In late February and March of this year, I went to Bolivia. It’s the first time I’ve been to a South American country other than Chile — where my family is from. Landing at El Alto airport near La Paz was like stepping back into the Santiago of my childhood, and descending into the city from the airport, the feeling grew. Old buses of every shape, size and condition spew black smoke from their tail pipes, near people lining the streets selling everything, crossing everywhere. Boys or women yell, rapid and unintelligible, destinations from the open doors of passing collective minivans. The city of La Paz is at a staggering 10,000 feet above sea level, and combined with the neighborhoods of El Alto, has over 2 million people. Narrow cobblestone streets with even narrower sidewalks wind up and across slopes in every direction. Outdoor markets dominate, and everything is bought and sold on the streets, which makes the city vibrate, chaotic for the outsider, and feeling much larger than its population.
From there, traveling out in one direction, you encounter the cold and wet Altiplano, scarcely populated, with solitary figures selling or sitting on the roadside, or set against the horizon tending sheep.
In another, you finish climbing the mountains around La Paz, then descend them — mostly — into the humid Yungas, where campesinos slump over mountainside coca fields, white sacks over their shoulders to collect the leaves.
Heading south, in still another, the road stretches, like a line, into the coming desert.