Chacaltaya is in the La Paz Department of Bolivia. This mountain, at an altitude of 5486 metres, is equipped with beautiful views and the world's highest ski area. Because of its proximity to La Paz and the easy access, it is a popular place to acclimatize before climbing higher peaks. The ski lift is said to be the oldest in the world and almost never operates.
The refugio and ski lift is run by the Club Andino Boliviano (Calle México 1638, La Paz, +591 2 32 46 82, ), founded in 1939 by a group of enthusiasts. The current ski lift and the skis available for rent date from the seventies and the guys running the refugio are even older. But, as the glacier retreated, and was finally gone in 2009, this is no longer an operational ski resort.
Going up to the mountain you'll see the earth change to every color imaginable, with the towering peaks of Huayna Potosi, Illimani and Mururata seemingly within reach. This is a mining area and the many different metals in the ground makes for the colorful scenery. In the distance you'll see El Alto and La Paz and, on clear days, even Volcan Sajama.
Flora and fauna
Domestic llamas, sheep and alpacas are plentiful and makes the otherwise dry and desertlike area come to life. Drive slowly as the animals often tend to jump in front of the car.
Winter is dry and sunny, although it turns very cold as soon as the sun is obscured by the odd cloud or mountain. Summer is wet season with snow and clouds lowering the daytime temperature.
In summer (rainy season, ski season), there might be a bus on weekends when/if the ski lift operate. In winter only, there are combined tours of Chacaltaya and Valle de la Luna runs. It gives you 40 minutes on the mountain and cost Bs. 50 to 75. It is not enough time to get used to the altitude, however. Check if admissions and snacks are included in the price.
Many tour companies based in La Paz will drive a group in a private 4WD vehicle up the mountain. Prices are low and negotiable beforehand.
You can take your bike to Chacaltaya. Take the autopista to El Alto and follow the road to Chacaltaya. Alternatively, take the autopista to just after it makes a sharp turn, take the first local street to the right (a sharp right turn by a pedestrian bridge over the highway) and follow that street up until it turns to gravel and you reach a school called Siete Lagunas. Turn right and follow the signs to Zongo first, then to Chacaltaya. You can also take your bike to Zongo pass with fantastic views of lakes, dams and peaks. This is for well acclimatized people. Check your brakes!
Well, partially on foot. If you can get transportation towards Zongo, you can ask to be dropped off at the junction to Chacaltaya and walk the rest. Try asking the agencies that arrange climbing Huayna Potosi for a ride - they take climbers to Zongo in the morning. This is doable as a day trip. The chances of hitching a ride back from the junction are not bad.
Bring copies of passport or remember your document's number, as there is a police check where you turn right to Chacaltaya and the road continues to Refugio Huayna Potosi and Zongo. Police ask for Bs. 2. Admission collected at Chacaltaya is Bs. 10.
By foot. From the parking lot at 5300 metres you'll see the first slightly lower peak, home to the ski lift. It takes about 15 minutes to scale. 15 minutes more takes you to the real summit. Since this is "the beaten track" you will not need specific hiking boots for walking to the top. If you looking for alternative adventures, try ex. mountainbiking downhill from Chacaltaya to La Paz. Agencies like Topas Bolivia can help you arrange this.
Eat, drink and sleep
The refugio next to the parking lot do hot meals and will also try to get you to stay overnight. Be aware that sleeping can be a problem on this altitude.
There is no organized camping in the area.
Putting up a tent is possible, but it might take a while to find a good spot among the rocks. Water is available by melting snow from the glacier or from the refugio. El Alto is the nearest place to stock up on food.
Weather is the biggest issue up here. Warm clothing is a good idea for a day trip. A good sleeping bag and sturdy tent is a must if camping. In the wet season snow can make the road dangerous.