Cities Stories

The rocky mountain road to Chacaltaya: a Bolivian hangover story

It’s 3am and I am the ping pong king of La Paz. Lisa took the somewhat prudent decision to go to bed an hour ago, but I am enjoying my inebriated reign at the table, so I’m staying up.

Mountain road
The precarious winding mountain road up to Chacaltaya

We’re setting off on a day tour to Valle de la Luna in the morning, but I don’t know too much about it as Lisa booked it; just that there is a bit of gentle walking involved, apparently. Nothing that should prevent a good night out in the world’s highest capital city.

Our hostel, Loki, has a sky bar with view of the city. It is one of those places that has a bucket on the wall so that when you order a beer, you get a free shot with it if you can throw your bottlecap in the bucket. When Lisa sent me to the bar to order us beers and blood-bombs (whatever they are, I’m still not sure), I managed to sink not one, but both bottlecaps in the bucket. While the high fives at the bar were fun, there was a sense of ominous foreboding as I returned to our table with three drinks apiece.

So here I am at 3am in a winner-stays-on situation on the ping pong table, and having comfortably dispatched of a bearded Australian, two Brummie gals who call me “Nottingham” and Phil from Trinidad, I’m contemplating turning in for the night undefeated. But just then, one of the few Bolivians staying in our hostel challenges me to a game. Not being one to back down in such situations, I accept; he beats me narrowly.

I can’t go to bed on that note! I decide to wait up for another turn and drink Lisa’s left-behind three-quarters-full beer, which will surely steady my hand and tip the tide in my favour, right? Wrong. Next time he absolutely trounces me. And so it continues.

I eventually crawl drunk and defeated into my dormitory bed some time after 5am and set my alarm for 7am; we’ve got an early start for the tour. Of course it’s pure hell when my alarm goes off, but I drag myself up and throw some clothes on. Lisa is only a little less groggy than I am. But we’ll just be able to sleep on the bus, right? Wrong again.

Two decrepit old vans arrive to pick us up. The tour guide apologises and says that we were supposed to be going in a much larger, better bus, but that the driver had mysteriously not turned up with it.

Break on the way up
We’re feeling worse for wear as we take a break on the way up

He then tells us that we’re going up to Chacaltaya in the morning, a mountain over 5,400 metres above sea level. To put that into context, Mont Blanc – the highest mountain in Europe – is some 600m shorter at 4,808m. Of course, they don’t build paved roads that high – least of all in Bolivia, notorious for its dicey roads – and so we’re in for a very bumpy two-hour ride into the sky.

Checking everyone is present, the tour guide says, “is there anyone here from Brazil?” The minibus erupts with cheer – it turns out that everyone on board other than me and Lisa is part of a big Brazilian entourage, and these guys are up for a party. There goes any last fading hope of getting some sleep.

And so begins our white-knuckle, dizziness-inducing, death-defying ascent to Chacaltaya. The winding mountain road is terrifying. The minibuses can barely fit along the narrow gravelly track, and over the edge a yawning drop falls away into the abyss. It doesn’t seem to faze the driver, who is putting his foot down.

Chacaltaya peak
Looking up at the final summit ascent

With my head pounding and stomach gurgling over every bump, the only thing keeping me sane is the spectacular showcase of mountain scenery and stunning view back over La Paz.

We arrive near the peak, ready for our “gentle walk”. It turns out we’re actually climbing the last couple of hundred metres to the summit. It might not sound like a lot, but with the cocktail of hangover and dizzying altitude factored into the bargain, this is tough. Lisa has only brought her trainers to clamber up the ice.

Every step is difficult with so little oxygen in the air and my head a mess, but we make it slowly to the second peak down. Lisa decides to give the final ascent a miss, and I press on ahead while she waits.

The panorama at the top is incredible. Snowy peaks and clouds, jagged ridges, blue and green and red lagoons, a sea of red-and-grey rock stretching to the horizon in all directions. Suddenly the hangover disappears. But then we have to take the bus back down…

At the top
Made it to the top!

Fast-forward a few hours to the time of writing and we are safely returned to the hostel, and can finally breathe. Surely a gentle, relaxing day is in order tomorrow, right? Wrong thrice.

We’re up at 6am to cycle down Death Road


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