My body is saying “Whoa!’ as it adapts to an unfamiliar situation. In the past eighteen hours it’s gone from Toronto at 100 meters above sea level to La Paz at 3500. The joke on the plane as we approached El Alto International was that we had to ascend to land safely. El Alto is yet another 600 meters higher than La Paz, which sits in a deep gorge cut into the Altiplano, the high plains of western Bolivia.
I will take it very easy for the first few days as I acclimatize. At least Bolivia is in the same time zone as Toronto so jet lag is not added to the list of adaptations required!
For this visit to Bolivia I’ve gone the organized small group route. A UK trekking company, Mountain Kingdoms, had exactly what I had in mind. My wife Laila is relieved to know that I won’t be on my own and it is plush to have someone handle all the details. The major drawback, other than the increased cost, is that you get to walk in an Anglo bubble through a multicultural society where Spanish, Aymara, and Quechua all have official status. The flag to the left, the Wiphala, acknowledges the indigenous peoples, and was made the second official flag in 2009.
In about a week’s time we’ll start a 120-kilometer trek down the Cordillera Real mountain range to the east of Bolivia’s capital city. I should be feeling better by then!
The map above locates Bolivia – south of the equator and landlocked with Brazil, Peru and Argentina as some of the countries whose borders it touches. Its one million square kilometre size makes it the world’s 26th largest country, and its population of eleven million puts it in the same range as Belgium, Haiti, and Cuba – and a bit less than my home province of Ontario in Canada.
As far as the weather goes, La Paz’s September corresponds roughly to March in the northern hemisphere. The chart below illustrates La Paz’s temperature range and rain for the various months of the year –
The Altiplano has two seasons – one wet and one dry. Tourist high season and prime trekking time corresponds to the middle of their dry season (April-October) thanks to pleasant daytime temperatures, much less rain and clearer skies. It will be colder though, especially overnight in our tents as we make our way south from Nevado Illampu to Huayna Potosi on the trekking trails of the Cordillera Real, another 600 to 1000 meters above La Paz’s 3500 meter altitude. It looks like we may have snow from September 13 onwards – the two-week forecast below is for down in La Paz!
Two-thirds of the country is either a part of Amazonia or the lowlands – but the Bolivia I’ll be visiting is the rather small northern piece of the Altiplano close to the border with Peru at Lake Titicaca. The red circles on the maps above and below give a rough idea of the limits of my travels. There is obviously much more to Bolivia than my twenty-four day visit will allow me to get to. If nothing else, I expect this visit will give me every reason for a return.
Still, I do get to spend four or five days in de facto Bolivia’s capital, officially known as La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de La Paz. My hotel, the Hotel Rosario, is right around the corner from El Mercado de Hechiceria (the Witches’ Market) and a short walk from the Iglesia de San Francisco and the political heart of the city at Plaza Murillo. Tomorrow I hope to take a ride on the city’s new aerial cable car transit system Mi Teleférico. It should make for some incredible views and photo ops!
More acclimatization time – four days – will be spent in Copacabana and on the Isla del Sol in Lago Titicaca. I’m looking forward to the walk along the Incan pilgrim’s trail from one end of the island to the other to see Titikala, the Sacred Rock, a powerful mythological focal point of the Incan world. We have also got a day slotted in to see what is left of the pre-Incan ritual centre of Tiwanaku, one of the Americas’ great pre-European-contact centers of civilization. It was significant enough for the awed Incas to incorporate – or maybe that should read appropriate? – it into their mythic world view.
But the main focus of the trip are the two weeks I get to spend on the upper flanks of the Cordillera Real, the Royal Range to the Spanish. The satellite image above captures the terrain from Lago Titicaca and Isla del Sol over to the mountain range on the east side of the Altiplano that has dazzled travellers through the centuries.
The new mostly west side route we’ll be taking down the Cordillera avoids the worst of the mining activity and the roads which have spoiled a long section of the classic Trans-Cordillera traverse via the east side. In the Khumbu region of Nepal it was the yaks who carried our gear and supplies. On this trek, just like on my Peruvian Andes mountain trips, donkeys will be doing the hard work while we walk with day packs and camera gear. Pretty plush I’d say!
My Spot Connect gps tracking device will be coming along for the walk. It’s been on canoe trips over the past few years to reassure everyone back home; I also took it to Cuba a few winters ago for my bike tour of the southern part of the island. I still remember hiding the thing as I approached the military checkpoints at the entrance of a number of Cuban towns – my fear overriding the fact that they probably would not have known what it was anyway! This time I won’t have to worry about having a forbidden device.
When I get back in late September I hope to have my memory cards filled with image files and short mp4 videos that I can shape into a series of posts on what is going to be a most excellent Bolivian adventure. In the meanwhile, it is time to get out into the streets and try my limited castellano on the Paceños. I really should have spent more time in August on my Spanish language practice!
Hasta luego, amigos!