The Chacaltaya Mountain is a mountain in the Cordillera Real, one of the mountain ranges of the Bolivian Andes.
This beautiful mountain has an elevation of 5,421 meters/17,785 feet above sea level. Due to lack of precipitation and El Niño, the Chacaltaya’s 18,000 year old glacier has sadly disappeared. Up until its complete disappearance in 2009, it’s peak was capped with one of the highest South American glaciers and had been home to the only ski resort in Bolivia.
After two weeks of painful acclimatization to Bolivian life at high altitude, I figured that it was time to stretch my red blood cells a little further. The Chacaltaya seemed like the perfect location to quite literally test my limits.
I have to admit that it was a little overwhelming walking up and down Illampu street searching for a competent travel agency. Finally after much searching I stumbled upon Kanoo Tours.
After looking through many of the exotic options that Kanoo tours offered I finally decided on a day trip to the Chacaltaya. I was pleasantly surprised that this trip was only $11.00.
Two days later I found myself sitting in the Alexander Coffee Shop, the pickup location. I munched on a delicious chocolate chip muffin and sipped a frothy cappuccino while listening carefully for the tour bus to arrive outside. Finally, I heard the exciting honk that announced the beginning of my exciting day.
The minibus was of standard Bolivian quality, rustic on the outside and built to tumble over the rocky Bolivian roads. There were six other passengers – mostly Americans and a honeymooning couple from France.
I sat near the window of a vacant seat and watched the road bump by as we drove up and out of La Paz. The further we went, the steeper the road climbed. We passed villages, farms, and no mans land. As we climbed in altitude I could feel the air getting thinner. I hoped that the acclimatization that I had gone through in La Paz was truly enough for this trip.
The bumpy road continued upwards and it seemed that the steeper the cliff edge, the narrower the road became. Luckily I was distracted by the sheer beauty that was passing by my window.
Green hills rolled before mighty jagged mountains and small turquoise glacial lakes dotted the terrain. Wild lamas grazed in packs along the Andean mountain terrain, feeding from the oxygen starved vegetation. Due to the thin air, the mountains seemed closer than life, the colors seemed brighter, and the sky was a pure cobalt blue.
Occasionally, our mini bus would pass the remains of an ancient mud brick home. Every time I saw one of these structures my mind drifted to images of the people that once lived in that home, and awoke to this fantastic world every morning. I imagined children playing in the fields, while their parents farmed the land around them.
It seemed as if we were headed up an infinite road. I wondered how much longer it would be until we reached the top. As we continued upwards my chest felt tighter and I became very short of breath.
Finally we reached the end of the road.
I grabbed my backpack, jumped off of the minibus, and stood in amazement at the view before my eyes. After a minute or two, the lack of oxygen made me feel extremely nauseous and dizzy. Even with my symptoms I attempted to push myself to the summit.
Sadly, I never made it to the summit, but I definitely climbed as high as I possibly could. Once I accepted that my body couldn’t go any further, I sat down and enjoyed the beauty that was present all around me.
My time in nature always presents an important lesson for life.
Often in life we have a desired outcome, and in achieving that outcome we lose appreciation for the journey towards that outcome. My experience on the Chacaltaya taught me that although I wasn’t able to summit its peak, I was privileged to have been apart of the beauty that surrounds it.