Getting High in the Altiplano

Trip Start Jan 15, 2006
Trip End Sep 05, 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, April 16, 2006

We have just wrapped up three days exploring the fabulous altiplano of southern Bolivia. Kia's father, Barrett, manages a small foundation focused on using market-based solutions to solve environmental problems. One of his key projects has been to work with The Nature Conservancy to help preserve Eduardo Avoroa Park in the altiplano. Our plan was to conduct a site visit (this was actually considered work) and we were joined by Andy Drumm and Alfonso Lopez of The Nature Conservancy. Since we were traveling with the guys with the bucks, Kia and I were also treated as celebrities.

I found the project to be quite interesting. Bolivia has passed numerous laws protecting the park, but unfortunately the local population is quite poor. As with most impoverished people, their primary goals revolve around food and shelter rather than environmental protection. Police presence is quite sparse in the altiplano and there is little enforcement of environmental regulations.

The group that cares about environmental protection in Bolivia primarily consists of (relatively) wealthy tourists. Andy and Barrett's key insight was to get the foreigners to pay to save the environment by charging a modest user fee to enter the park. (The fee is currently set at $3.75. Andy's next stop is to ask the federal government to double the fee. I suspect he will be successful. Most governments don't require much armtwisting to impose taxes on wealthy foreigners.)

This user fee raises about $200,000 per year, which is a princely sum in Bolivia. (Prior to the fees, the entire country's annual parks budget was $100,000). The park director has used this money to build various bunkrooms, diners and visitor centers. This has provided meaningful employment for the local population and created a natural constituency for conservation.

The only downside to this building spree is that most of the Bolivians are too poor to have traveled abroad. Several things that you and I would consider to be bare necessities are considered wild extravagances in Bolivia. Examples would include heat (temperatures dip to the 20's at night), hot water, working toilets and vegetables. The visitor centers are immaculate but often contain lots of off-topic material, such as an elementary explanation of plate tectonics that most of us learned in 9th grade science class.

Andy has pressed the locals to accept some outside expertise in designing and managing the facilities. Unfortunately, Bolivia has had a very unpleasant history with foreign investment dating back to the conquistadors. Andy's offer has not yet been accepted.


The altitude was pretty tough on the flatlanders (non-Bolivians) in the party. We spent the first two days between 13,400 and 16,500 feet. Our first bunkroom ("hotel" would be far too generous a word) dipped to about 35 degrees at night. (Having grown up in New Hampshire in a house heated with a small woodstove, I felt right at home. Others were a tad more grumpy.) All of us suffered at various times with headaches and/or nausea.

Fortunately, the locals had a solution, the true 'Pause that Refreshes', coca. We spent the next couple of days guzzling coca tea and chewing coca leaves ('just a pinch between your cheek and gum'.) As you might imagine, this was far better than anything you can find at Starbucks. It is all quite legal in Bolivia and I was told that most drivers traveled with a large bag of coca leaves to constantly refresh their chaws. I guess this is a little better than the liters of beer consumed by Argentine truckers.

The scenery was truly spectacular and unlike anything I have experienced. There was a red lake (some strange form of algae), a green lake (caused by arsenic in the water) and of course, a blue lake. Their marketing slogan is white desert and colored lakes. Most of the lakes (other than the arsenic lake) contained great flocks of very pink flamingoes. We also visited the world's largest (60 X 70 miles) salt flat, which contained a small cactus covered island in the center. We spent one night in a hotel constructed out of salt. Fortunately our salt hotel was only a couple of months old. We visited another that had been through a couple of rainy seasons and it drooped as if it had been partially dissolved.

This part of Bolivia is not an easy travel destination, but it is very beautiful and quite friendly on the budget. In the first bunkroom we paid $10 for three meals, a full supply of coca leaves and a night's 'lodging'.
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