Encompassing a wide variety of landscapes – including subtropical valleys, expansive plains and soaring Andean peaks – the beautiful high-altitude region surrounding La Paz can seem like a microcosm of the country as a whole, and is sometimes known as “Little Bolivia” because of it. Its focal point is the stunning, shimmering blue of Lago Titicaca, held sacred by the Incas and venerated to this day by local indigenous communities. The nearby Cordillera Real, Cordillera Apolobamba and the Yungas are dotted with tranquil towns, many with balmy temperatures and stunning views, which make them perfect places to relax or to escape the chill of the Altiplano. There are also innumerable options for exploring the diverse countryside on hiking, mountain-biking or climbing excursions. Moreover, with regular transport links to both La Paz and across the border to Peru, the area is easy to access and incorporate into a wider trip.
Lying some 75km northwest of La Paz, Lago Titicaca is a vast, high-altitude lake. Straddling the border with Peru it dominates the northern section of the Altiplano, the rolling, 3800m-high plateau that stretches between the eastern and western chains of the Andes – the cordilleras Oriental and Occidental – as they march south through Bolivia. The best base from which to explore the Bolivian side of the lake is Copacabana, which is home to the country’s most revered religious image, as well as the jumping-off point for boat trips to Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna, two idyllic islands dotted with Inca ruins.
Further north, on the Peruvian border, the isolated Cordillera Apolobamba (also part of the Cordillera Oriental) offers great trekking and climbing opportunities in a far more remote setting. South of here and just east of Lago Titicaca is the Cordillera Real, the highest and most spectacular section of the Cordillera Oriental within Bolivia. Stretching some 160km along the edge of the Altiplano, from Mount Illimani (6439m), southeast of La Paz, to the Illampu massif (6370m), which towers over the eastern side of Lago Titicaca, the Cordillera Real can easily be explored from La Paz or the town of Sorata, at the northwestern end of the range.
The Yungas’ rugged, forest-covered mountains, rivers and warm, fertile valleys offer a stark contrast to the nearby Cordillera and arid Altiplano. With a new highway inaugurated in 2006, the old hair-raising route down to the Yungas from La Paz – dubbed the most dangerous in the world – is now largely the domain of mountain bikers. The most popular Yungas destination is Coroico, a resort town set amid beautiful scenery. Within easy striking distance of Coroico are the diverse ecosystems of Parque Nacional Cotapata, through which the rewarding Choro Trail passes. The Takesi Trail, which also follows a pre-Hispanic paved path, is one of the most popular treks in the region. Chulumani, a peaceful town, is less touristy than Coroico but boasts equally good views, while the Yunga Cruz Trail is the region’s most scenic trek.
The Cordillera Apolobamba
North of Lago Titicaca, flush with the Peruvian border, is the Cordillera Apolobamba, the remote northern extension of the Cordillera Oriental. The splendour of the high mountain scenery in this isolated range equals or even exceeds that of the Cordillera Real, and the environment is more pristine. The region is protected by the Area Natural de Manejo Integrado Nacional Apolobamba, which covers nearly five hundred square kilometres. The range is still rich in wildlife only rarely seen elsewhere: condors, caracaras and other big birds are frequently seen; pumas and spectacled bears still roam the most isolated regions; and large herds of vicuña can be seen from the road which crosses the plain of Ulla Ulla, a high plateau that runs along the western side of the range.
During the colonial era the Cordillera Apolobamba was an important gold-mining centre, and the mining settlements established by the Spanish also served as bases for conquistadors and missionaries to launch expeditions down into the Amazon lowlands, though these were never brought under effective Spanish control. During the Great Rebellion of 1781 many of the colonial mines in the region were abandoned, and rumours persist of a mother lode of gold concealed in a long-abandoned mine, still waiting to be discovered. Tourist infrastructure is virtually nonexistent in this isolated region, but for the adventurous it offers perhaps Bolivia’s best high-mountain trekking. The only real towns in the Cordillera Apolobamba are Charazani and Pelechuco, both of which can be reached by tough but spectacular bus journeys from La Paz. Between the two runs the fabulous four- or five-day Trans-Apolobamba Trek.
