While in La Paz in mid February, I took a day tour to Mount Chacaltaya and Moon Valley. Little did I know what was to follow.
Mount Chacaltaya’s peak is more than 5,400 metres high. From La Paz the road is narrow and windy, passing landscapes both stunning and stark. The road ends at 5,300 metres where there is a refuge. My tour group experienced a bumpy voyage to the refuge in an ill-suited van. From the refuge one must hike to the top.
Chacaltaya was the world’s highest altitude ski resort until its glacier melted. Now the mountain hosts an observatory and is a tourist attraction. On clear days the views are amazing. The views this day were obscured by cloud, as is more likely during the summer wet season. In contrast, winter is colder and drier.
The narrow road up Mount Chacaltaya
Inside the refuge at altitude 5,300 metres
Moving to a higher altitude can affect one in many ways. Previously, at above 3,000 metres I felt a tight chest, greater difficulty breathing, less energy and breathlessness after limited physical exertion. Inconvenient but of limited concern.
Hiking up Chacaltaya, I reached ~5,390 metres before the altitude got to me and I decided to go no higher. The weather was freezing and overcast with limited visibility and the glory of reaching the peak was could not tempt me further.
The Maps.Me application on my phone displaying my position at an altitude of 5,388 metres (Maps.Me has since removed the altitude feature)
Another tour group member, surrounded by cloud, hiking further up the mountain
High up Chacaltaya, the temperature regularly oscillates above and below zero. This freezing and thawing weakens and shatters both tiles and rocks.
Shattered roof tiles near the top of Chacaltaya – a result of repeated freezing and thawing
Although illegal in most of the world, coca leaves are legal and widely available in Bolivia. Many locals regularly chew them and they are also used for altitude sickness. At the refuge I drank a cup of coca tea (coca leaves in hot water) to relieve my symptoms of lethargy. I felt limited benefits from the coca and another tour group member kindly gave me some chocolate to boost my energy.
My cup of coca tea at the Chacaltaya refuge
Managing a half smile at Chacaltaya
The views driving down were spectacular, featuring lakes, valleys, narrow mountain roads, rocks of many colours, pastures and the odd building in different states of repair.
A view from near the peak of Chacaltaya with the city of El Alto in the background
Lakes, hills, pastures, clouds and rocks combine to form almost a rainbow of colours on the journey down Chacaltaya
The tour’s second and final destination was Moon Valley (Valle de la Luna). Moon Valley is on the other side of La Paz and at a lower altitude (around 3,500 metres). This lower altitude and desire to explore provided enough energy to hike around the eroded rocks.
Moon Valley, La Paz
Cacti and other plants appeared to grow on rocks in Moon Valley
Moon Valley has a track for visitors to follow around the weird landscape, limiting damage to the rocky outcrops
Moon Valley near La Paz is reminiscent of, although not as impressive as, Turkey’s Cappadocia
Returning to the tour van after Moon Valley, I had no spare energy. By the time the van dropped me off, I could hardly walk up the hill to the hostel. The next four days were spent fatigued in bed with excursions outside only for rare meals and two trips to medical facilities.
The tour occurred on Saturday, 20 February. The next day was Bolivia’s constitutional referendum. By referendum Sunday I had not improved so I ventured with a native Spanish-speaking friend to a public emergency facility for oxygen. Due to the referendum, La Paz’s normally crowded streets were deserted. Children played on roads where cars usually fought with buses. Catching a taxi required a several minute wait. In addition, almost every shop was closed. Sunday provided the perfect opportunity to explore La Paz; for those people with the energy to do so!
45 minutes of oxygen cost the token sum of 15 bolivianos (AUD$3). I felt better, but only temporarily. To provide more permanent relief, I booked a Wednesday flight to tropical, lowland Santa Cruz.
Tuesday night I was still in bed fatigued so my friend insisted on visiting a private emergency medical centre. A check-up, injection and script later, I was 77 bolivianos (AUD$15) out of pocket. That night at the hostel featured several vomiting episodes, likely injection side-effects. The next morning I took a taxi up to El Alto airport, farewelled amazing La Paz and caught my plane to Santa Cruz for a week of tropical relief.
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