While in La Paz for Carnival, we weren’t really sure what to do. We knew that museums and other tourist attractions would be closed, and we found out that almost all the restaurants were closed as well – not ideal! We normally try to do activities on our own, but had no ideas, so we looked into a group tour instead. I’m super glad we did because it turned out to be a really fun day!
Left: Steve and I on the road leading up the mountain. Right: Alpacas here are as popular as cows in Canada.
We talked to our hostel (Hostel Pirwa in Sopocacchi) to find out which tours were possible in just one day, given the season and the carnival festivals. Some weren’t available at all, or we had already done, so we chose this tour. Unfortunately, our hotel said that we needed four people and we were only two. So, when we went out for lunch and shopping near the Witches Market that day, we decided to go in a bunch of tourist agencies. They all had basically the same tour for exactly the same price, so we just chose the one that would pick us up closest to our hostel (they wouldn’t pick us up there because it’s not on their list of hotels). When we got back to the hostel, they said they could do it for us with just two but we had already booked so we just declined that tour. We also booked the tour that didn’t include the entry fees. This was because the tours normally include the “foreigner” entry fee, but since we have a residence card, we can get the “local price” instead.
Left: View of the city of La Paz from Mount Chacaltaya. Right: Snowball fight!
First Stop – Valle de la Luna
On Monday morning, we had breakfast at our hostel and walked over the other hotel. After waiting for just 10 minutes, a mini-bus drove up and called our names. We hopped on and there was about 7 other people in there, plus the guide and the driver. Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) is actually really close to the city (only about 10 km from downtown). You could probably get a local bus there, but it was nice to have the guide to explain the history. The name is really interesting. There are actually three other Valle de la Lunas in South America (Argentina, Chile, and another in Bolivia), but they all look different.
Left: Carnival flag at the entrance of the park. Right: My favourite view of Valle de la Luna.
Our guide spoke multiple languages and filled us in on lots of interesting information along the way. The site we were going to actually had a different name before the 1970’s. Then, apparently, Neil Armstrong came for a visit to Bolivia in 1969, and mentioned that the valley looked just like the surface of the moon. After that, it was renamed to what it is called today. The surrounding hills are a beautiful iron red colour. There’s also a really nice view of the city of La Paz between two large hills, but it’s tricky to get a got shot without any electrical wires.
Left: Me with a giant metal llama in front of the entrance. Right: View of La Paz and hills from Valle de la Luna.
The area was formed from what used to be a mountain. Since it was made of soft materials like clay, it has eroded over time and left tall spires of material that are incredibly interesting, since they vary in shape and size. It’s kind of like being in a cave with stalagmites, except you’re out in the open. Most of the spires are a light brown/sand colour, but the mountains around are beautiful reds and purples due to all the minerals. There’s also a bunch of different types of cacti in the area, including those used in traditional medicine and some that cause hallucinations when consumed.
Left: Roads leading up to the park from La Paz. Right: What the walking paths are like.
When you get there, you pay an entrance fee (if it’s not included in your tour) and go in through some small gift shops (they were closed the day we went I think for carnival). Then there’s a bunch of options for little trails. We chose the 45-minute one to the left. There’s also a shorter 15-minute one, or you can do both. The walk is really easy, and doesn’t require special shoes or lots of stamina (but I’d recommend closed shoes, not flip flops). However, I wouldn’t recommend it for people who need mobility aids, have small children, or lose their balance easily (since there are no guardrails). It was quite hot the day we went, so I recommend water, sunscreen, and a hat if you get hot easily.
Left: Native plants. Right: View of Mount Chacaltaya in the distance,
The paths are clearly marked and there’s a number of look-outs along the way. We really enjoyed walking through all the peak and valleys created by the natural formations. Many parts of the path have interesting names like “Woman’s Hat”, “Devil’s Point”, or “Mother Moon”. It’s cool to see the large rocks balancing on small spikes that have eroded over the years. I also found that throughout the walk, the landscape changes quite dramatically and the pictures you might take at the beginning are incredibly different from other vantage points along the way. It almost feels like you’re in a different world, until you look up and see the houses in the distance. It seems like some of the natural formations may have been ruined to create the highway and paths, but it’s still definitely worth going.
Left: Herd of alpacas along the road. Right: Bumpy roads and rocky rivers on the drive to Chacaltaya.
Second Stop – Mount Chacaltaya
The drive out of the city was similar to what you would do if you were going up the airport in El Alto. However, we took a bit of a detour of the hill. The road was quite bumpy and rocky, so watch out if you get motion sickness. However, the views were quite stunning. Not only are their llamas and alpacas along the road, you can also look out behind you and see the whole city of La Paz spread out before you. We also stopped along the way at a point where you can see Lake Titicaca (which is the highest navigable lake in the world) in the distance, about 60 km away. You’ll also see lots of little natural pools, lakes and ponds along the way. The pools can range in colour from black, to green, to blue, or to red, even within the same water. The reason for this is the large amount of minierals found in the soil, each of which creates a different colour (red = iron, green = copper, black = zinc, etc…).
