Friday, May 13, 2011

Driving on the Altiplano

Tortora Boat in Lake Titicaca

Llamas on the Shore of Lake Titicaca

Museum of the Limachi family

Statue in Tiwanaku

Puerta del Sol

The Altiplano (literally high plain in Spanish) is the vast plateau of the western Andes that occupies parts of Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. It is second only to Tibet in altitude and size.

Lake Titicaca is the best known geographical feature of the altiplano, as well as the world's highest lake. Climbing out of a big hole in the plateau is the city of La Paz, the Bolivian capital, the largest city in the altiplano and the highest capital in the world.

Last March, we drove from La Paz to Lake Titicaca, starting from the bottom in Zona Sur up to the altiplano. Gonzalo, the hotel taxi driver, first had to negotiate his way out of La Paz's El Alto district. The district was preparing for a street party that Saturday evening, and traffic was moving slow as molasses.

Once out of La Paz, the view turned into a treeless, dusty plain dotted with potato, quinoa and onion fields. On the eastern side, the hills gradually rose toward the snow covered peaks of the Andes about 20 km away. Among these are Huayna Potosi (the mountain not the city) and Ilimani (closest to La Paz).

Lake Titicaca is 80 km away from La Paz, roughly 2 hours by car. The village of Huatajata sits on the eastern shore of the lake. Across is the island of Suriqui where Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki expedition boat was constructed patterned after ancient tortora (reed) boats. In 1970, Heyerdahl brought local Aymara boat builders, Paulino Esteban and 3 Limachi brothers to Morocco. They served as advisers in the construction of the papyrus boat for the Ra expedition.

Today, Huatajata has a number of small museums featuring its main attraction, the tortora boats and memorabilia from the Heyerdahl expeditions. One other attraction for Huatajata is also very much lake related - trout. Trout prepared in as many ways possible is the only item offered in restaurants in the village. At Inti Rayma, I skipped having a café con leche with my pan fried trout, on the server's advise that trout and and café con leche don't mix well in the stomach. Interesting.

Two-thirds of the way back to La Paz, we turned west on a dusty road toward Laja. Laja has the distinction of being the original site of La Paz before it was moved to the valley. It was also Gonzalo's point of reference, as it was the town closest to Tiwanaku.

Dark clouds rolled and opened up as we drove into Tiwanaku. There are 2 museums at the site but the real points of interest by far were outdoors. Although largely unknown, the site is a UNESCO World Heritage, a precursor to the great Inca Empire, 1000 years before Machu Pichu. The archaelogical excavations centre around the large platform (or pyramid?), the monoliths, Puerta del Sol which bears astronomical significance and statues, which look like something out of Easter Island.

While at the museum entrance in Tiwanaku, I met 3 young tourists (Brad, Gila and Tobias) who came on the chicken bus, all wearing flip flops. One (Brad from Vancouver) had shorts and t-shirt, while Gila from Israel had a summer halter top on. They were appropriately dressed for the beach but not for the cold rain and thick mud at Tiwanaku.

We gave the unsuitably attired youngsters a lift back to La Paz. As we started our descent from El Alto to downtown, the sun came out. We stopped at the mirador, a look out point on the way to downtown. We were just in time to see a spectacular view of the city basking in the late afternoon sun.

All in all, it was a very pleasant day driving on the altiplano and picking up fine company along the way.