In Bolivia, awe-inspiring scenes at every turn

Unlike neighbouring Peru or southern Chile – even Bolivia’s most well-known routes remain relatively untraveled.

In the Bolivian Andes, ice-blue glaciers crown amphitheatres of peaks, llamas graze quietly in the afternoon sun and the evening light fades into frigid mountain nights. But where similarly striking landscapes in neighbouring Peru or southern Chile suffer from overcrowded trails and campsites, even Bolivia’s most well-known routes remain relatively untraveled.

Trekking in Bolivia can be a high, dry, isolated experience, with eight summits clocking in at 6,000m above sea level. But walking in Bolivia is also an experience in diversity: one day you can be in snow-covered mountains and the next you might descend through moss-strewn cloud forests to jungle lowlands. In the dry season between May and September, Bolivia’s trekking routes offer some of the world’s most inspiring mountain experiences.

Getting started
Bolivia has been called the Tibet of South America for its high-altitude terrain. Acclimatisation is key to any Bolivian trek – and one of the most pleasant ways to accomplish it is by strolling along the shores of Lake Titicaca. Set at 3,800m, the lake’s jewel-blue waters are cradled in rolling grassland, with views to the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Real from its shores. Copacabana, Bolivia’s largest lakeside town, is a perfect starting point for a gentle, 40km walk along both the lake’s shore and – after a one- or two-hour boat crossing – around Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), a grassy island replete with Incan ruins and traditional villages. Treat this as a gentle immersion in Bolivia. The real mountain highs are still to come.

To the mountains
The Cordillera Real mountain range dominates the skyline of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital. The Condoriri Massif – so named because its form resembles a condor spreading its wings – is just one part of the Cordillera Real, comprising 13 ice-slung peaks that reach 5,648m in altitude. A classic walk here is the 79km Condoriri to Huayna Potosi trek – a difficult journey over both rocky passes and alpine meadows and through the territories of both shocking pink flamingos and soaring condors. Though the distance covered is not great, this trek involves steep climbs, long descents and dicey navigation if the weather turns bad. But the rewards include frozen glaciers, towering snowy peaks – Huayna Potosi dominates at 6,088m – and wide valleys tended by campesinos (country dwellers) in traditional dress. Contract a guide and pack animals unless you are very experienced in mountain walking and navigation.

Challenge and isolation
For a truly remote trekking challenge, the 75km Illampu Circuit offers a complete journey around the 6,368m Nevado Illampu, crossing three spectacular passes more than 4,000m high and one more than 5,000m high. This mountain territory is home to the Aymara people – an indigenous community that grazes llamas in the high pastures and may be reticent to talk to outsiders (many of them do not speak Spanish, only Aymara). Trekkers should dress respectfully, including no shorts, especially for women, and local people should not be photographed without permission. Organise guides and pack animals in the village of Sorata, where the trek begins.

Spectacular granite spires
The Cordillera Quimsa Cruz (Three Cross Range) has long attracted climbers to its incredibly sheer granite spires. The range’s eastern flank drops steeply to the Amazon rainforest, giving trekkers access to high altitude polylepis woodlands and a huge variety of birds and plants along the way. Beginning 80km southeast of La Paz in the village of Choquetanga, the approximately 60km Quimsa Cruz route leads from the snowy, glaciated southern part of the range to the towering granite spires of the north. Though the mountains on this route have seen significant mining activity (and walkers today can visit some of the abandoned mines) this is still one of the least walked of Bolivia’s trekking routes; you may not see another soul during your hike.

Land of the medicine men
Northeast of La Paz and with its highest peaks forming the border with Peru, the isolated Cordillera Apolobamba range is home to the Quechua-speaking Kallawaya people: medicine men who were healers to the Inca emperors and descend from the pre-Inca Tiwanaku civilisation.

A good portion of this hike is on dirt roads, built to access the area’s numerous mines. But there is almost no tourism infrastructure. Find a Kallawaya guide in the village of Pelechuco; the route is difficult to find otherwise. The 50km trek crosses three passes of more than 4,700m, the highest of which is Sunchulli Pass at 5,100m. Then the route stays well over 4,000m until its end in the steaming hot springs near the village of Charazani.

Bolivia’s highest peak
Set in the Cordillera Occidental, which forms Bolivia’s eastern border with Chile, the volcano Sajama is the country’s highest peak at 6,542m high. Together with neighbouring volcanoes Parinacota (6,340m) and Tomerape (6,300m), Sajama forms the centrepiece of the gorgeous Sajama National Park. This is a high-altitude landscape of snow-frosted volcanic cones, indigo skies, sparse vegetation and roaming herds of vicuñas (camelids of the llama and alpaca family) and ñandus (Latin America’s version of an ostrich). There are also azure lakes dotted with pink flamingos, fuming geysers and hot springs to soak in after a long day’s walk. A 45km route through the park starts in the village of Oxani, and guides can organise homestays with locals who live at the foot of the volcano.