East of the Altiplano, the Andes march gradually down towards the eastern lowlands in a series of rugged north–south mountain ranges, scarred with long narrow valleys formed by rivers draining to the east. Blessed with rich alluvial soils, and midway in climate and altitude between the cold of the Altiplano and the tropical heat of the lowlands, these central valleys have historically been among the most fertile and habitable areas in Bolivia. In the fifteenth century the Incas established substantial agricultural colonies in the region, which formed the easternmost frontier of their empire – to this day the majority of the rural population still speak Quechua, the language the Incas introduced. The Spanish were attracted by the same qualities, and the two main cities they founded, Sucre and Cochabamba, remain the most important in the region, though origins aside they could not be more different in character.
The administrative, political and religious centre of Bolivia during Spanish rule, and still officially the capital, Sucre is a masterpiece of immaculately preserved colonial architecture, full of elegant churches, mansions and museums. It’s also the market centre for the deeply traditional Quechua-speaking communities of the surrounding mountains, whose fine weavings are sold at the regional market town of Tarabuco.
The charms of Cochabamba, on the other hand, are much more prosaic. A bustling trading hub for a rich agricultural hinterland, it has few conventional tourist attractions, and for most travellers is no more than a place to break a journey between La Paz and Santa Cruz in the eastern lowlands. Those who do spend some time here, however, find it to be one of Bolivia’s friendliest cities, and the surrounding Cochabamba Valley’s mixture of Inca ruins and lively rural market towns is worth exploring as well. It’s also the jumping-off point for an adventurous journey south into the remote Northern Potosí province, where the diverse attractions of Parque Nacional Torotoro include labyrinthine limestone caves, deep canyons and waterfalls, dinosaur footprints and ancient ruins.
East of Cochabamba, meanwhile, the main road to Santa Cruz passes through the Chapare, a beautiful region of rushing rivers and dense tropical forests, where the last foothills of the Andes plunge down into the Amazon basin. The area has become notorious as the source of most of Bolivia’s coca crop, which is used to make a large proportion of the world’s cocaine supply, and conflicts continue between government drug-enforcement officers and local peasant farmers. As such, it’s hardly an ideal area for travellers, though some areas remain safe to visit.