. Yet, both ranges are home to large plateaus: the Tibetan one for the Himalayas and the Altiplano for the Andes. Here, the situation reverses, the Altiplano is slightly higher than most of the Tibetan Plateau. The Rocky Mountains also feature a smallish and much lower plateau, but it is not comparable to the main two. Despite the geographic similarities between the two largest plateaus, the human landscape is vastly different. The Tibetan Plateau is home to few people, while the Altiplano is home to four large cities in its Bolivian side: La Paz, El Alto, Oruro and Potosi. The last three are fully above the altitude of Lhasa in the Tibetan Plateau. Also large parts of La Paz are also substantially higher than Lhasa. Overall, the Bolivian part of the Altiplano is home to well over two million people, including minor settlements like Copacabana. Traditionally, this was an important commerce center between important parts of the continent, while the Tibetan Plateau was an obstacle to commerce in Asia. What looks at first as a minor detail, causes a major difference in the denizens attitude.In Nepal there is a strong feeling of wonder as you move upwards, toward the highest summits on earth. Denizens are obviously aware of living in a very special place. Altitude is respected and well known. On the Altiplano, altitude is taken for granted, maybe due to the multitudes sharing it. The denizens seems to ignore the fact that over 99% of humanity lives below them, and refer to "sorojchi" (altitude symptoms in Quechua) with disrespect as a gringo-oriented illness (though they experience it themselves whenever they return to the plateau) and do not relate some of their culinary practices to the extreme altitude. Thus, by being unable to articulate their peculiarities to the traveler, they would cause a very dry surprise to the last.As a matter of fact, even people being born above 3000 meters must acclimatize to altitude. I reviewed the process in my Trekking in the Everest Region journal. The most evident change in the body is the increase on the concentration of red cells in the blood. The body achieves that by increasing their production and decreasing the amount of water in the blood. This last result may be achieved by increasing the urination rate or decreasing the amount of liquids consumed. On the plateau, the second option is the norm, as the traveler is sadly bound to find.Eventually, a traveler staying on the plateau for a while would be invited to a meal by denizens. I have reviewed extensively local dishes, many of them feature various types of dehydrated tubers, maize of various colors and dehydrated llama meat. However, during this first meal the traveler would probably been unable to enjoy the foreign flavors due to an acute state of thirst. The only liquid appearing during such a local meal is any one of the thick soups favored here due to the cold climate. Invariably, they are very salty and increase thirst. Only at the end of the very dry meal, a tiny glass of soft drink would be carefully handed to the guest. Solid food is shared generously, but liquids are treated as poison. Asking for water would be frowned up, and probably there would no potable water available in the vicinity. Bringing a bottle of water to the event and explaining the issue is acceptable.Another surprising point related to altitude is related to the sun radiation. Here, it is wise to observe the traditional clothing of the area. Despite its varied colors, it invariably covers the whole body. There is a good reason for that; even if the sun is not especially warm, the sunlight here contains dangerous levels of UV radiation. Covering up completely and wearing good sunglasses is essential. Related to the last are surprising changes in temperature. Standing in the sun is pleasantly warm; yet, moving a few feet away from there into a shaded area can change the temperature into a chilling one. The solution for that is moving around with several layers of long clothes that allow a fast adaptation to the rapidly changing temperatures.Is that all? Is the traveler reading this article ready to walk like a Bolivian on the Andean High Plateau? Well, not exactly, but this is a beginning. The next big surprise would appear while walking around with a highlander. Most of us would try to find the flattest path between two points. Walking around the peak is better than climbing to its summit and then descending. In Bolivia – like in Nepal - most paths follow the shortest possible way between two points regardless the slopes. It is tiring, but unless the trekker is ready to create new paths, that’s the only option. Such an approach demands a different type of walk. But that’s a topic for a different type of entry.
