Malia Obama Visits Andean Glaciers

Malia Obama, the eldest daughter of former President Barack Obama, recently visited the glaciers of Peru and Bolivia during a gap year before entering Harvard as an undergraduate this fall. Her guides were unaware they were traveling with the president’s daughter during the 83-day journey, although they were told that an important American dignitary was accompanying them. Malia traveled with the Colorado-based educational travel company Where There Be Dragons, along with 16 other young people, through the Andes and Amazon program.

Photos from the trip were later shared across social media. One image shows Malia in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real mountain range, which is part of the Andes. The mountain range, made mostly of granite, lies southeast of Lake Titicaca and east of La Paz, acting as a barrier between the Altiplano Plateau and the Amazon Rain Forest. The region is dense with glaciers because air from the nearby Amazon lowlands is very moist and contributes to glacier formation. The Cordillera Real also includes the iconic mountain Huayna Potosí, which is only fifteen miles north of La Paz and can be seen from the neighboring city, El Alto. It is the most visited mountain in Bolivia and is popular among climbers. Malia promised to return to Bolivia one day to climb Huayna Potosí.

Cordillera Real (source: Creative Commons).

The Zongo Glacier located on Huayna Potosí is larger than most glaciers in the Cordillera Real but is rapidly melting. In 2013, it had an area of 1.876 km² with a catchment (where snow and ice are added and removed) of 3.3 km². The glacier has shrunk significantly from 1994 to 2014, losing 7 meters of thickness and retreating by 220 meters from a nearby lake, according to an analysis done through Google Earth images.

Glaciers remain an important water resource for people in the region. The people of Bolivia are already feeling the impacts of climate change. Last November, Bolivia declared a state of emergency due to the worst drought in 25 years. Two glaciers on the mountain Tuni Condoriri that provide water for the cities of El Alto and La Paz have receded by about 40% from 1983 to 2006, at a rate of .24 km² a year. They typically provide an estimated 10% to 15% of the water for El Alto and La Paz, according to updated figures provided by Dirk Hoffmann, coordinator of the Bolivian Mountain Institute and an expert on climate change. The water is also necessary for the health of agriculture, ecosystems and hydroelectric plants in the region.

“The trip has given Malia a first-hand view of Bolivian glaciers,” Hoffmann reported to GlacierHub. “I just hope someone told her how the glaciers are getting smaller and smaller each year. What has taken thousands of years to grow – the Andean glaciers – is being lost in a lifetime.”

Illimani seen from La Paz (source: Creative Commons).

As a security measure, satellites tracked the group’s movement and 10 marines stayed within 50 meters. Eduardo Quispe,who works as a mountain guide at the company Bolivian Mountain Guides and described Malia’s trip to GlacierHub, said that the group took a five-day tour of the Eastern Cordillera Oriental, starting from Laguna Kothia, a glacier lake, and ending at the base of Huayna Potosi. The group reached heights between 4,850 meters to 5,100 meters. One Marine fell ill from altitude sickness and had to be carted back by mule. During the tour, Malia fished for trout in a lagoon, ate traditional South American foods like chuño (which consists of freeze dried potatoes) and drank coca tea.

Malia, who speaks fluent Spanish, stayed in an inexpensive room based in the agricultural town of Tiquipaya in central Bolivia. Of the president’s eldest daughter, Quispe said, “Malia was characterized by her simplicity and friendliness, shared with everyone. She was one of the group, and there were no preferences of any kind.” 

According to the website for the trip, the group traveled to many cities in both Peru and Bolivia and visited indigenous communities. In Peru, Malia traveled around Lake Titicaca and visited Machu Picchu. “Our time in Peru is highlighted by dramatic mountain landscapes, exposure to remote indigenous communities, and a deeper understanding of development trends and contemporary issues in southwestern Peru,” reads the Where There Be Dragons website.

Malia Obama, far right, in 2012 (source: Creative Commons).

“It is very encouraging to know that such an influential person has chosen the Andes and the Amazon to spend time in,” Lixaida Vasquez, a climber who has frequented the peaks in Bolivia and works at the climbing company Andean Destinations, added to GlacierHub. “I hope she has been able to become closely acquainted with these two regions. They are so beautiful and also so fragile.”

Now that Malia has returned to the U.S., she will next venture to Hollywood to complete an internship with film producer Harvey Weinstein before going away to college. She still has environmental concerns on her mind, however. She recently attended a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in January.

Hoffmann, for one, hopes Malia’s own children will be so fortunate to experience the glaciers of the region in their future. “The way temperature is rising, her children will not have the chance to see most of Bolivia´s glaciers – neither will anybody else her age,” he said.