The tin roof of South America
It's billed as the world's highest developed ski area. By Whistler standards calling Chacaltaya "developed" is a bit of a stretch but it does have a lift of sorts, and at 5,260m (17,257 feet) above sea level it is undeniably high.
As I puffed up the last few hundred metres from where our minibus was stuck in the snow the climb reminded me of an earlier slow-motion struggle across the 5,380m Thorong La pass in Nepal. Just thinking about running moguls at that elevation is enough to make the most dedicated ski-bum gasp for oxygen.
We began our trip to Chacaltaya in La Paz where our small group of travellers joined guide, Marisol, for a tour of the local Altiplano, Bolivia's High Plateau. The city of La Paz is nestled into a deep depression on the edge of the plateau, its one million residents sheltered from the storms that frequently rage across the Altiplano. Our minibus, spewing a cloud of blue exhaust, labours up the endless switchbacks from the city centre, lurches onto the edge of the plateau, and grinds to a halt in the chaotic snarl of El Alto traffic. Marisol takes advantage of the delay to tell us something about El Alto. This is her home. Somewhere in the littered, poverty-ridden sprawl of El Alto is where Marisol lives. An attractive, soft-spoken young woman of mixed Aymara-Spanish heritage, she is a graduate anthropologist. Much better off than most of her neighbours, Marisol hopes to someday travel and work abroad.
Once a suburb of La Paz, El Alto has burgeoned into a separate city of more than 800,000 inhabitants. Sometimes referred to by its more affluent neighbours as "the slum in the sky," El Alto has become a refuge for people no longer able to wring a living from the harsh environment of the Altiplano unemployed miners, disillusioned farmers and herders. An influx of people seeking a better life has made El Alto the fastest growing city in Bolivia. Ramshackle adobe homes, many unfinished, line the muddy streets where unkempt kids play in potholes. Women congregate on the banks of a sewage-choked stream to pound their laundry and chat. In the commercial area, car repair shops and junk yards spill onto the littered, unfinished streets.
But despite the poverty and ugliness the citizens of El Alto are coping and gradually improving their lives. Some, like Marisol, have found good jobs in La Paz. Others, the entrepreneurs, have lined the streets with stalls offering all manner of merchandise at discount prices. Remarkably the mood in El Alto is more one of hope and optimism than one of despair a tribute to the tough and resilient spirit of the folks who have moved here.
Our driver tires of waiting and, after much honking and arm waiving, manages to free us from the traffic gridlock and bounce out of El Alto on a series of back roads. The change is dramatic.
On the narrow dirt track leading across the parched, scrub-covered plateau toward Chacaltaya we see not a single vehicle, only groups of llamas and alpacas standing with their rumps to the wind. Small piles of stones offerings to "mother earth," left by a farmer or headsman, are the only evidence of a human presence.
The snow-covered peak of Huayna Potosi looms ahead of us. Our bus grinds up narrow switchbacks past abandoned tin mines, old tailings piles, and ponds pigmented by minerals leached from the metal-bearing rock. Our driver pulls over to let the engine cool down and we prowl around some of the abandoned shelters where the miners lived.
Once the mainstay of Bolivia's economy the tin-mining industry, faced with internal corruption, labour strife, and competition from plastics and aluminum, has all but collapsed leaving thousands of miners unemployed. Some have set up co-operative mines and continue to eke out a living by high-grading and selling their ore for what they can get. Working conditions are appalling. The mines are at altitudes over 4,200m. Underground temperatures can soar to 45 degrees C, and there is little protection from silica dust and noxious gasses. Life expectancy in the mines is between 10 and 15 years.
The slopes of Cerro Chacaltaya are blanketed with snow and the slick tires of our bus spin out about 200m below the ski lodge. Despite the dusting of fresh snow no one is skiing nobody here except us and a couple of alpacas in a pen behind the empty, dilapidated lodge. According to Marisol the Club Andino Boliviano, which operates the lift, only fire things up when there is sufficient snow and enough customers to justify sending in a bus and operator from La Paz.
The single, 700m ski slope is steep, even by Whistler standards, and it appears to end abruptly in a pile of rocks some distance above the bottom of the lift. Built in 1940 the lift consists of a loop of cable driven by a car engine. Skiers are provided with a "gancho," comprising a short length of rope with a hook on one end and chunk of wood on the other. The idea being to tuck the wood under your bum and hook the gancho onto the moving cable a sort of platter lift with detachable platters. The prospect for screw-ups seems endless.
Since the lift was built in 1940 the small Cerro Chacaltaya glacier has been receding up to 10m per year a rate that will probably bring skiing in Bolivia to an end by 2005. But the view alone is worth a trip to Chacaltaya the majestic snow-covered peaks of Huayna Potosi (6,088m) and Illimani (6,439m) tower in brilliant contrast to the vast brown expanse of the Altiplano. In the distance the windows of El Alto reflect pinpoints of sunlight. Closer by, the stone and earth buildings of an abandoned mining settlement are clustered along the shores of turquoise Laguna Milluni. And far to the north the horizon disappears in waves of shimmering heat a mirage, or could it be Lake Titicaca, our next destination?
At Tiahuanaco Marisol is in her element as she recounts the history of these ancient ruins and the people who settled here more than 3,000 years ago. Long before the dawn of the Inca Empire, Tiahuanaco, then on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, was the religious and political capital of a thriving civilization the power centre of a vast empire that encompassed most of the Bolivian Altiplano. At the peak of its power, between A.D. 500 and 950, archaeologists estimate that 30,000 to 40,000 people lived in and around Tiahunaco. The central pyramid of Akapana is surrounded by terraced platforms and broad stairways leading into courtyards enclosed by massive walls of closely fitted cut stone. The quality of Tiahuanaco stone work rivals anything done by the Incas. The intricately carved, 48-ton Puerta del Sol (Gateway of the Sun) is hewn from a single block of tough andesite. But there is no stone anywhere near Tiahuanaco.
Blocks of sandstone, basalt and andesite weighing up to 150 tons were all transported to the site. The sandstone was dragged overland from a quarry 10 km away. The basalt and andesite must have come from the Copacabana Peninsula, 48 km across the lake. Archaeologists speculate that wooden boats were built to transport slabs of stone weighing more than 50 tons.
For many years Tiahuanaco was thought to be merely a ceremonial centre a pilgrimage site with no permanent population. It was argued that no civilization could flourish 13,000 feet above sea level in the barren, inhospitable landscape of the Altiplano. But recent excavations have revealed an intricate system of roads, canals, and terraces. Its now thought that the Tiahuanaco introduced and successfully grew maize. By planting on raised beds between irrigation canals they were able to overcome the flood-drought cycles of the Altiplano.
By the time the Inca pushed their Empire onto the Altiplano in the middle of the 15th century Tiahuanaco had been abandoned for hundreds of years. No one knows exactly why, but the main suspect is climate change. In her book El Nino; Unlocking the Secrets of The Master Weather Maker, Madeleine Nash cites compelling evidence of a drought which began about A.D. 1000 and lasted for more than 400 years. Crops dried up, water levels fell and Lake Titicaca receded, leaving the parched remnants of Tihuanaco stranded almost 20 km from the present shore.
It was dark by the time we got back to El Alto and said goodbye to Marisol. I gave her our address and phone number, and still hope that someday we may hear that she has realized her dream of travelling beyond the Altiplano.
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