by SeenThat on November 10, 2010
Even the most planned travels can get unexpected spins. I knew I was going to review Charquekaneria El Fogon for my Socavon journal even before I reached Oruro. Simply, it offers one of the most authentic versions of Charque Kan, the most distinctive dish of the Andean High Plateau area. Yet, the unpredicted end of this adventure earned it a different journal.Charque Khan OrureñoCharque Khan Orureño (Oruro’s Charque Khan) is the name given to this dish elsewhere in Bolivia; the first word may sound somewhat familiar to American readers, and with a good reason. In the Americas the linguistic and cultural links between the northern and southern continents seem to be weaker than in Eurasia; maybe that’s due to the poorer level of historic information on local cultures. However, at times the link is very evident. On the Andean High Plateau, "charque" (pronounced char-keh) is the parallel to the North-American "jerky." Considering that "Charque" is the rendering of the original word made by the Spaniards and that Spanish lacks a consonant parallel to the English "j," the similarity between these two words becomes evident. For those living elsewhere, this is the time to explain "charque" refers to sun-dried meat. An unimaginable dish for persons coming from humid parts of the globe, this is an important part of the diet on high and dry places.Despite the existence of several regional adaptations, the dish served in Oruro is quite standard and based on llama jerky. Sun dried meat is fried in deep oil before serving it. Due to the porous and fibrous characteristic of jerky, it absorbs a lot of oil, creating what may be the main drawback of the dish. It is so oily that the typical taste of llama meat is practically undetectable; only the price and fame of the dish are an assurance the meat had not been replaced by a cheaper one.The meat is placed atop "mote." This is an Aymara word used for corn kernels when separated from the cob; it is unusually large. It may originate in a number of different varieties of corn, though more often than not it belongs to large kernel varieties of light color. Here, it had very distinctive brownish stripes. Note that denizens often peel off the external layer of the kernel before consuming it; fibers are an overlooked part of the local diet. Also potatoes are consumed in the same fashion. Next to the meat, a piece of salty white cheese characteristic of Bolivia is placed. This is the only no-native part of the dish; being produced from milk, it appeared on the Andes only after the Spaniards brought sheep and cows. The Aymara word for "milk" is "milkh" and apparently was adapted from English. A 16th Century Spanish-Aymara dictionary uses "breastfeed" as the closest translation for "milk." A boiled egg and a potato almost complete the dish; almost, because in Bolivia no dish is complete without pouring over it a generous amount of "llajua" on it. Llajua (pronounced yah-hoo-ah) is a spicy sauce prepared with chilies, tomatoes and water.Charquekaneria El FogonCharquekaneria El Fogon specializes in Charque Kan and is located very close to Oruro’s bus terminal, in the downtown area. One look is enough to determine it caters exclusively for denizens eager to enjoy their best culinary hit. Simple tables void of decorations in a very Spartan room. The austere kitchen is in plain sight at one of the establishment sides; it includes nothing but the few items needed to prepare charque kan. The counter is next to the door. The customer is expected to buy a "ficha" before taking seat. That means choosing a dish – charque kan for 20 BOB or charque kan take away for 15 BOB are the only options – and paying for it before sitting down.After paying, the dish soon is placed in front of the guest. No cutlery accompanies it; Bolivians eat mostly with their hands."It’s as big as a small llama," I thought, still unknowing what would I see later. The dish was as good as expected, though too big. A few minutes later I was out, having left behind me a significant evidence of my latest carnivorous adventure.The LlamaI left the restaurant and took a good look around. I know relatively well this small town; yet, after having been away for a while it takes a few minutes to recognize the landmarks and the direction to the desired destination. Brasil Avenue – in Spanish Brazil is written with an "s" – leads to the bus terminal and is the departure of minivans serving nearby destinations. As such it looks pretty much as a smallish open air terminus.Among the minivans, I spotted something appearing and disappearing; it advanced on four feet. In the next clear view, I recognized a baby-llama being led by a small girl with a short string. This is so unusual for the downtown area, that I knew what was going to happen. I crossed the street – unexpectedly being spared by speeding minivans – while taking out my camera. I took a couple of pictures before the girl picked up the llama and hugging it entered a minivan. She was the last passenger to board and sat down near the door carefully hugging the animal so that it wouldn’t bother the other passengers, who looked completely apathetic to the strange sight. Unceremoniously, she closed the door and the vehicle rushed away on the plateau in a futile attempt to spare the young life of a future charque kan victim.
