“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.” – Anatoli Boukreev
There is something about leaving a big city and heading out to the countryside that truly shows the meaning of a place. Whenever I travel, I try my best to see both urban and rural parts of a country. While I enjoy the adventure and activity of a big urban city, for me getting out of it is the best part of all. I love the mountains, hills, and countryside. For it is within nature that I often feel the most alive.
Back in November, my father and I spent three days in La Paz, Bolivia acclimatizing to the high altitude and gearing up for our base camp at the foot of the Bolivian Andes in the Condoriri Valley at 15,500 feet. Landing in El Alto, the highest international airport in the world at a dizzying altitude of 13,323 feet (4,061 m), is not for the lighthearted nor is spending three days exploring the hilly, high altitude urban jungle of La Paz (which happens to be only slightly lower in elevation than her neighbor El Alto).
By the third morning, I was ready to leave the craziness of La Paz behind for a few days and go find myself in the beloved mountains. I’ve always loved the mountains as it is the one place in the world that I can truly find peace and reflection. Furthermore, I truly enjoy a good physical and mental challenge and that was just was I was about to get over the next few days hiking in Condoriri Valley.
The Condoriri Valley lies within the 100 kilometer-long Cordillera Real mountain range northeast of La Paz, that separates the lowlands of the Amazon River basin to the east from the high plateaus of the Altiplano (highlands) to the west. The Cordillera Real is the most accessible and spectacular mountain range in the entire country with the highest peak known as Illimani at 6,438 metres (21,122 ft) and dozens more peaks coming in well over 15,000 feet.
On our fourth morning in Bolivia, we packed up the land rover owned by our guide Javier from Andean Summits and were off bright and early for our three-hour drive to the mountains. Leaving La Paz and moving through her newer, more industrial neighbor El Alto felt like going back in time. El Alto is nowhere near as pretty as La Paz and is located on a high-level flat land above the canyon that lays La Paz. It is an over-crowded, continually growing city of its own that has suffered problems with corruption, crime, prostitution and poverty over the last few decades as people have migrated to the city from the countryside looking for jobs.
El Alto is a reminder of the challenges that this developing economy and country face as more and more people from the countryside move into town looking for jobs and lacking the qualifications.
Right on the outskirts of El Alto is another part of town where you can see building after building in various states of progress. Javier told us that most Bolivians build their homes and buildings in stages because they have to stop building when they run out of money. A building or home may stay unworked on for years until the owner has enough to finish it or add a floor. As El Alto sprawls and creeps out of the city, these rather undesirable neighborhoods become even more desirable even it they don’t have paved roads or trees. There is simply no where else to grow.
Shortly after leaving El Alto, we are in the Altiplano (highlands) with its barren flat landscape of pampas. Finally, I get my first real unobstructed view of the Andes snow-capped and stunning, soaring up to the sky.
I watch outside the window at the passing countryside taking note of the different little towns and villages along the way. We soon come to a toll where I am surprised to see Aymara women selling different kinds of offerings for drivers to make to the Gods. Javier tells me that most drivers are very superstitious and they buy bottles of alcohol, cigarettes and other special offerings to bring with them on their journey and leave at the highest point.
I kept my face glued to the window, admiring the majestic lore of the Andes. I took countless photos along the way and here are some of my favorites showing the different styles of homes and the varying Altiplano landscape.
One-third of Bolivians live off the land as farmers or herders of llamas, alpacas and sheep. Although Bolivia is often regarded as one of the poorest countries in South America, my guide Javier pointed out that most of its people can support themselves and have all the food they need in the countryside. However, other services like education, health care, infrastructure like safe water and sanitation, electricity and opportunities outside of farming are significantly lacking which is why so many rural people leave the countryside in search of what they view to be a better life in the city.
Finally we reach our turn and just in time. The clouds are rolling in and becoming heavier. Rain is forecasted for the afternoon and we have to reach our camp on foot with all our supplies for the next few days.
No sooner have we turned onto the road we reach a broken-down bridge. Thankfully we had the land rover to get us across. I could tell that the next few days were bound to be an adventure and a test of the soul.
To be continued…..