Saturday, March 2, 2013
LA PAZ AND EL ALTO
We flew from Santa Cruz de Bolivia to La Paz on the usual pre-dawn flight that seemed to be the norm for flying in South America. With a 5 AM pick-up Elaine and I were in the air early en route to a remarkable landing experience. We were told that only a few pilots were qualified to make this landing, and that they spent entire careers flying in and out of the airport in El Alto. As we approached the landing we could look up to see snow capped peaks. Yes, we entered through a valley and flew under the highest peaks. We were close enough to the mountains themselves to see the textures and impressions in the snow. The El Alto airport runway is at 14,000+ feet, and I can personally certify that the air is pretty thin at that altitude. It takes a long time for the plane to slow down and stop after it lands and the runway is just long enough to make the landing work. A certain amount of faith in the pilot is required at white-knuckle time; several of the passengers were noticeably crossing themselves and praying as we landed. El Alto, once part of La Paz, is now a city in its own right. It spills over the top of the ridgeline that defines the end of the La Paz Valley and sprawls out onto the high plain above the city. La Paz itself is built vertically into the side of the mountain.
La Paz, a difficult place to live because of elevation and extreme weather, has mostly grown in the 20th Century. It extends up and down the valley with a lot of newly constructed high-rise apartments replacing the original houses in the older parts of town. The only historical buildings that have been consistently preserved are the churches, and these have been well maintained.
Altitude sickness (locally called puna) is a concern, especially for those flying in from sea level like us. We were told to take a nap and to drink at least 2 liters of water every day. Fortified by too much water and a short nap, we did a city tour by car that afternoon. La Paz is built in a volcanic caldera with extremely steep slopes. Almost all of the sidewalks have built-in steps. Some of the streets are so steep that 4-wheel drive is a necessity. Even a 1-2 block walk leaves a typical tourist breathless at this altitude. The poorest sections are in and around El Alto, with unfinished construction featuring adobe bricks and metal roofs on small square buildings all laid out in repetitive blocks. The business area of downtown La Paz features modern glass and concrete high-rise buildings that could be transplanted from Chicago. The wealthier residents live behind high walls and tall shrubbery in the lower city. In the heart of town you can shop in an open-air farmers market, an indigenous crafts market, or at the Witches market, where amulets, potions, herbs, and other necessities for daily living are available.
The lower you are in the caldera, the higher the property value. The weather is milder as the altitude decreases and the protection from wind and elements increases. The lower parts of town are as much as 10 degrees (Celsius) warmer than the unprotected top. Beyond the city limits at the lower section of the caldera is The Valley of the Moon. Its windswept sandstone formations are reminiscent of a barren moonscape, hence the name.
Everywhere you look are the local indigenous people busily walking from place to place with huge loads of whatever they are carrying balanced on their heads or their shoulders. The local natives are short and stocky. They all wear a characteristic and very colorful garb with slacks (male) or skirt, blouse, and vest. It’s cold at that altitude, but they are apparently accustomed to the cold and that was all they wore, at least in the summer when we visited. The most unusual item of attire was the ubiquitous bowler hats worn by both men and women. If they had a load on their head (mostly the women), it went over the hat. The streets are crowded and narrow. Passing each other on the steps with two full loads seems to work, but just barely.
The next day we drove to Lake Titicaca from La Paz. I assume the modern roads followed the ancient Inca trails.