by SeenThat on November 15, 2010
An almost unique spot on the planet, the Altiplano is worth a visit not only for the sake of saying "I was there." Extreme places offer unusual views and not less odd cultures; both of these aspects transform the Altiplano into a remarkable destination. This is one of the few destinations in the world where glaciers and rainforest can be seen from a single spot.High CitiesCities at extreme altitudes demand acclimatization, and not only to the elevation. The temperatures can vary fast and more often than not the cities are cold, forcing the denizens to be active mainly during the sunlight hours. "But the North Atlantic is surrounded by cold cities and people are active at night!" some are saying now. Yet, cold lowlands let trees grow; lowland cold cities were heated from early times by wood. In the highlands, wood is scarce. Until gas was found in Bolivia, heating up houses was practically impossible in the highlands. The result was an adaptation of most activities to daylight hours and outdoors, creating a culture centered upon open street markets.As commented in another entry of this journal, the Bolivian Altiplano is home to four large cities: La Paz, El Alto, Oruro and Potosi; minor urban settlements include Copacabana, Villazon, Tupiza and other towns. Traditionally, this was an important commerce center between important parts of the continent, forming the largest concentration of high altitude cities in the world. Overall, cities are an essential and overwhelming part of such a tour.Traditional Altiplano small villages are disappearing due to the rapid urbanization process the area. Yet, many can be seen along the way; some travelers may be even invited to visit them. Invariably, they look as temporary settlements with adobe houses in various stages of returning to the dust they were made of.The PlateauMost people expect seeing a flat landscape on the Altiplano. Unless studying a topographical map before arriving at the area, that’s understandable. However, few are the spots where the traveler will be able to see far into the plateau’s high horizon. The Andean Plateau is not exactly flat; it contains undulated hills and is slightly tilted: El Alto is higher than the Titicaca shore and Oruro. It is surrounded by mountains to the north and the west; it brakes into irregular high valleys to the east and south and for much of its extension is hilly. Windy Oruro and the Uyuni Salt Flats are probably the best parts to experience the plateau flatness.The MountainsIf traveling to Arica, Chile, from La Paz, Bolivia, then the awed traveler would enjoy the almost conical summit of the Sajama – the highest mountain in Bolivia - and the adjacent volcanoes. Yet, the most attractive, recognizable and trek-suitable mountains in the area are all part of a smallish range known as Cordillera Real. This is a subset of the Andes’ Cordillera Oriental, running from Mount Illampu in its northern end – near Sorata and Lake Titicaca– to Mount Illimani in the southeast. The range separates the Andean High Plateau from the Bolivian Amazonian Basin. From west to east, its main peaks are the Illampu, the Condoriri with its distinctive shape of a condor with folded wings, the Huayna Potosi with a shoulder that reminds of the Ama Dablam in Nepal, the Mururata, with its almost flat summit, and somewhat to the southeast of the last, Mount Illimani, the highest and most distinctive mountain of the range. Overall, this range is 125 kilometers long, and it features six peaks reaching above 6000m.If looking from La Paz downtown, Mount Illimani looks isolated. Its three main peaks (the northern one is in fact a double one – the mountain has four peaks) create an unforgettable view and not only due to its unusual trinity reminding summit. The mountain is not extremely high – at 6438m it’s only the second highest in Bolivia and the eighteenth highest in the Americas – but its prominence is of almost 2500 meters, transforming it into one of the most distinctive mounts in the world. The last number measures a mountain’s standing above the landscape surrounding it. The impressive score of the Illimani in this category is what makes it look lonely; however it’s the southern end of the Cordillera Real.Despite the closeness to the equator line, the Cordillera Real features snowed peaks and several glaciers; the Amazonian Basin lies just north of it and provides the humidity needed for the formation of snow and ice. The glaciers – mainly the one of Mount Condoriri – are the main source of water in La Paz. It’s interesting to note that only peaks featuring snow during the whole year have names in the local culture. However, things are changing fast. The Chacaltaya – placed between the Huayna Potosi and El Alto – have lost its white cover due to global warming. Its glacier will disappear completely in the next years. In sharp contrast, the Illimani is in no danger of losing its soft cover; snow appears there roughly at 4500m – much lower than that after storms – and covers its summit all year around.Mount Illampu has the less distinctive shape of the range main peaks. Yet, its setup is dramatic. With an almost flat double summit, it resembles a plateau atop the Andean High Plateau. It is so massive that the landscape’s other features become insignificant. Its glaciers are great and can be fully enjoyed from the road circumventing the colossus. Sorata is on the northern slopes of the mount and – as Coroico offers an exciting mix of tropical rainforests and glaciers.A sight for almost every taste and the distinction of being a unique spot form an irresistible mix attracting travelers to where the flatlands touch the skies.
