Stuck in the Snow en Route to Chacaltaya, Bolivia

Third in a series about Bolivia

With the series of articles about Canada completed, we now return to the adventures of Rachel and me during our honeymoon. Thursday, August 13, 2015 was our third day in La Paz.  I’d booked a tour of Chacaltaya and Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon).  Prices in Bolivia are low and it only cost US $31.95 for the two of us, booked through Kanoo Tours.  Kanoo has an easy-to-use website (although I’m not sure they were necessarily operating the tour itself since our vehicle was unmarked).

Illimani, tallest of the Cordillera Real, is an incredible 6,438 m (21,122 ‘) high. We planned to visit a somewhat shorter mountain in the range.  Lowell Silverman photography,2015

Chacaltaya is a mountain in the Cordillera Real, part of the Andes.  Illimani—the tallest (and perhaps best known) mountain in the Cordillera Real—is visible from downtown La Paz.  However, Illimani is apparently not as accessible as Chacaltaya.  Chacaltaya has a road that runs to just shy of its summit.  We’d waited to visit it until our last day in La Paz because of concerns about altitude sickness.  Despite the remarkably high road, Chacaltaya still 5,421 m (17,785’) high, compared with our hotel’s altitude of about 3,535m/11,600’.

As we’d anticipated—given that we live very close to sea level—we had altitude symptoms upon arriving in Bolivia.  The first two days we experienced headache, fatigue, and what is usually referred to as loss of appetite.  (In my case it wasn’t that I wasn’t hungry, but rather than food just didn’t seem appetizing.)  By the third day, the acute symptoms were gone, but we still had intense fatigue upon exertion for days afterward.

Some numbers I found while researching this post underscored just how mighty the Andes are.  Wikipedia lists 42 peaks in the Cordillera Real alone that are higher than Chacaltaya; there must be dozens, even hundreds of taller mountains in the rest of the Andes.  Yet Chacaltaya is taller than every mountain in Europe except Mount Elbrus.  It’s also taller than all but five mountains in North America, including every peak in the continental United States.

Although Kanoo had advertised that they pick up from La Paz hotels, we found out only after booking that ours was outside their pickup zone. Instead we had to take a taxi north from the Stannum Boutique Hotel to El Prado for pickup.  It was the second rainy day in a row during our visit.  This was remarkable considering winter is the dry season in Bolivia; La Paz sees an average of only five days of rain in the entire month of August.

1 Snowy Van
Heading into the mountains

We’d been waiting about 45 minutes when a van arrived to pick us up.  Our guide introduced himself as Freddy.  We drove north from downtown La Paz.  At around 3,900 m (12,795’) of altitude, the rain turned to snow.  Leaving the highway, we picked up an unpaved mountain road.

4 Snowy mountainside
Mountain scenery

The road passed through a small town and then began passing through what I guess is best described as an alpine meadow.  The vegetation was brown…no surprise considering that this was supposed to be the dry season!  At an altitude of around 4,390 m (14,403’), the van began losing traction.  The driver reversed down the mountain and tried again, only to lose traction at the same spot.

Remarkably, about three or four vehicles came barreling past us, only to get stuck in roughly the same spot.  Any driver living in Colorado would sneer at snow accumulation causing us such difficulty.  Of course, I don’t think many (if any) of the stuck vehicles had four wheel drive.  None were equipped with snow chains, and the muddy road didn’t help any.

3 You are not driving safely
“Am I driving safely?” asks the sign on the vehicle ahead, which drove past ours only to get stuck itself…

I was particularly amused by one vans that passed us, which displayed a sign in English asking, “Am I driving safely?”  I might have called the phone number on the sign to report that it certainly was not, but I doubt that the UAE-based company listed was still responsible for the vehicle!

2 Snowy Field
Snowy field near where our vehicle came to rest

Freddy and our driver walked up to the other vehicles.  After waiting a few minutes, we got out and looked around.  I may have kidded Rachel that if she had let me choose the destination for our honeymoon, we could have been on a beach in Bora Bora at that very moment instead of marooned in the snow…


Although there wasn’t much to see, we couldn’t resist having one of our companions take our picture holding our “Just Married” sign  As time passed, the mood became rather uneasy in the tour group.  One sedan with a driver who apparently though he was a better driver than those of the vehicles that were already stopped went around only to slide a little ways down a gentle slope on the shoulder of the road.

One tour group exited their bus and began hiking up the road.  That struck us as crazy given that we were at least several kilometers by road (not to mention about a vertical kilometer of altitude) short of the summit.  Even if we got past the slippery section, there was no guarantee that the vehicle wouldn’t get stuck for good further along.  Our group reached a consensus that it would be better to just give up on Chacaltaya and head to the Valley of the Moon.

5 The Road
Taking the road back down the mountain

Freddy and our driver returned, still determined to push forward somehow.  Since Freddy didn’t speak great English, Rachel told him the group’s decision in Spanish.  Freddy appeared surprised but agreed.  It was a great relief that the van was still able to reverse on the slippery road and found a place to turn around.  We made our way back down the mountain and headed back through downtown La Paz on the way to the Valley of the Moon.

Series on Bolivia

Obtaining a Bolivian Tourist Visa

Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru (introduction)

La Paz, Bolivia: Basílica de San Francisco

Mi Teleférico: La Paz, Bolivia’s Aerial Cable Car Network

Stuck in the Snow en Route to Chacaltaya, Bolivia

Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), Bolivia

Across the Altiplano to Lake Titicaca: La Paz to Copacabana, Bolivia by Bus

Introduction to Copacabana, Bolivia

Ascending Cerro El Calvario (Calvary Hill) in Copacabana, Bolivia

Copacabana to Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) by Boat

Hiking from Challapampa to the Sanctuary on Isla del Sol

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part I: The Sacred Rock, Titikala

The Sanctuary on Isla del Sol, Part II: Chincana and Nearby Sites

Hiking from the Sacred Rock to Yumani on Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Scenic Tour of Lake Titicaca: Copacabana, Bolivia to Puno, Peru by Bus


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