Bolivia is like a theme park for grown-up adventurers. It offers multiday treks, relatively easy day hikes, mountain biking that’ll leave your teeth chattering, climbs to lost Andean peaks, rivers for rafting and rugged 4WD journeys over stones that once paved the Inca empire.
Hiking & Trekking
Hiking and trekking are arguably the most rewarding Andean activities. Add a porter, llama train and experienced guide, and you have all the makings for a grand adventure. Some of the most popular hikes and treks begin near La Paz, traverse the Cordillera Real along ancient Inca routes and end in the Yungas, including the well-known El Choro, Takesi and Yunga Cruz treks.
Sorata is a hiker’s dream come true, offering a variety of options from don’t-leave-home-without-a-machete-type hikes to more pleasant walks on Inca trails surrounding the Illampu Massif. The Área Natural de Manejo Integrado Nacional (Anmin) Apolobamba, which includes the four- to five-day Lagunillas to Agua Blanca trek, is becoming more popular, but is best visited with a local guide.
Near Tarija, two- to four-day treks through the Valle de los Condores offer spectacular bird-watching as well as walking.
National parks are also paradise for hikers, with hiking opportunities in Parque Nacional & Área de Uso Múltiple Amboró and Parque Nacional Sajama. A few hikes outside Charazani are worth checking out.
Many treks can be done by experienced outdoors travelers without a guide (you should know how to use a map, compass and GPS, how to build a fire – even in the rain – and how to open a bottle of wine with a pocket knife). Nevertheless, hiring a guide provides an added level of security. No matter what, check out the security situation before heading out.
To help preserve the ecology and beauty of Bolivia, consider the following tips when trekking.
Carry out your rubbish OK, so many tracks in Bolivia are already littered, but this doesn’t mean that you should add to the problem.
Never bury your rubbish Digging disturbs soil and ground cover, and causes erosion; foreign matter affects local wildlife and may take years to rot.
Keep water sources clean Contamination of water sources by human feces can lead to the transmission of all sorts of nasties. Where there is a toilet, use it; where there is none, best practice is to carry waste out. If you decide to bury it, dig a deep hole away from water sources. Additionally, don’t use detergents or toothpaste in or near watercourses.
Stick to existing trails Avoid cutting corners – it contributes to erosion.
Don’t depend on open fires for cooking Cook on a lightweight kerosene, alcohol or Shellite (white-gas) stove and avoid those powered by disposable butane-gas canisters. Continuous cutting of wood by local communities and trekkers can cause deforestation, plus wildfire risks.
Do not feed the wildlife It can lead to animals becoming dependent on handouts, unbalanced populations and disease.
Always seek permission to camp Ask in the village where you can camp overnight.
Mountaineering & Climbing
Climbing in Bolivia is an exercise in extremes – like the country itself. In the dry southern winter (May to October) temperatures may fluctuate as much as 40.5°C in a single day. Once you’re acclimatized to the altiplano’s relatively thin air (you’ll need at least a week), there is still 2500m of even thinner air above.
A plus for climbers is the access to mountains; although public transportation may not always be available, roads pass within easy striking distance of many fine peaks.
The most accessible and spectacular climbing in the country is along the 160km-long Cordillera Real northeast of La Paz. Six of its peaks rise above 6000m and there are many more gems in the 5000m range. Because of the altitude, glaciers and ice or steep snow, few of the peaks are ‘walk-ups,’ but some are within the capability of an average climber, and many can be done by beginners with a competent guide. Huayna Potosí is one of the most popular climbs for nonprofessionals, but be aware that although it’s on the La Paz agency circuit, it’s no walk (or climb) in the park! La Paz operators also take climbs up the magnificent Volcán Sajama, Bolivia’s highest peak. You can also find local guides for Sajama and other nearby peaks at the hostels in Parque Nacional Sajama.
Around Cordillera Quimsa Cruz there is a variety of lesser-known climbing opportunities. Volcán Illimani is for serious climbing expeditions and popular among advanced climbing groups.
Dangers include getting lost, avalanches, crevasses, snow blindness, dehydration, altitude sickness and occasional muggings on the way up. Be careful in hiring your guide, buy mountaineering insurance, drink lots of water, protect your skin, dress properly and wear sunglasses. Altitude sickness is a very real thing – watch for signs of fatigue, dizziness and nausea. Proper acclimatization and hydration will help. If you think you are getting sick, head down.
Socorro Andino Bolivia provides rescue assistance if you need help.