Left: Coloured pools surrounding the mountains. Right: The tiny strip of light blue in the middle is Lake Titicaca in the distance.
At a height of 5,241 metres, Chacaltaya was once the highest ski resort in the world. It attracted skiers from the nearby city of La Paz, and was the only ski hill in the whole country. It was actually the only ski hill in South America outside of Argentina and Chile, and is the second closest in the world to the equator (at only 16° latitude). Chacaltaya is the Aymara (indigenous language) word for “cold road” or “bridge of ice”, and is part of the Bolivian Andes range of mountains. It used to be home to a giant glacier, which was 18,000 years old, but has since disappeared due to climate change. Half of the melt occurred before 1980, and the rest occurred in less than 30 years, making the ski resort shut down. There’s an amazing documentary which follows Samuel, the owner of the resort, and details his hopes that the snows will come back in future years.
Left: The road leading up the mountain. Right: Our mini-bus was not prepared for winter!
The ski resort first opened in the 1930s, when a narrow road was constructed. A tow-rope was installed in 1939 using a car engine, which was apparently quite fast and loud, but is now inoperable. The resort was primarily open from March to November, and mostly only on weekends. It attracted both tourists and locals. At 17,785 feet high, it’s higher than Everest base camp!
After driving for about an hour we were at the base of the mountain. We got out and took some picture before driving further up the hill. Unfortunately, our car didn’t have proper snow tires, so he got stuck on some ice and we had to climb the rest of the way. We didn’t go all the way up to the resort but we did go up to the weather station, and hung out with a dog there. We would have gone higher but it was snowing quite a lot so there was really no view of the surrounding areas anyway. We walked back down the mountain to the car and opened our lunch we had packed. After everyone returned, we drove back into the city and were dropped off near San Francisco church. The resort used to sell snacks and things but it’s no longer open. It’s hard to imagine skiing there because the mountain is covered in tons of stones that are shaped like shards. It would definitely be painful to walk or fall on, and I imagine it would destroy your skis unless there was a ton of snow!
Left: I think I’m wearing the wrong shoes… Right: Hiking up the mountain.
The mountain is no longer a ski destination, but it’s still being used for climate science. It has been used as a weather station since the 1940’s. The Chacaltaya Observatory is run by the Universidad Mayor de San Andres, and collaborates with universities worldwide. As one of the few monitoring stations in the Southern Hemisphere, it contributes to the Global Atmosphere Watch Program. It measures things like cosmic rays, meteorological statistics, greenhouse gases, and the presence of aerosols in the air.
Left: Not exactly what I want under me when I’m skiing! Right: As you can see, it was snowing quite hard when we got to the weather station.
The melting glaciers in this area of the world are not just bad for skiers. Glaciers on top of mountains (like the one that was on Chacaltaya), are used worldwide as a fresh water source. In Bolivia, especially during dry season, this is a key source of fresh water. In recent years, droughts have ravaged the country of Bolivia during the dry season, and it’s not likely to improve anytime soon. Not only does this impact the amount of drinking water, it also reduces the possibility of hydropower in countries like Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador which use this method for half of their electricity supply.
Mount Chacaltaya is normally the first stop on the tour, but we went there second because of carnival. I’m not sure if this is better or worse. I guess it’s probably more likely to rain in the afternoon, so it’s more likely to have a better view of the surrounding area in the morning. However, since it was snowy on the day we went, I’m glad we went there last. Since we hadn’t planned the tour, I was completely unprepared for the weather. Although Valle de la Luna was really hot (I could have worn shorts and a t-shirt), the mountain was the complete opposite. Ice and slush on the ground and it was snowing and hazy at the time. If I had waterproof shoes and a jacket I would have been great, but I just had sneakers, a rain coat, and a toque (winter hat). Therefore, my feet got totally soaked, and I’m glad I didn’t have to walk around on a hike afterwards and could go right to my hotel.
Left: Steve and I with our little snow buddy. Right: The arch at the entry way to the weather station at the top of the mountain.
If you’re ever in La Paz, and have an extra day, I totally recommend this trip! It’s a great chance to see some parts of Bolivia that are very different from the usual city life. There’s lots of city and small, rural towns, but these mountains and valleys are quite unique. Plus, it’s not that expensive for a day trip, less than $20 (only 90 Bs) for transportation and a guide is quite reasonable. We also got to experience snow for the only time this winter – a must for a true Canadian! We had quite an enjoyable day! 😊
If you’re interested in reading more about related topics, check out the following blogs:
- What we were doing in La Paz/Oruro before this blog: Dancing the Weekend Away for Carnival – Oruro, Bolivia (coming soon)
- What we were up to last time we were in La Paz: Only Have 6 Hours in La Paz, Bolivia? You’ll still have a blast!
- More information about the melting glaciers and droughts across Bolivia: No Running Water – Drought in Bolivia