Free As A Bird, Photography, South America, Travel
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Gasping for air in the Andes – Bolivia

I had to convince my lungs several times to keep going, it felt like they were going to explode!  I wondered if my mind was going to pack it in too, why am I doing this?  I’m walking up Mt Chacaltaya, in the Andes, to reach the summit at 5,421 meters!  The summit is higher than Everest base camp, or for us Kiwi’s its higher than Mt Cook (3,700 meters).  No wonder I’m struggling!!

The altitude is thin, every breath feels like a gasp.  Its cold but it’s not snowing, its dry, its empty. The sun is close, I can feel each UV Ray striking my face.  Should have put that sunscreen on like I was told too!

Chacaltaya Summit 5421 meters

Chacaltaya Summit 5421 meters

I’m feeling the effects of altitude sickness and no way will I turn back.  It doesn’t matter how fit and healthy you are, the sickness will pick anyone!  Amee my cousin, was back at the hostel suffering badly from altitude sickness.  She was out for 4 days and due to the lack of oxygen her lips turned blue!  Amee is extremely fit where as I’m only average.  50% of people who arrive into La Paz will experience altitude sickness.  Try doing burpees and see how many you can do.

The step incline to the summit: walk 10 steps then pause to breath

The step incline to the summit: walk 10 steps then pause to breath

To slow the effects of the sickness, I sipped, ate, chewed and drank any form of coca leaf possible. I was taking Soroche pills everyday too (pharmaceutical drug), sometimes 3x a day. My advise for you: stick with the coca leaves, I watched the locals everyday and they never took a Soroche pill.   You can buy coca leaves anywhere…. just don’t take it out of Bolivia with you!! That could end badly.

from the summit to the ski field

The Andean mountain range which covers most of South America.

After what seemed like hours, I made it! The view is mind blowing!  I’m high up in the Andes, this is worth bragging about!!  I don’t feel like I’m gasping for air anymore, I’m appreciating the moment I’m having with the Andes.  Its beautiful.

looking down to the ski park

From the Chacaltaya summit looking down to the resort!

But… too give you an honest perspective on the actual walking distance to the summit.   See the ski resort in the picture above? From me to the resort is the only bit of walking you’ll have to do to get to the summit.  Its not far, but its enough to almost pop a lung! Further in the distance to the left is La Paz.  The drive up is about an hour from the city and it cost me 100B (14USD or 22NZD) for Chacaltaya and Moon Valley.   This gives you a guide for the day and some more scary moments driving in Bolivia.

The old ski resort

The old ski resort

Hard to believe there was once a ski field and resort up here.  I asked my guide why has it been abandoned “It shut because all of the tourist left” she said.  What, but why I ask?  Why would people just leave? What happened? She never replied, I think she may have been tied of me following her around asking questions.

Its an airy feeling being inside the once thriving ski resort

Its an airy feeling being inside the once thriving ski resort

I did some of my own research.  The tourist did leave but it was because the 18,000 year old Glacier that was once here melted away in 2009, 6 years before it was predicted!!  South America is facing dramatic environmental changes linked to deforestation over the Amazon Basin driven primarily by agricultural expansion and logging.  Global warming is the result, temperatures have risen by 0.7c which is more than enough to melt the Andean Glaciers.

This is a pretty good summary of global warming:

“Global warming is primarily a problem of too much carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere – which acts as a blanket, trapping heat and warming the planet.  As we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas for energy or cut down and burn forest to create pastures and plantations, carbon accumulates and overloads our atmosphere.  Certain waste management and agricultural practices aggravate the problem by releasing other potent global warming gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide.” Union of Concerned Scientist

Looking towards lake Titicaca

Looking towards lake Titicaca

There is a haze that lurks at my eye level.  You can see the haze clearer in the distance.  It looks like typical pollution from La Paz right? Not exactly, the haze is a collection of pollution from around the world as well as the toxic waste from Bolivia.

Research station

Research station

Good news though… The Global Atmosphere Watch Programme (GAW) is based here.  It’s observing the evolution of the atmosphere, to investigate the effects of global change.  Still though, trees are being cut down at a phenomenal pace, industries are dumping waste etc etc… when do they stop?

A moment to stop and look

A moment to stop and look

I’m glad I went to Chacaltaya.  The views are spectacular and I met some wonderful travellers from around the world.  The highlight for me though was learning more about global warming and seeing first hand the damage it’s done to this mountain and city.   Lets make a change!!

Handy tips for the hardy traveller:

  • Eat, drink, chew coca leaves every moment you can to help reduce altitude sickness.
  • Soroche can be brought at any pharmacy, take 1-3 a day
  • Book a guide that promotes eco tourism or do some research on trip advisor, the hostel guides are not always best.
  • My guide was 100B (14USD or 22NZD) plus 30B (4USD or 6NZD) for entrance fee.
  • Sunblock!!!
  • Nivea Cream is an absolute necessity when travelling in high altitudes.  Pour it on, day and night! You will age 10 years up here, the air sucks every bit of moisture from your skin.  Replenish with Nivea!! (I don’t agree with their ingredients but its the only skin cream that can replenish up here).
  •  The road to the mountain is rough and the shuttles will be packed, push through it… I have no solution for this.
  • Learn about the places you visit, ask questions!

Next stop: Mountain biking down the worlds deadliest road!

Previous destination: Searching for a Jaguar – Pantanal, Brazil

Below pic, La Paz city with Illimani Mountain in the background… its on my bucket list! 6438 meters!

La Paz city and Illimani in the background.

La Paz city and Illimani in the background.

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