My friends Lonnie and Sarah and I fly from Seattle through Miami and arrive in La Paz on the morning of May 12. We immediately take a three-hour bus ride to Oruro, then a seven-hour...

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My friends Lonnie and Sarah and I fly from Seattle through Miami and arrive in La Paz on the morning of May 12. We immediately take a three-hour bus ride to Oruro, then a seven-hour train ride to Uyuni, in southwest Bolivia. After a night at a hostel, we embark on a three-day tour of the Salar de Uyuni, one of the world’s biggest salt pans (4,674 square miles) and definitely the highest (an altitude of about 12,139 feet).

Guided by Quechua Indians, we ride jeeps over the salt flats. It looks like pictures of endless Antarctic snow, except it’s salty and crunchy, and there are large islands of cacti. Hardy Bolivian families wear ski masks and harvest salt all day. It’s icy cold at night.

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Around the flats there are geysers, deserts, volcanoes, glorious sunrises and mushroom-like rock formations, reminiscent of Death Valley in California.

Hallucinogenic landscapes: Mountains are on fire. Pink flamingoes suck the alkaloids from stinky lakes. Minerals boil out of the ground. Herds of wild llamas and alpacas roam. Venus floats like a ship’s lantern in the night sky, full of unfamiliar constellations.

One of our best experiences occurs one morning before breakfast at 7:30, at a hot springs. We haven’t showered in days. Everyone plunges in; people are swimming, smoking cigarettes, floating in their bright orange underwear.

We travel back north to La Paz, and Sarah leaves for Trinidad, where she worked for three years as a social worker at a large school.

Lonnie and I hire a boat to Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca, one of the world’s highest navigable lakes (an altitude of about 12,532 feet, with a surface area of more than 3,474 square miles).

A hostel on the island with a communal bathroom, animal-hide blankets and unbelievable views of mountain ranges costs $4.

We eat lunch the next day at the Palacio del Trucha, or the Palace of Trout. A waiter sets up a table and two chairs on an outdoor terrace with a view of Bolivia and Peru. Two fresh-lake trout filets, fried in egg batter, and served with potatoes and beverages, costs $4.50.

We fly to Trinidad to meet up with Sarah.

The jungle: Locals joke about fatal fevers and six-inch flying beetles with stingers on their chests. They like to say, “Without the heat, without the mosquitoes, there would be no Trinidad.”

We stay at the school. We play with the kids. Considering Sarah’s status, we are the guests of honor. Trinidad is the meat capital of Bolivia, and the steaks are incredible.

During the day, we rent motorcycles and ride out to the edges of the jungle. At night, we cruise the central plaza. Three-toed sloths live in the trees.

Lonnie and Sarah go to La Paz, then back to Seattle. Meanwhile, I find Papacho and descend into the jungle.

I emerge alive, and fly to Cochabamba, where I meet Alfonso Figueroa, a 12-year-old boy who lives in an orphanage. He lived in Issaquah for nine months last year while doctors operated on his twisted back, bent by tuberculosis. He is doing well, and I follow him to school on Mother’s Day, where he plays a traditional Bolivian flute in front of his classmates.

MICHAEL KO / THE SEATTLE TIMES
At the city cemetery in La Paz, the individual plots hold only ashes. Hundreds of music boxes play “Für Elise.” In the background is the city; La Paz is built inside a 3-mile-wide bowl at about 13,000 feet. The higher the altitude, the poorer the houses.

A couple days later, I bus to La Paz, the stunning, teeming capital city of more than a million people. A snow-capped, triple-peaked mountain, named Illimani (21,003 feet), dominates the background.

The last week: Alone, I plunge into Third World chaos: block after block of swarming markets; children leaning against a wall all day, selling packages of cookies; strange soups; old men bent under enormous loads of clothes; exhausting negotiations for handmade blankets and alpaca wool sweaters; coca leaves; getting bumped by the pickpockets; huge central plazas where the shoeshine boys play soccer every noon; eating ripe fruit and bags of giant popped corn; Bolivian women in hoop skirts and bowler hats, hair usually separated in two braids down the sides; a battle of the bands at a local bar.

One night, I see the opening of The Matrix: Reloaded. The movie theater has assigned seating and bellhops with matching green hats and flashlights. Thirty minutes of previews. I love it. The next day, I go to the black market, and I pick up a couple copies of the DVD version for $1.85 each.

I pay $9 a night for a room overlooking the bus terminal and one of the canyon walls. The houses climb up the hillside.

On my last day, I take a bus up to the rim of the bowl, to the slums, to eat my last plate of fried chicken and plantains, to see the poverty, the people, the stray dogs, the piles of garbage stacked in the streets, the meanness, the strangeness, the rawness, the beauty.