Day 5 (Wednesday, February 1, 2012). Remember the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata? If not, you may want to read first the post entitled “Crossing the Pampas”. Well, the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata did not last too long; it ceased to exist by 1814. A criollo government was established in Buenos Aires in 1810 and Paraguay became an independent nation in 1811. It turned out that the British attempts to take Buenos Aires proved to the criollos that they could not only organize an army but also defeat a foreign power. Only the highlands known as el Alto Perú, or the Upper Peru, remained in control of royalist troops from Lima and would only be liberated towards the end of the wars of independence of Spanish South America. Bolivia becomes an independent state by 1825 after Simón Bolivar and Antonio José de Sucre defeated royalist troops in the battles of Junín and Ayacucho.

In colonial times, the Upper Perú corresponded to the region known as the Altiplano, or high plain—which today occupies almost half of the Bolivian territory and extends into neighboring regions of Argentina, Chile and Perú. The altiplano is the second largest mountain plateau in the world after Tibet (interestingly the people of the Altiplano and the Tibetans have evolved different biological adaptations to altitude). The air of the Altiplano is thin and breathing is difficult, so many of us suffer from altitude sickness or mal de altura or soroche.  The symptoms vary but headaches and nausea are common. We plan to spend the night in three cities located at above 3,000 meters, La Quiaca is at 3,442 m (11,293 ft), Susques at 3,675 m (12,057 ft), and San Antonio de los Cobres at 3,775 m (12,385 ft)—for reference, the highest incorporated city in the US, Leadville, Colorado, falls at 3,095 m (10,152 ft).

We have been purposely moving slowly into the Altiplano to allow for some adaptation to the high altitude. On day 2 we slept on Rosario de la Frontera at 770 meters (2,526 feet).  On the night of day 3 we stayed at 2,100 meters (6,890 feet) in Purmamarca and on day 4 at 2,947 meters (9,669 feet) in Humahuaca.  We have been also taking pills for altitude sickness—a present from our nephew Nicolás—although I have read that their effectiveness is questionable.

On day 5 we finally moved into the Altiplano and reached the city of La Quiaca on the border with Bolivia—the last time my brother Adrián stayed here a few years ago he ended up in the hospital with a mask of oxygen on his face! The ride to La Quiaca was gorgeous. We left Humahuaca at around 10 am. It had rained hard the night before and the morning was cloudy and crisp.  As soon as we left Humahuaca the road started to climb—we were checking the altitude on our GPSs with interest. Near Humahuaca we rode through miles of saguaro-like cacti known as cardones; a landscape very reminiscent of the Sonora Desert in Arizona. As soon as we reached the high plateau, we began to see herds of llamas, a few vicuñas (a camelid with the most delicate wool) and groups of donkeys.  We crossed several small towns with modest houses the color of earth.  At the little village of Tres Cruces we reached the highest point in Ruta 9, that according to my GPS is at 3,733 meters. Many of the rock formations that could be seen from the road had wonderful undulating layers each of a different color.  La Quiaca is not the most handsome town in the world so we decided to spend the night at a cabin in the charming village of Yavi,  16 to the East. In Yavi, we visited the little church built in colonial times. Across the street from the church still stands the house of Don Juan Fernández Campero de Herrera—Marqués del Valle del Tojo—a Spanish marquis who on August 5, 1679 married eleven year-old Juana Clemencia Bernárdez de Ovando, the only heir to the most powerful landlord of the region at that time. Apparently the marquis (age 30) had requested matrimony to Juana when she was 8 years old but the law did not allow women (girls) to get married until the age of 12 and a half.  Tragically, Juana died a few years during labor at the age of 23.

For dinner we had Ramen but this time supplemented with sauté onions and sliced carrots. Yum! It rained all night…