Bolivia's abandoned ski resort: A sign of droughts to come?

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View of an abandoned building at the Chacaltaya ski resort in Bolivia
Image caption,
Only small patches of snow and ice are left at the Chacaltaya ski resort

Bolivia's largest city, La Paz, is currently enduring its worst drought in a quarter of a century. Glaciers in the surrounding Andean mountains are key to its water supply. Simon Parker visited the abandoned ski resort of Chacaltaya, where locals say they have been seeing changes in the climate for decades.

"I used to come up here as a child and play in the snow for hours, until my eyes and ears ached from the cold and altitude," says Felipe Kittelson, 63, while surveying the barren hillside before him.

"People would ski and sled here for seven or eight months a year. We used to shave off cups of ice and cover it in sticky syrup as a treat. This resort used to be covered in such deep snow, but now there's nothing but rock."

The 5,421m-high (17,785ft) Chacaltaya ski resort, once the world's highest, offered Bolivians a taste of European-inspired apres-ski in the heart of the Andes.

These days, however, it resembles an abandoned film set.

Image caption,
The bar in the resort has long stood abandoned
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Rusty signs still remind visitors that this was once the home of the Club Andino Boliviano

Surrounded by shards of rusty shale, sticky tufts of pampas and a few hundred hardy llamas, Chacaltaya sits crumbling next to a vast furrow in the mountainside: the site of a once mighty glacier.

Chacaltaya glacier

Image caption,
The view would have looked very different 20 years ago
  • Thought to be 18,000 years old
  • Bolivian scientists started measuring it in the 1990s
  • They predicted in 2005 that it would survive until 2015
  • But it shrank faster than expected and had vanished almost completely by 2009
  • Scientists think that the speed of its melting is an indicator of climate change

What used to be a buzzing attraction for La Paz's middle class is now a mini ghost town of oxidized ski winches, a spooky cafe and an eerie bar, still festooned with the holiday snaps of early-1990s skiers clad in multi-coloured jumpsuits.

Image caption,
Pictures of more prosperous days still adorn the walls in the now-empty bar

A recent study by the Stockholm Environment Institute suggested that the region's temperature had risen by half a degree centigrade in the period between 1976 and 2006.

Half a degree might not sound much, but for brothers Adolfo and Samuel Mendoza it meant that they watched as the glacier disappeared before their very eyes.

"Between my brother and I, we worked here for over 70 years, operating the winches," says 54-year-old Samuel.

Image caption,
Felipe Kittelson and brothers Samuel and Adolfo Mendoza say they saw the changes happen before their eyes

As he sips coca tea through his wind-burnt lips, he recalls: "Our father worked at this resort in the forties and fifties when this area was covered in snow.

"It's extremely sad to see it this way. We warned people about this in the eighties but nobody listened to us. Every year we could see it getting worse."

Adolfo, 62, thinks toxic fumes emitted by hundreds of thousands of diesel vehicles in nearby La Paz contributed to the melting of the glacier.

But, he says, the problem is larger than that.

"Occasionally, when it does snow up here, the snow is full of a greasy black substance, full of filthy grit.

"I think the cars in La Paz are partly at fault, but Bolivia is not an industrial country. We are being affected by the rest of the planet."

Worlds apart?

Chacaltaya's desolation stands in stark contrast to the bustling streets of La Paz.

But the fate of the former can be seen as a sad prelude to the problems the latter is currently experiencing.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Residents of La Paz have taken to the streets in protest at the lack of water
Image caption,
Lorries deliver water as the drought has left reservoirs dry

During the dry season, La Paz draws almost a third of its water from reservoirs fed by glacial meltwater.

But with Bolivia's glaciers shrinking, water supplies have become scarce.

In La Paz, water rationing has become a fact of daily life as in many districts, pipelines and reservoirs have been dry for more than a month.

Residents have to queue for many hours to receive their ration of water, siphoned into pots, pans, plastic bags and washing-up bowls.

Image caption,
Signs on the lorries delivering water remind residents to "preserve water"

Washing vehicles has become a controversial practice, most people take a shower only once or twice a week and the city's once-emerald football pitches lay brown and dying.

Last week, the cities of Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City pledged to ban all diesel vehicles by 2025, but in a place like La Paz, where modern cars are rare and expensive, a similar decision is probably many decades away.

Back in Chaclataya, a handful of backpackers a day brave the extreme altitude to photograph this now-sad location.

For many, the setting evokes a feeling of contemplation.

"Back at home I think we have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to global warming," says Olivia Taylor, 24, from the UK, while sitting on a bench once used by skiers.

"Here though, it's right there in front of me."