The Gods in the High Places: The Altiplano

I arrived in Tupiza at four in the morning. Protests in Potosí had blocked the roads, detouring my bus via potholed side roads in a wide circle around the city and adding six hours to my trip from Sucre. By the time the bus pulled into the terminal and I had made my way to my hostel, the sun was beginning to rise. I stayed in Tupiza for a day, getting my kit into order and buying supplies, and at dawn on the next day, I walked into the desert.


In San Antonio de Lipezin Bolivia, the tiny church shares space with the village’s radio equipment.

I had been on several guided treks in the Peruvian Andes in the past month, but while the experiences and scenery were incredible, they always left me feeling a little unfulfilled. My father, responsible for my love of backpacking and with whom I went hiking several times a year from the time I could walk until high school, is an ultralight backpacker. On our annual trips into the Cascades and the American Southwest, with just our tent, stove, and the food that we could carry on our backs, he taught me the joys of total self-sufficiency and the peace that comes from being alone in the mountains. Fun as the guided treks in Peru were, I began to feel uncomfortable with their tourist-friendly amenities and lack of solitude. I wanted to challenge myself and return to my father's sort of hiking.


The old church at Malata, in the Colca Canyon, is a meeting place and social hub for many of the scattered Quechan villages in the region. Several festivals are held here every year, most of which blend traditional Andean religion and Catholicism.

So, after I got to Bolivia, I began to plan a solo trek through the southwest altiplano. The altiplano is geographically defined as the area of the Andes that drains inland rather than into the Atlantic or the Pacific; it is mostly high-altitude desert, with sparse human habitation, high levels of volcanism, and spectacular scenery unlike anywhere else on earth. I didn't want to limit myself to existing routes, but to find my way through this extreme, practically lunar landscape with just a topographical map and a compass. I would carry everything I needed to survive in the wilderness. The trip was mostly between 3500 and 5000 meters above sea level; I had spent the past month at altitude and was well acclimatized, but I knew that with the heavier load on my back I wouldn't be able to count on my sea-level daily mileage. I planned on carrying five days' worth of food with me, with an additional two days of cold food in reserve in case I ran out of fuel between villages where I could restock. I was carrying between 25 and 35 pounds on my back - not quite to ultralight standards, but I made some concessions for comfort and safety, especially considering how far I would be from rescue if something went wrong. I got on the bus to Tupiza excited for two weeks of solitude among the extreme landscape of the altiplano. I was, in fact, close to the end of a journey, one which would be marked by small piles of stones.


In the Desierto de Dali, south of Tupiza, Bolivia, remnants of long-past volcanic eruptions lie haphazardly in the vast sand dunes.

I would not normally be described as a spiritual person. When I used to talk about such matters I was fairly close to the stereotype of the adolescent "angry atheist," sparked in reaction to a Catholic family, living in the Bible Belt, and dealing with anti-science attitudes as a human ecology student in a postmodernist-dominated anthropology department. When my life took a different route and I ended up studying theatre, the harsh edges of youthful ideology softened. I talked about matters of the spirit less as my fervor for human rationality waned. I began to think of spirituality as the most private possible human experience, which is by nature impossible to communicate with language. Although I am not a religious individual, my old purist logical positivism now seems sterile and unable to ask meaningful questions or give substantive answers about much of what is important to me as a human. Why does some music move us? How can you quantify art, or love, or loneliness? And maybe most importantly, why I am I drawn to the mountains?


On the Salar de Uyuni, massive increases in tourism have necessitated more and more freight traffic to the various salt hotels. The perfectly flat salt pan, the final destination for the Lake Titicaca watershed, sees tens of thousands of visitors every year. 

Before I left for South America, I became slightly obsessed with the work of rockstackers like Michael Grab. Something about these delicate, organic stone sculptures captured my imagination. I practiced rockstacking myself on the Snoqualmie River, and found the experience meditative, involving, and highly satisfying. The act of balancing rocks on top of one another seemed to me to be the essence of human creative consciousness - to defy entropy and chaos by giving meaning and structure to the meaningless and disorganized. A rock sculpture takes the low-energy medium around it and turns it into a high-energy pattern. This simple Zen exercise grabbed my imagination, and the apacheta found fertile ground there when I discovered this phenomenon in Peru.


