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Travel Story

La Paz, Bolivia's city on the crest of the Andes


By Jack Souther�

Even as a passenger I could tell we were coming in fast. The reverse thrusters popped out as soon as we touched down and burned right to the end of the runway before our jet finally rolled to a stop.

At an elevation of 4,108m (13,182 feet) above sea level, El Alto is the world's highest international airport and the thin air of the Altiplano is a challenge to both airplanes and passengers. The jets touch down at almost twice their landing speed at sea level, and most passengers find it an effort to walk at half their usual pace.

Some symptoms of altitude sickness are almost a given for those arriving directly from sea level, and for many the headache starts even before getting to a hotel room. Betty and I were either lucky or the old Andean cure, a strong brew of coca tea, actually worked. We settled into our room in La Paz, downed a few cups of the bitter brew, and set out, on slightly wobbly legs, to explore Bolivia's bustling de facto capital city.

Outside the Hotel Eldorado the broad boulevard is a chaotic mix of vehicles, pedestrians, and street vendors. Aymara women wearing traditional petticoated skirts and bowler hats carry everything from children to cabbages in brightly coloured blankets slung over their shoulders. Teenage street kids lean from the passenger windows of minivans and shout out their destination to prospective commuters, their rapid-fire monologue blending with the cries of street vendors. Push carts piled high with food and merchandise compete for road space with honking cars and impatient pedestrians. We settle in to a sidewalk cafe and order a beer and burrito, content to spend the rest of our first afternoon just watching life unfold on the busy streets of downtown La Paz.

On our drive in from the airport Geraldo, owner of the taxi, was determined to pick us up the next day for a tour of the city – "best price for sure." After much good-natured bargaining I never expected to see him again but next morning, there he was, cab all shined up and raring to go. He turned out to be a great guide with a wry sense of humour and some off-beat insights into the culture and politics of his country. He pulled into a viewpoint with a panoramic view of the city. The snow-capped peak of Huayna Potosi (6,088m) towers in the background.

Nearly 4 km above sea level, La Paz clings to the walls of a great amphitheatre, a steep-sided depression nearly 5 km across, that various locals assured us was: a "giant impact crater," "an ancient volcanic crater," or "a hole left by a great earthquake." I privately dismissed all of these origins, but as a geologist I took note of the loose, unstable material on which the city is built and shuddered to think what even a moderate earthquake would do to this place.

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