Bolivia Stories and Tips

Soaring Sights

Oruro Photo, Oruro, Bolivia

An almost unique spot on the planet, the Altiplano is worth a visit not only for the sake of saying "I was there." Extreme places offer unusual views and not less odd cultures; both of these aspects transform the Altiplano into a remarkable destination. This is one of the few destinations in the world where glaciers and rainforest can be seen from a single spot.

High Cities

Cities at extreme altitudes demand acclimatization, and not only to the elevation. The temperatures can vary fast and more often than not the cities are cold, forcing the denizens to be active mainly during the sunlight hours. "But the North Atlantic is surrounded by cold cities and people are active at night!" some are saying now. Yet, cold lowlands let trees grow; lowland cold cities were heated from early times by wood. In the highlands, wood is scarce. Until gas was found in Bolivia, heating up houses was practically impossible in the highlands. The result was an adaptation of most activities to daylight hours and outdoors, creating a culture centered upon open street markets.

As commented in another entry of this journal, the Bolivian Altiplano is home to four large cities: La Paz, El Alto, Oruro and Potosi; minor urban settlements include Copacabana, Villazon, Tupiza and other towns. Traditionally, this was an important commerce center between important parts of the continent, forming the largest concentration of high altitude cities in the world. Overall, cities are an essential and overwhelming part of such a tour.

Traditional Altiplano small villages are disappearing due to the rapid urbanization process the area. Yet, many can be seen along the way; some travelers may be even invited to visit them. Invariably, they look as temporary settlements with adobe houses in various stages of returning to the dust they were made of.

The Plateau

Most people expect seeing a flat landscape on the Altiplano. Unless studying a topographical map before arriving at the area, that’s understandable. However, few are the spots where the traveler will be able to see far into the plateau’s high horizon.

The Andean Plateau is not exactly flat; it contains undulated hills and is slightly tilted: El Alto is higher than the Titicaca shore and Oruro. It is surrounded by mountains to the north and the west; it brakes into irregular high valleys to the east and south and for much of its extension is hilly. Windy Oruro and the Uyuni Salt Flats are probably the best parts to experience the plateau flatness.

The Mountains

If traveling to Arica, Chile, from La Paz, Bolivia, then the awed traveler would enjoy the almost conical summit of the Sajama – the highest mountain in Bolivia - and the adjacent volcanoes. Yet, the most attractive, recognizable and trek-suitable mountains in the area are all part of a smallish range known as Cordillera Real.

This is a subset of the Andes’ Cordillera Oriental, running from Mount Illampu in its northern end – near Sorata and Lake Titicaca– to Mount Illimani in the southeast. The range separates the Andean High Plateau from the Bolivian Amazonian Basin. From west to east, its main peaks are the Illampu, the Condoriri with its distinctive shape of a condor with folded wings, the Huayna Potosi with a shoulder that reminds of the Ama Dablam in Nepal, the Mururata, with its almost flat summit, and somewhat to the southeast of the last, Mount Illimani, the highest and most distinctive mountain of the range. Overall, this range is 125 kilometers long, and it features six peaks reaching above 6000m.
If looking from La Paz downtown, Mount Illimani looks isolated. Its three main peaks (the northern one is in fact a double one – the mountain has four peaks) create an unforgettable view and not only due to its unusual trinity reminding summit. The mountain is not extremely high – at 6438m it’s only the second highest in Bolivia and the eighteenth highest in the Americas – but its prominence is of almost 2500 meters, transforming it into one of the most distinctive mounts in the world. The last number measures a mountain’s standing above the landscape surrounding it. The impressive score of the Illimani in this category is what makes it look lonely; however it’s the southern end of the Cordillera Real.

Despite the closeness to the equator line, the Cordillera Real features snowed peaks and several glaciers; the Amazonian Basin lies just north of it and provides the humidity needed for the formation of snow and ice. The glaciers – mainly the one of Mount Condoriri – are the main source of water in La Paz. It’s interesting to note that only peaks featuring snow during the whole year have names in the local culture. However, things are changing fast. The Chacaltaya – placed between the Huayna Potosi and El Alto – have lost its white cover due to global warming. Its glacier will disappear completely in the next years. In sharp contrast, the Illimani is in no danger of losing its soft cover; snow appears there roughly at 4500m – much lower than that after storms – and covers its summit all year around.

Mount Illampu has the less distinctive shape of the range main peaks. Yet, its setup is dramatic. With an almost flat double summit, it resembles a plateau atop the Andean High Plateau. It is so massive that the landscape’s other features become insignificant. Its glaciers are great and can be fully enjoyed from the road circumventing the colossus. Sorata is on the northern slopes of the mount and – as Coroico offers an exciting mix of tropical rainforests and glaciers.

A sight for almost every taste and the distinction of being a unique spot form an irresistible mix attracting travelers to where the flatlands touch the skies.

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