Caylloma Pass in Peru is something of a holy site, as pilgrims have covered the land for miles around with apachetas.

An apacheta is a small rock pile like a cairn, similar in appearance to the Inuit inuksuit and trail markings used throughout North America and Europe. While these serve primarily navigational purposes, an apacheta is more religious than pragmatic. Apachetas are built as offerings to Pachamama, the Earth Mother in the traditional Andean religion. What I found most compelling were the sites throughout Peru and Bolivia, at the tops of mountains, major passes, and historically important places, where apachetas are clustered. At some sites, apachetas coat the landscape for as far as the eye can see. In a land where the power of the earth is so immediately visible in its volcanoes and fumaroles, and mountains and rivers themselves are considered gods, it is especially fitting that prayers are made manifest into the land itself. The form and divine nature of the mountains are echoed by the apachetas, like fractal recursion. As above, so below.


Almost 6000 meters high, the volcano Misti in Peru is another destination marked by acres of apachetas, as well as a number of shrines. Several mummies have been recovered from its slopes, Incan sacrifices to the holy mountains.

The altiplano is extreme. It is superlative. During my two weeks in the desert, I saw active volcanoes, bubbling fields of superheated geothermal mud, and sand dunes higher than many skyscrapers. It is a land of opposites; searing during the day and bitter cold at night, lunar desolation and teeming life. There were a few days where I saw no life more complex than lichen, and others where I passed lakes in a multitude of colors, often populated by huge flocks of flamingos feeding on the algae and brine shrimp in these toxic lagoons. My favorite sight was the vicuñas. Gracile and undomesticated cousins of the llama, a family of vicuñas picking their elegant and precise way across a salt flat reminded me every time of Dune or Lawrence of Arabia. They always seemed to know exactly where they were going, and proceeded at an unhurried pace, stopping only to eat the toughest and scrubbiest of plants. They were totally at home in this moonscape; I was a clumsy and noisy ox in comparison.


At the Laguna Colorada in Bolivia, flamingos feast on shrimp and other invertebrates.

The scale of a place like the altiplano can hardly be represented - it can only be experienced. Walking through some of the valleys, the horizon would barely move in hours of walking. Having lived my life entirely in cities and suburbs, I'm used to a world where five minutes of walking can put me somewhere that looks entirely different. Even in my home ranges of the Cascades, the world feels smaller, with trees and close ridges providing a rapidly-changing frame of reference. In the desert, I knew that I was alone. Not only alone, but dwarfed, impermanent, changeable, and irrelevant to the titanic processes going on around me at the pace of millennia. An hour's walking was a significant effort, and yet the world would hardly change. I was an ant among mountains, glaciers, and desert plains that stretched for miles and eons around me, and were utterly indifferent to my passing.


The region’s volcanic activity comes to the surface 5000 meters above sea level at the Sol de Mañana fumaroles.

Wandering alone with these thoughts, I felt like I understood why religion often came from the desert. Surrounded by power, space, and time immeasurably beyond the human scale, isolated from the noise, society, and polish of the cities, the internal voice becomes clearer, and begins to clamor for immortality. Some way to comprehend the vastness of the earth becomes necessary. It is larger and longer-lasting than we could ever hope to be, and so we seek eternity in other ways. In some cultures, it is an afterlife, or reincarnation, or the promised resurrection of the body. Or perhaps we erect monuments to outlive us and proclaim our existence after we crumble to dust.


The Basilica of Arequipa is the spiritual heart of the largest city in the Peruvian altiplano. It has been damaged and rebuilt hundreds of times over the years, as powerful earthquakes happen frequently.

Apachetas fulfill this desire to leave our mark on the world, and yet we know they are not permanent constructions. The winds and the snow will topple them all one day. It is in this that I think they best embody the human spirit. They are a futile struggle against entropy, and yet we continue to build them. Humble in their construction, profoundly of the earth, and yet they strive to be eternal, and to communicate with the gods. We will always find our humanity somewhere between the profane and the sublime. I found mine in the desert, as I set one rock on top of another.


In most of the altiplano, grasses and scrub brush is all that can grow. The high altitude and rocky, alkaline soil prevent all but the hardiest of vegetation from taking root. At higher altitudes where plant life is totally absent, the land can seem almost like an alien planet.


James Schreck