On top of the world
There are some airports where a plane has to climb in order to land — at least, that is how it feels when one flies in over the Amazon Basin and then the steep Andean valleys leading to La Paz, Bolivia.
The runway and terminal at El Alto International Airport are above 13,300 feet. Landing at the highest international airport in the world, unprepared passengers experience altitude sickness while waiting in the customs line.
El Alto, incorporated less than 20 years ago, is a growing suburb of nearly 1,000,000 people. The city lies on the edge of the Altiplano (high plain) that rises above La Paz (the world's highest national capital). La Paz extends from 13,500 down to 11,000 feet above sea level.
Because of the thin air at these extreme altitudes, the poorer residents live in the higher regions and the wealthy live in the warmer, more oxygenated valleys below.
Adjusting to the altitude
For our two weeks in Bolivia, we planned three stays in the capital city and two multiple overnight side trips to very different locales: the shores of famed Lake Titicaca and a mountain valley in the Yungas area, which leads toward the Amazon.
We chose the Hostal La Posada de la Abuela Obdulia for our initial stay. Its central location near the 16th-century Church of San Francisco and its pleasant, warm and secure interior courtyard caused us to seek this renovated aristocratic home each time we returned to La Paz.
The streets of La Paz are cobblestone; arteries have been paved. We learned to measure distance not only in blocks but also in altitude change. A pedestrian is continually ascending and descending.
We spent the first day exploring the neighborhood of our hostal, slowly getting used to the paucity of oxygen, and sampling the delicious mate de coca whose stimulating qualities reputedly help one deal with the altitude.
There was an international celebration on our second day, with much of La Paz turning itself into a miles-long parade route with citizens dressed in extravagant ethnic costumes dancing along the route.
Natural beauty abounds
While Mt. Illimani, with its permanent snow cap at 21,122 feet, always dominates one of La Paz's horizons, Mt. Chacaltaya, is only 20 miles away and is accessible by road. For most of the 20th century it was the highest ski area with a lift in the world, but the last part of its glacier melted in 2009.
A willing taxi can still get you to the bottom of the former lifts, and we were able to slowly climb the last half mile to its crest at 17,785 feet.
The next day, we took a commercial bus up onto the Altiplano, to the town of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world. At 12,507 feet, it is almost a mile higher than Yellowstone Lake and 24 times as large!
You will want to make the arduous climb up the hill that towers over Copacabana, past 12 Stations of the Cross to the shrines above. But do not forget to climb a sister hill opposite of that, which harbors an ancient Incan sacrifice site.
The cathedral in town is Bolivia's major pilgrimage site, but the highlight is a day-long boat tour to the 7-mile long Isle of the Sun in the middle of Lake Titicaca, where you can walk through Incan ruins, ascend thousands of their no-longer-used terraces and gaze in wonder at the Andes, which seem to come right to the shoreline.
With one overnight back at our inn in La Paz, we took another bus to the small town of Sorata, which lies in one of the valleys leading from the Altiplano down into the Amazon basin. At 8,800 feet, it has a warmer climate than La Paz. Sorata's beautiful central square, La Plaza General Enrique Penaranda, is lined with floral gardens and palm trees, while the snowcapped Andes give contrast above.
Sorata is a beautiful town of 2,500, and one can spend an entire day happily lazing in its plaza. For the adventurous, there are the caves Gruta de San Pedro about 6 1/2 miles out of town. The walk alongside steep mountain valleys takes you above small hand-tilled fields and requires about three hours each way; the cave, with its 400-foot-long lake, is worth it.
We returned to La Paz for our last two days, visiting the Church of San Francisco, where one is even allowed to walk up on the red-tiled roof, and strolling through the Witch's Market with its notorious herbs, animal parts and llama fetuses. Both are close to La Posada.