This bus trip was long and complicated. Once we began climbing the narrow road to the Andean High Plateau—Altiplano in Spanish—it became a nightmare of stops. Stops for food, stops for police checks, stops for toilets, stops for fixing some pothole in the pressed earth below the bus; then there were stops when two vehicles coming from opposite directions needed to bypass each other. At least the high cliffs by the road held the promise of a quick end if we were to fall. In the small hours, we reached the plateau and from there the bus traveled faster, but it got so cold that ice formed on the inner side of the windows; the bus had no heating. The views were monotonous, with few indications of being in a high area. Few mountains could be seen; low hills dominated the sights. While sitting in the cold bus, it was difficult to discern the air pressure had substantially dropped.
Downtown La Paz is roughly 3600 meters above sea level, with its lower parts located at 3200m and its higher neighborhoods crossing the 4000m mark. At such altitude, a human body demands an acclimatization period. Luckily, I had visited Nepal while in Asia and was aware of the process and how to ease it; taking a few easy days, walking around along flat paths, and hydrating properly, solved the problem. Here, altitude sickness was called "sorojchi;" chewing coca leaves was considered the best solution.
Hours later, we reached El Alto, a city that had been split from La Paz during the 1980s and had become the fastest growing city in the country; unaware of that, I thought these were the outskirts of La Paz. The roads were crowded, meaning the bus advanced at walking pace. Normally, I would have left the bus and walked the rest of the way, but I knew that since I wasn’t acclimatized to the altitude—El Alto is above 4000m—I had no chance of succeeding.
"This is El Alto," the man sitting next to me was saying to me. I was by the window seat of the first row, enjoying superb views of the surroundings.
"What’s El Alto," I countered. Until that moment, I thought this was La Paz.
"It’s a city," he was obviously surprised at my answer.
"Where is La Paz?"
"Wait a minute," he answered mysteriously, and turned his head away.
"Here it is," he said later pointing at an incredible scene.
On the western part of central South America, a plateau rises four thousand meters above the Pacific Ocean, connecting the Royal and Western ranges of the Andes. Where the plateau breaks towards the Amazonian Basin, in a most dramatic landscape, La Paz was created a few centuries ago; surprisingly it survived. This is one of the few cities in the world of which the traveler won't forget his first glimpse; like Rio de Janeiro, Venice and Hong Kong, it is built on a unique environment. This effect is especially true if arriving from the south. After passing through its twin city, El Alto, which sits flat on the plateau, the traveler sees how the land breaks down into a crater-like space; La Paz fills this fantastic fissure. Combined with the lack of oxygen at that extreme altitude, this creates a perfect illusion of having landed on another planet. Once recovering his breath, the traveler’s second look at the wonder reveals the crater is open on one side. Mount Illimani blocks that opening. Its snow-covered trinity of peaks is the permanent stage of that immense amphitheatre called La Paz; falling in love with the view is instantaneous. In Welsh, there is a word for a valley shaped as an amphitheatre: cwm. Oddly enough, Aymara and Quechua—the native languages spoken in the area—ignore this imposing shape. Dusk or dawn, rain, sun or clouds, this is an ever-changing focal point of beauty. Despite not being the highest mountain in the continent, Mount Illimani is one of the most prominent mountains in the world. Prominence is the altitude measured from a mountain base, as opposed from sea level. An almost stand-alone mount at the southeastern end of the Andes Royal Range, Mount Illimani is most magnificent.
We had survived the descent into the city. This feat was performed through the only highway in the country. It was only 14 kilometers long, with just two lanes in each direction. At the lower part of the highway a large yellow hangar dating back to 1910 and serving as the city’s bus terminus, reluctantly received us. Despite formally being summer, the weather was ominously cold.
(Excerpt from The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem; the book reads independently of Part I, The Cross of Bethlehem - The Memoirs of a Refugee.)
The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.