The Astronomical League tour group convened in El Alto International Airport with our nerdy, overweight luggage filled with telescopes and camera equipment. We towered over the airport personnel, tiny people in riot gear. No photos were allowed. We boarded a bus to our first destination, and immediately noticed the lack of air in the air.
“Remember, when you land there will be 20% less oxygen,” stated the itinerary notes. Miami lies at (duh) sea level; La Paz, at nearly 12,000 feet, is almost twice the height of Denver (with more than 3500 feet in elevation we’d yet to gain that week). “For many visitors, the most challenging aspect to this eclipse will be coping with the significant, if not downright extreme, altitudes they will encounter,” wrote Joel Harris in an article for Astronomy.
I prepared by taking Diamox, the ascent medication acetazolamide. It combats the dangerous and uncomfortable symptoms of altitude sickness, but not the gasping feeling of struggling for oxygen. Coca leaf (the key ingredient in COCAINE) is the local remedy, and travelers are encouraged to chew and/or brew the leaves that can be found piled high in hotel lobbies and offered with elegant silver service teapots and cups to make mate de coca.
Unrelated: According to local documentation, we were present in Bolivia during the Age of Aquarius, when the source of power shifted from the male Himalayas to the female source and central vertex of cosmic energy, Lake Titicaca, where “from now on, the positive energy of the world will be generated.” I knew I felt something other than altitude sickness. (The way this year is going Lake Titicaca better step up her game.)
During the tour were were allowed to see and do things ordinary tourists weren’t allowed to see and do. Public officials appeared out of nowhere to give Ken Willcox, the group astronomer, a laurel and hearty handshake. In Sucre, for instance, the director of the mint delivered a gracious welcome address through an interpreter. He informed Ken that as an honored guest he must autograph “the book of important persons,” a very old and precious registry signed by world leaders and royalty. Ken does—and we discover later that a misunderstanding led them to believe we were from NASA, of which Ken was president.
Above: Welcome to La Paz
Astronomical League tour
Coca leaf tea