by SeenThat on November 12, 2010
I was at the touristic information booth next to Oruro’s bus terminal. Bad news had just been communicated to me. The nearest train museum was at Machacamarca, some 30 kilometers away from town. Moreover, minivans leading there departed only from Avenida del Ejercito corner Tacna, a spot that was in other part of the downtown area. That meant I won’t be able to reach the museum in this trip due to time constrains.Yet, I knew there were some old roosters in display here. I asked again and this time I was told that if speaking with the clerks at the railway station, I may be granted access. Thanking hurriedly, I left the place and rushed to the station; it was getting late.The Railway StationAfter all, I expected a worthy sight. South American railways barely exist today; buses have conquered most of the routes there, as it happened in most of the world. Maybe because the Bolivian railways system was never extensive, it did manage to survive the crisis and is still connecting several towns. The system is divided into the highlands railway and the lowlands one; two networks that are not connected between them and provide also specialized transport services.On the highlands, Empresa Ferroviaria Andina provides mainly transport for travelers from Villazon to Oruro; the railroad crosses Uyuni and Tupiza. Some of its lines serve only merchandise, especially to and from the ports in Chile. The railway is used by Expreso Del Sur and Wara Wara Del Sur cars; the first company is slightly more expensive. "Wara Wara" means "star" in Aymara; thus "Wara Wara del Sur" means "Southern Star," in a mix of Aymara and Spanish. In the recent and wildly misinformed revival of Aymara, many people call their daughters "wara," unknowing this is not the singular of "wara wara." Instead of giving the name "star," they have called their daughters after a garment.Expreso Del Sur leaves from Oruro on Tuesdays and Fridays, and returns on Wednesdays and Saturdays from Villazon. The Wara Wara Del Sur departs on Sundays and Wednesdays from Oruro, and Mondays and Thursdays from Villazon. All trains leave from Villazon and Oruro at 3:30 PM; arrival times are 7 AM at Oruro and 7:55 AM at Villazon. The difference in the arrival time despite the distances being the same is the result of altitude changes along the way. One international connection to Chile also exists; it leaves on Mondays and returns on Thursdays. In the past the line reached La Paz, parts of the unused old railway can still be seen in the country’s most important city. Parts of it had even been used there for the sewage drains, which look unusually solid and well constructed. Trains have fame of being one of the few punctual transportation methods in Bolivia, except for the short rainy season – roughly between January and March – when floods may cause unexpected, but short, delays.In Oruro, the terminal is placed almost at the town centre. Once there I entered the tickets counter, surprised to find a counter selling Argentinean bus tickets at the structure entrance. Many choose to arrive to the Argentinean border by train and to advance from there by bus. Argentinean railways were inactive for decades and are not fully active."Maybe they’ll let you see the old trains," I was told. "But they are not here, they are at the railways yard, which is almost twenty blocks away. You can walk along the railway in the way there."The Rail YardI did that and found the train travels along one of the town main avenues. No separation exists between the railway and the roads on both sides of it, thus the trains travel slowly and noisily along this stretch of the way. Soon, a walled yard appeared. The railway disappeared within it.I began surrounding the large structure. All gates were closed and the placed seemed empty. On its other side, the yard became very narrow and ended in an open gate. Nobody was in sight. Taking out my camera I entered and found plenty of train cars. Being of the narrow gauge type, Bolivian train cars are rather small and sturdy; about half a dozen of them are attached to the locomotive. I was beginning to enjoy this unexpected finding when I found a reminder of being in Bolivia. Wild dogs appeared nearby. They were not openly hostile, but that can change in no time here. Making sure they won’t be able to see my hands – seeing the last is interpreted by them as "a flying stone is in my way" and may lead to a savage attack – I left the railway yard and returned to the nearby bus terminal. It was time to return – by bus – to La Paz.
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