Hiring a Guide
Many travel agencies in La Paz and larger cities organize climbing and trekking trips in the Cordillera Real and other areas. Not all, however, are everything they claim to be. Some guides have gotten lost, several have died, and others have practiced less-than-professional tactics, such as stringing 10 or more climbers on the same rope. Always do your research and go with professionally accredited guides such as those registered with the Asociación de Guias de Montaña (www.agmtb.org), an internationally certified association of registered mountain guides. They’re more expensive, but it’s worth the cost.
In choosing an agency, ask to see the equipment you will be using and meet the guide. If harnesses are worn, double boots are broken down or the ropes are frayed, demand they be replaced. Talk with the guide and make sure you feel comfortable with him or her. When you hit the mountain, the guide should teach you how to travel on a rope (two people and a guide per rope, no more) and self-arrest with your ice axe.
Agencies can provide almost everything you will need – from just organizing transportation to a full service with guide, cook, mules, porters, an itinerary and so forth – but you should bring warm clothes (avoid cotton and stick to wool or synthetics), a headlamp and extra batteries, plenty of water and snacks. The guides will generally prepare three meals a day.
Professional trekking guides generally charge US$60 to US$80 per day (plus food).
Maps & Guidebooks
Historically, maps of Bolivian climbing areas have been poor in quality and difficult to obtain. Even now, elevations of peaks are murky, with reported altitudes varying as much as 600m – it seems the rumor that Ancohuma is taller than Argentina's Aconcagua won’t die.
The Travel Map of Bolivia, one of the best country maps, and New Map of the Cordillera Real, which shows mountains, roads and precolonial routes, are published by O’Brien Cartographics. They are out of print, but still available at various tourist hangouts, including the postcard kiosks within La Paz's Central Post Office.
Government 1:50,000 topographical and specialty sheets are available from the Instituto Geográfico Militar (IGM), which has offices in most major cities, including a branch in La Paz.
Walter Guzmán Córdova has produced 1:50,000 colorful contour maps of El Choro–Takesi–Yunga Cruz, Mururata–Illimani, Huayna Potosí–Condoriri and Sajama, but those other than El Choro–Takesi–Yunga Cruz map are in short supply. The Deutscher Alpenverein (German Alpine Club) produces the excellent and accurate 1:50,000 maps Alpenvereinskarte Cordillera Real Nord (Illampu), which includes the Sorata area, and Alpenvereinskarte Cordillera Real Süd (Illimani), which centers on Illimani.
The best mountaineering guide is Bolivia: A Climbing Guide by Yossi Brain; the late author worked as a climbing guide in La Paz and also served as secretary of the Club Andino Boliviano. The Andes of Bolivia by Alain Mesili is available in English.
Bolivia is blessed with some of the most dramatic mountain-biking terrain in the world, and offers seven months every year of near-perfect weather and relatively easy access to mountain ranges, magnificent lakes, precolonial ruins and trails, and myriad eco-zones connected by an extensive network of footpaths and jeep roads.
The Bolivian Andes are full of long and thrilling descents, as well as challenging touring possibilities – though most people opt for downhill rides because of the altitude. One of the world’s longest downhill rides will take you from Parque Nacional Sajama down to the Chilean coast at Arica. In the dry season you can even tackle the mostly level roads of the vast Amazon lowlands.
Some rides from La Paz can be done by riders of any experience level. There are more combinations than a bike lock as trails lead through Inca roads, tropical tracks, jeep roads and scree chutes. The best known (but not necessarily the best for serious riders) is the thrilling 3600m trip down the World’s Most Dangerous Road from La Cumbre to Coroico. Another popular route near La Paz is the lush Zongo Valley ride, which can be started from Chacaltaya at 5395m.
The town of Sorata has cemented its position as the mountain-bike mecca of Bolivia, with scores of downhill single-track trails and jeep roads near town, including a combination bike-and-boat trip from Sorata to Rurrenabaque. For the hardcore rider, scree chutes to biker-built single track and jump zones abound. Every year, typically in October, Sorata is host to the longest downhill race on a hand-built course, the Jach'a Avalancha (Grand Avalanche) Mountain Bike Race. Other epic descents begin in Sorata and head into the hinterland of the Cordillera Muñecas, or start in Copacabana and La Paz and head to Sorata.
More and more travelers are taking up the cycling challenge and heading on two wheels from the north of the country to the south, or vice versa. Those with their own bikes need to consider several factors. During part of the rainy season, particularly December to February, some roads become mired in muck and heavy rain can greatly reduce visibility, creating dangerous conditions. Also worth noting is Bolivia’s lack of spare parts. Comprehensive repair kits are essential. In the Southern Altiplano and Uyuni regions, water is very scarce; you must be able to carry at least two days’ worth of water in some places.
