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Breathless in Bolivia : At 12,000 in South America's Andes, a visitor confronts altitude problems, pre-Columbian history and witches' potions

August 20, 1995|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Dust and dirt is all you see, then you see nothing. And then the nothing fades and a stagecoach roars into the distance, and three fugitives stand there, taking measure of a dismal high-plains landscape. This is about halfway through "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and the fugitives are Butch, Sundance and Etta, the schoolteacher, who have decided to once and for all lose that persistent posse.

They have gone far south. To give the director a sense of how this new place should look, screenwriter William Goldman offered this shorthand description: Horrid little low adobe huts stretch out and an occasional pig grunts by .

"All Bolivia can't look this way," Butch says, trying to head off trouble.

"How do you know?" snaps Sundance. "This might be the garden spot of the whole country. People might travel hundreds of miles just to stand where we're standing now. This might be the Atlantic City of all Bolivia, for all you know."

From 1970 until this year, Robert Redford, Paul Newman and William Goldman were my primary sources of information about Bolivia. They came, they saw, they learned a little Spanish, robbed a bank or two, got off a few more quips. Then, of course, things went further south than Butch and The Kid had planned.

Flash forward to 1995. I'm planning a trip to Chile and Peru, but a gap yawns in its middle. There are five free days. And there is Bolivia, north of Chile, south of Peru, about the size of Texas and California together. One thing leads to another.

And soon, here I was staggering down a ramp onto the Tarmac of the La Paz airport on a gray afternoon, my head caught in a rapidly tightening altitude-sickness vise, my hand being shaken by a tour guide named Juan Carlos Nunez, whose other hand held a sign that said "MR. CHRISTOPHER."

Now, I'm not quite ready to recommend Bolivia as a honeymoon destination, nor will I be building a summer house here. But I can say that Butch and Sundance's introduction was not wholly representative of the Bolivian tourism experience. They never skimmed across the surface of Lake Titicaca, highest major lake on the planet; never strolled the island of Thor Heyerdahl's boat builders; never learned what I did about the role of Andean llama fetuses in high-plains home construction. And when it was over, neither Butch nor Sundance got to swagger into his homestead, hand his wife a brightly colored good-luck gee gaw, and say, "Oh, by the way, I got this for you from a Bolivian witch."

Manco, Victor and Thor

Once Juan Carlos and I connected, we headed straight for the banks of Lake Titicaca. From the airport, it was a 90-minute drive to the water, beginning with the crowded streets of El Alto, a densely populated, working-poor city at the airport that has erupted in just the last 10 years. We rumbled on past empty brown plains, adobe houses and scattered green shoots risen to greet the rainy season. Picture spring on the moon.

Juan Carlos helped with local history. Near the south end of Lake Titicaca, about 45 miles west of La Paz, lay the ruins of Tiwanacu, a sprawling complex (heavily restored) that may date back 3,500 years. (Archeologically inclined travelers usually spend an entire day on Tiwanacu; I gave it up to spend more time on the water.)

Beneath our wheels, meanwhile, lay an area known as Batallas, where farmers are still said to be finding bones and uniforms from the 1809-1825 war of independence against the Spanish. Now those neighboring fields sustain all manner of potatoes--sweet varieties in hues of red, orange and yellow, sour varieties in white and purple. The corn crop is nearly as varied, with kernels of red, white, yellow and black.

In another roadside neighborhood, Juan Carlos pointed to a sky-blue three-story house, one of the nicest in a clump of several dozen dwellings known as Huatajata. This, he said, was Victor Hugo's house.

No, not that Victor Hugo. This Victor Hugo, more expansively Victor Hugo Cardenas Conde, was and is the vice president of Bolivia, a professor of social science, who in 1993 became the first indigenous Bolivian to hold the office of vice president. Though roughly two-thirds of the country's 7.8 million citizens are descended from the pre-Columbian Aymara or Quechua people, most of those in power are mestizos who also carry Spanish blood. (In the countryside, calling someone an indio is considered an insult; the preferred term is campesino .)

*

The lake, when it appeared at last, was a vast reed-fringed, bird-stippled mirror, tiny boats dotting its surface, land barely visible across the water amid mist and clouds. (I went in January, but most travelers usually come around July, during the drier, clearer South American winter.)

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