Altiplano literally means high plains, but here the grass covered hills rise out of the valleys like sand dunes, and a cold breeze blows down from snow on the peaks. Crossing a pass, we hit our highest altitude of 4,800 meters—roughly 15,700 feet.
I’m not feeling the effect of the altitude, but when I look in the mirror my lips are blue from lack of oxygen—the same blue as the painted houses that dot the land. Women in hoop skirts, shawls, and felt bowler hats tend the herds, leaving their children on blankets in the grass.
Coming down the mountains a little, the grass gives way to Eucalyptus and fir trees, and we find a site at the edge of a village. Children are effortlessly playing tag in the street, but Lara and I find ourselves out of breath as we carry buckets of water for mixing cement. We hit bedrock about two feet down, which means the data from this site will be good—but we can’t put a barrel into the ground. A little ways up the slope we try again, and this time we succeed. Since sediments pile up on top of the bedrock, and seismic waves get distorted when they pass through sediment, a barrel sitting on bedrock can collect data that more accurately portrays what’s under the crust.
We don’t want to drive after dark again, so we quickly pour the concrete, and beat it back to Makusani, the self-proclaimed alpaca capital of Peru and the world. The restaurants around the square advertise alpaca meat, and the church tower vies with rickshaws for attention.
The next day, we attempt to permit a site (to find a person willing to let us dig a hole on his land), but much of the area outside town is populated by herders who don’t own the grasslands they use. People also seem to be suspicious of the project because of exploitation by mining interests which we have nothing to do with. Between that uneasiness and our lack of a Quechua speaker, we can’t find a site though we try for hours. Eventually, Lara calls it a day because she’s not feeling well, and we head back to Cusco.
On the way back to town, we get a firsthand glimpse of the problems of the new highway between Juliaca and Cusco. We see two fatal motor scooter accidents, and a dog hit by a car. Just when we think we’ll make it back with no more, we have to watch as a mule’s foot gets run over by a bus. The problem seems to stem from the fact that the small agricultural towns use the highway as the village street, but other drivers use it as one of the few good straight roads.
After unloading the trucks, we arrive at the hotel. For the first time in days, I have access to vegetables, internet, and chapstick for my no longer blue lips.