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.
The 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.
A 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.
Few 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.
The 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.
Few 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.
It 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 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?) Line
Most 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.