Heading out in a 4WD is becoming an increasingly popular activity. It allows you access to places that are tricky to get to and, although sometimes on the pricier side, may be the only feasible way of visiting a region. As well as the standard Southwest Circuit tours (setting off from Uyuni, Tupiza or La Paz), you can cruise out to the quebradas (ravines or washes, usually dry) beyond Tupiza, visit the Tarabuco market on a tour from Sucre or the Incallajta Inca ruins near Cochabamba.
Tours in 4WDs are a great way to enter some of the country’s national parks. Current trips include those around Parque Nacional Torotoro (from Cochabamba) and Parque Nacional Sajama (from La Paz), or into the Cordillera de los Frailes (from Sucre).
For those keen to arrange trips themselves, consider hiring a driver. This can be an efficient and good-value way of seeing specific areas, especially if you are in a group.
Whitewater Rafting & Kayaking
One of Bolivia’s greatest secrets is the number of white-water rivers that drain the eastern slopes of the Andes between the Cordillera Apolobamba and the Chapare. Here, avid rafters and kayakers can enjoy thrilling descents. While access will normally require long drives and/or treks – and considerable expense if done independently – there are a few fine rivers that are relatively accessible.
Some La Paz tour agencies can organize day trips on the Río Coroico. Other options include the Río Unduavi and numerous wild Chapare rivers.
A more gentle but fun rush in the Chuquisaca region is a float downriver in rubber inner tubes. This trip is often coupled with mountain biking. One of the greatest thrills along the same biathlon idea is to cruise 4000m downhill on mountain bike to Mapiri and then raft your way for several days, camping en route, to Rurrenabaque. Amazon canoe tours along the Río Beni are unforgettable, as are the trips along the Río Mamoré from Trinidad.
Go with the Flow
Numerous tour operators combine rafting, biking, hiking and 4WD trips. These trips can be costly, but it’s great fun to mix things up a bit.
Sorata to Rurrenabaque A double-action trip including a five-day ride-and-river jaunt. This full-on adventure includes a two-day biking trip, which culminates in an exciting 4000m descent on single track via Consata and Mapiri, followed by three days of floating down the Río Beni on a riveting expedition in a motorized dugout canoe, with side hikes to waterfalls and to Parque Nacional Madidi for wildlife watching. It’s offered by Gravity tours.
Coroico You can custom-build trips with guides from Coroico that will take you to waterfalls at dawn, in an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) at noon and to visit canyons at sunset.
Tupiza Travel by horse, ATV and mountain bike on innovative triathlons.
Copacabana Paddle a swan boat across the bay, cycle to Yampupata, row to Isla del Sol, run across the island, then take the boat back. It’s never been done in one day (according to legend).
For some, a horse saddle sure beats a bus seat, and it’s a great way to absorb the sights, sounds and smells of a country. Horseback-riding trips are a new and increasingly popular way to reach otherwise inaccessible wilderness areas. The best place to try it is in Tupiza, former territory of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. You get to see the multicolored desert landscape, quebradas and cacti-dotted countryside.
Flora and fauna fanatics are spoilt for choice in this extraordinary country where world-class wildlife watching abounds. The diversity of intact habitats throughout the country accounts for the huge number of surviving species.
The Parque Nacional Madidi, for example, home to over 1000 bird species as well as wildlife endemic to the majority of Bolivia's ecosystems, from tropical rainforest and savanna to cloud forest and alpine tundra, is arguably one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Agencies, often run by scientists or environmentalists, run nature trips out of Santa Cruz, Cochabamba and Samaipata, and, to a lesser extent, La Paz.
Hot spots for bird-watching include the highlands around La Paz and Cochabamba, Parque Nacional & Área de Uso Múltiple Amboró and the Reserva Biosférica del Beni. Contact Asociación Armonía (www.armonia-bo.org), the Bolivian partner of BirdLife International, for further bird-watching information. Other organizations with bird knowledge include Bird Bolivia, Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza and Michael Blendinger Tours.
Paragliding is an up-and-coming activity, but ask carefully about your pilot's experience. One great view is just south of La Paz.
More relaxing hot spots are the many termas (hot springs) that bubble away in various parts of the country. You don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to immerse yourself in this less energetic activity – there are springs in Tarapaya just outside Potosí, Talula, San Xavier and Sajama.
Ziplining and canopy tours are just starting up, with ziplines near Coroico and a community-run endeavor near Rurrenabaque. You can also fish, canyoneer, drive an ATV (noise and pollution pots that they are), and even rappel off buildings in La Paz.