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.