La Paz, Bolivia

El Alto International Airport's altitude is at a very atmospheric 4060 meters above sea level and the air is definitely thinner here than what's already being breathed by tourists in downtown La Paz. That makes it almost half as high as the cruising altitude of a jet, making El Alto one of the world's highest commercial airports (Tibet's Qamdo Bangda airport is higher at 4334 meters). I'm here waiting for my flight back to the US. I'm leaving tonight so this is my last day in South America breathing thin mountain air.

It's a cheap taxi ride from my hotel all the way to the airport. I flagged one in the street, asked "cuanto cuesta para aeropuerto internacional?" and was quoted 35 Bolivianos which is less than 5 US dollars! The taxi ride afforded me again that wonderful view of La Paz - one can't get enough of such an incredible city view punctuated by snowcapped Mt. Illimani. The late afternoon sun seem to make all of La Paz shimmer in golden brown, the houses clinging precariously on the sides of the canyon looking like they're about to fall into the buildings below.

Earlier this morning, I bid goodbye to Gary who's been my roommate in this journey with GAP Adventures. He's also terminating his trip here but he's still got one more activity to do and which I'm unable to join due to time constraints - that's biking down the so-called World's Most Dangerous Highway. To make the most of my last day in Bolivia, I decided to join the day tour to the ruins of Tiwanaku, a UNESCO World Heritage Site some 72 kms. west of La Paz on the road towards the border with Peru and near the southeastern shore of Lake Titicaca.


Anne had recommended Turisbus for the Tiwanaku visit which cost 14 US dollars. The 7 hour tour should provide me with enough time afterwards to do one last thing before heading to the airport - indulging myself to a massage. I've been sore sitting in buses and cars for long periods of time and has been intermittently carrying my heavier-by-the-day backpack that I felt a nice rubdown would make the long flight back to New York more, shall I say, relaxing.

On the tour bus, I realized from the passengers onboard that I'm actually in the company of two GAP Adventures group who are also on their last day in the city. I sat next to Simon, a young Peruvian tour leader who's leading this group that visited his country. GAP (Great Adventure People) is truly getting a lot of diverse customers, especially now that they've made it to National Geographic Adventure magazine's top slot in the Do-It-All category.

As we head out into the Bolivian altiplano, past the chaos and traffic of El Alto, the scenery became bucolic with farmlands populated by grazing cows while in the distance, the massive expanse of the Cordillera Real - in all its snowcapped splendour - came into view. Thankfully, we had a few moments of taking in this view a la Himalayas as the bus stopped on a promontory.

Having seen the jaw-dropping Macchu Picchu in Peru last year, I have not set any expectations about seeing Tiwanaku with the same level of excitement. Books I've read only mentioned that much of what we'll see is only a fraction of what it used to be. As the Lonely Planet's South America On A Shoestring puts it, "much has been restored, not always with total authenticity, and travelers fresh from Peru may be disappointed".

Nevertheless, Tiwanaku exudes mysticism, this being Bolivia's most important archaeological site that antedates Macchu Picchu by hundreds of years. It was pretty much a thriving city between 500 and 1000 A.D. Authorities agree that this pre-Columbian civilization influenced the Inca empire and much of what flourished throughout the area during those times.

We entered the site's museum first, getting an orientation into the kind of life there was during the heydays of Tiwanaku. Displays of potteries, a reed boat and an anthropomorphic monolith filled this building. Outside, the ruins lay before us amidst the presence of souvenir shops. Much archaeological work, with the help of the University of Philadelphia, is currently being done on this big mound of earth called the Akapana pyramid. Local women wearing puff skirts work alongside men, digging with shovels and straining loose earth for any significant finds. From what I can see, they're trying to unearth the pyramid piece by little piece, inch by little inch.

Our local guide Gloria brings us to the adjacent Temple of Kalasasaya whose walls obviously were reconstructed. Up the steps and into the temple's higher grounds, we found two more monoliths made from andesite stone, one facing the eastern horizon. Up here too is the more popular "Gateway to the Sun" which at this time had some people also working on it. We descended on another set of stone stairs and into the Sunken Courtyard decorated with sculptured heads (Tiwanaku's gargoyles?) along the walls made from stone.

Looking across the Sunken Courtyard and into the Temple of Kalasasaya is as much as what one can see of what used to be a grand vista - the rest is basically left to the visitor's imagination. I could see from here the Catholic church of the village sharing the same name whose stones were actually hauled from these ruins at the time of its construction during Spanish times. So much has been lost all throughout these years and so little is left for us to decipher now.


By the time we hit the road again after lunch and a quick look at Tiwanaku's Catholic church, we found ourselves in a snag. There's a cycling race going on and of all places it's on the very road that leads us back to La Paz. The driver tries the local roads - if ever you can call them roads - and we end up getting a mini-tour of the villages surrounding El Alto. This is where it hits you: Bolivia is indeed South America's poorest country.

There was still a tour to the "Valley of the Moon" - known as badlands - in another area off La Paz that's included in my ticket but I told Gloria I'm done for the day. I'm actually headed to Hotel Presidente for that much-needed massage. It's not a difficult hotel to locate as it's an imposing, if not garish, green-colored tall building near Iglesia de San Francisco. At the Spa, I took a shower first - there's actually a pool that I could also use but I'm in a hurry. My attendant ushered me into the massage room which had some classical music playing. As she was going through my weary muscles, some other noise got noticeably louder - something from outside the building. "Protesta senor", my attendant confides. Some angry protests - with blaring loudspeakers - were going on down the street and images of an impending doom played in my mind. What if this is a coup and it so happened that I'm flying out tonight? Hah, that would be the ultimate South American experience!

There's no coup of course. Evo Morales is still the President. And Bolivia will definitely remain a must-see destination in South America.


  1. What's the budget for GAP Adventures? Wasn't it their ship which hit an iceberg?

  2. The cost of travelling with GAP really depends on where you're going and for how long - in my case, the 12-day Bolivian Crossing (Buenos Aires-La Paz) cost $1095 plus $200 (as local payment). The payment covers lodgings, local tours, transport, all meals while on the Salar de Uyuni tour and the services of a tour leader during the trip (Anne from Norway was great!)
    Yes, MS Explorer is GAP's own ship utilized for its Antartica trips, acquiring it sometime in 2004.Thankfully, no one died or was injured.


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