The Kallawayas: medicine men of the Andes
The Cordillera Apolobamba is home to Bolivia’s smallest and most mysterious ethnic group: the Kallawayas. Inhabiting half a dozen villages in the Upper Charazani Valley, the Kallawayas are a secretive caste of traditional herbal medicine practitioners, thought to number just a few hundred, who are famous throughout the Andes for their healing powers – even more so since UNESCO declared their “Andean cosmovision” (ie the totality of their belief system, encompassing every aspect of life) a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003. The enormous ecological diversity of the Cordillera Apolobamba means the Kallawayas have a vast natural pharmacy of plants to draw on, while the region’s proximity to the tropical lowlands has also given them access to the vast medicinal resources of Amazonian shamanism. Individual Kallawayas may know the medical properties of over nine hundred different plant species, a knowledge that is passed from father to son. Some historical sources credit the Kallawayas with being the first to use the dried bark of the cinchona tree, the source of quinine, to prevent and cure malaria; taken to Europe by the Jesuits, quinine remains to this day the basis for most treatments of the disease. More recently, scientists have studied chemicals derived from herbs used by the Kallawayas as possible treatments for HIV.
For many centuries the Kallawayas have wandered through the Andes collecting herbs and bringing their specialist medical skills to local people. Individual healers roamed huge distances, often on foot, travelling to Peru, Chile, Argentina and as far as Panama during the construction of the canal, as well as the length and breadth of Bolivia. Most Kallawayas are also powerful ritual specialists, combining their skills as herbalists with the supposed ability to predict the future and diagnose illness by reading coca leaves. Although the main language spoken in their communities is Quechua, and many also speak some Aymara or Spanish, the Kallawaya medicine men famously speak a secret tongue known as Machaj Juyay, which is used only in healing rituals and other ceremonies. Some researchers believe Machaj Juyay is related to the secret language spoken in private by the Inca ruling elite. Certainly, the earliest post-conquest chroniclers linked the Kallawayas to the Incas. One wrote that the Kallawayas were brought to Cusco to act as herbalists and carry out important religious ceremonies and divination rituals for the Inca rulers; another claimed they had been charged with carrying the litter of the Inca himself. Other evidence suggests that the Kallawayas date back far into Andean prehistory: in 1970 archeologists uncovered a skeleton in the Charazani valley which had been buried with recognizable Kallawaya paraphernalia – this was carbon-dated to between 800 and 1000 BC, two thousand years before the rise of the Inca Empire.
These days the Kallawayas no longer wander as far and wide as they used to, and their numbers are thought to be dwindling, as fewer sons acquire their fathers’ knowledge. However, a growing number are now resident in La Paz, where their skills remain in high demand.
The Cordillera Real
Stretching for about 160km along the northeastern edge of the Altiplano, the Cordillera Real (Royal Range) is the loftiest and most dramatic section of the Cordillera Oriental in Bolivia. With six peaks over 6000m high and many more over 5000m, it forms a jagged wall of soaring, ice-bound peaks that separates the Altiplano from the Amazon basin. Easily accessible from La Paz, the mountains are perfect for climbing and trekking. Populated by isolated Aymara communities, the cordillera is a largely pristine natural environment: the Andean condor is still a common sight, and other birds like eagles, caracaras and hawks are also frequently seen; though rarely spotted, pumas still prowl the upper reaches, while the elusive Andean spectacled bear roams the high cloudforest that fringes the mountains’ upper eastern slopes.
Some 55km north of Achacachi, enclosed in a deep, fertile valley at the foot of the mighty 6400m Illampu massif, SORATA has a beautiful setting. Hemmed in by steep mountain slopes and often shrouded in cloud, it has a Shangri-la feel – early Spanish explorers even compared the valley to the Garden of Eden. At an altitude of 2695m, it is significantly warmer than La Paz, but is still cool at night compared to the Yungas. Though there’s little to do in Sorata, it’s a pleasant place to hang out while preparing for or recovering from some hard trekking or climbing, as well as a good base for less strenuous walks in the surrounding countryside.
During the colonial era Sorata was an important trade and gold-mining centre with a large Spanish population. In 1781, at the time of the Great Rebellion, it was successfully besieged by supporters of neo-Inca rebel Tupac Amaru, who dammed rivers above the town and then released a torrent that swept it away. Sorata later enjoyed considerable prosperity as one of the main routes into the Yungas from the Altiplano, generating fortunes for the German merchants who dominated the town in the nineteenth century. Sorata was back in the headlines in 2003, when local solidarity with the El Alto-centred “gas war” resulted in several deaths. Its popularity was understandably dented, and today it is still struggling to regain its former appeal. Many businesses (including restaurants) close on Tuesdays.
Top image: Island and canoes on Lake Titicaca, Peru © saiko3p/Shutterstock