Dominated by dramatic Andean scenery and home to some of South America’s most pristine wilderness areas, Bolivia should be one of the world’s top destinations for outdoor enthusiasts. As yet, though, its enormous potential is only just starting to be tapped – which for many travellers will only add to its appeal.
For climbers, trekkers and mountain bikers, Bolivia’s possibilities are virtually limitless. The best season for all these activities is between May and September, during the southern-hemisphere winter (the most pleasant and reliable weather is between June and August). During the rainy season between December and March or April, rain turns paths and roads to mud, and streams to impassable torrents, while cloud covers the high passes and blocks many of the best views.
Whether you want to stroll for half a day or take a hardcore hike for two weeks over high passes and down into remote Amazonian valleys, Bolivia is a paradise for trekking. The most popular trekking region is the Cordillera Real, which is blessed with spectacular high Andean scenery and is easily accessible from La Paz. The mountains here are crisscrossed by paths and mule trains used by local people that make excellent trekking routes – the best of these are ancient stone-paved highways built by the Incas and earlier Andean societies. Starting near La Paz, three of Bolivia’s most popular treks – the Choro, Takesi and Yunga Cruz – follow these Inca trails across the Cordillera Real before plunging down into the humid tropical valleys of the Yungas. Another good base for exploring the Cordillera Real is the town of Sorata, north of La Paz, where many good trekking routes begin.
Isla del Sol and the shores of Lago Titicaca are also excellent for hiking, combining awesome scenery with gentle gradients. People looking for more seclusion should head for the remote and beautiful Cordillera Apolobamba, which is traversed by one of Bolivia’s finest trekking routes, the Trans-Apolobamba Trek. Elsewhere, the mountains around Sucre offer further excellent trekking possibilities, while the Reserva Biológica del Sama, near Tarija, is also home to a beautiful Inca trail.
You should always be well equipped when walking, even if it’s just a half-day hike. Weather can change quickly in the mountains and it gets very cold at night. You’ll need strong hiking boots; warm layers; a waterproof top layer; a hat and gloves; an adequate first-aid kit; a water bottle and water purifiers; sunscreen, a sun hat and sunglasses. For camping out you’ll need a decent tent; a sleeping bag that keeps you warm in temperatures as low as -5°C; an insulated sleeping mat; and a cooking stove (ideally a multi-fuel stove).
The easiest way to go trekking is on an organized trip, which takes all the hassle out of route-finding and means you don’t need to supply your own equipment. You’ll also have all your meals cooked for you and transport to and from trailheads arranged. If you pay a little more, you can also have your gear carried for you by a porter or pack animal. Trekking this way costs around Bs210–420 ($30–60) per person per day.
Things are much cheaper if you have all your own equipment, organize the logistics yourself, and just hire a guide (around Bs140 a day). In rural towns and villages you can usually find local campesinos who know all the trails and will act as a guide for a relatively small fee (on treks of more than one day you’ll also need to provide them with food and possibly a tent). If you’re hiring pack animals (such as mules, donkeys or llamas), then the mule handlers double up as guides. As well as making sure you don’t get lost, a local guide can help avoid any possible misunderstandings with the communities you pass through – it’s also a good way to ensure local people see a little economic benefit from tourism.
If you plan to go trekking over longer distances without a guide, you should be competent at route-finding and map-reading, carry a compass and/or GPS, and equip yourself with the relevant topographical maps, where available. Most areas are covered by 1:50,000-scale maps produced by the Bolivian military and available in La Paz. Really, though, it’s much better to trek with a guide. Getting lost in remote mountain or forested regions is easy and can be very dangerous, and rescue services are pretty much non-existent. In addition, you should always let someone in town know your plans before you head off on a long walk. It’s especially important not to trek alone – if you sprain an ankle, it could be the last anyone ever sees of you.
With hundreds of peaks over 5000m and a dozen over 6000m, Bolivia has plenty of types of mountain climbing, and many new routes still to explore. As with trekking, the most popular region is the dramatic Cordillera Real, which is blessed with numerous high peaks, easy access from La Paz and fairly stable weather conditions during the dry season. In addition, the volcanic peaks of the Cordillera Occidental, particularly Sajama, offer some excellent climbs, while the more remote Cordillera Apolobamba and Cordillera Quimsa Cruz also offer a wealth of possibilities. Several of the higher peaks are well within the reach of climbers with only limited experience, while Huayna Potosí (6090m), in the Cordillera Real, is one of the few 6000m-plus peaks in South America that can be climbed by people with no mountaineering experience at all.
Though some equipment is available for hire in La Paz, you should really bring your own equipment from home if you’re planning on doing any serious independent climbing. You should also take care to acclimatize properly and be aware of the dangers of altitude sickness and extreme cold. A number of agencies in La Paz offer guided ascents of the most popular peaks: check carefully that the guide is qualified and the equipment reliable – if in doubt, go with a more reputable and expensive agency. You can get good advice and find fully qualified mountaineering guides through the Club Andino Boliviano (t022312875), in La Paz at Mexico 1638, just up from Plaza Estudiante.
Bolivia is home to some of the finest mountain bike routes in the world, and travelling by bike is one of the best ways to experience the Andes. Numerous tour companies in La Paz have set up downhill mountain biking trips. These involve being driven up to a high pass, put on a bike, and then riding downhill at your own pace, accompanied by a guide and followed by a support vehicle. This is not an activity where you should try to save money by going with a cheap operator – look for a company with experienced guides, well-maintained and high-quality bikes and adequate safety equipment; Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking has the best reputation.
Easily the most popular route is down the road from La Paz to Coroico in the Yungas, a stunning 3500m descent which many travellers rate as one of the highlights of South America, never mind Bolivia. You don’t need any previous mountain-biking experience to do this ride, which is easy to organize as a day-trip from La Paz. Other popular routes include Chacaltaya to La Paz, and down the Zongo valley into the Yungas from Chacaltaya, while hard-core mountain bikers can try their luck on the Takesi Trail. As with trekking and climbing, though, the possibilities are pretty much endless, especially if you have your own bike.
The many rivers rushing down from the Andes into the Upper Amazon valleys offer massive potential for kayaking and whitewater rafting, though these activities are not as developed as they could be. The most easily accessible and popular river is the Río Coroico, in the Yungas, which offers rapids from grade II to IV (and sometimes higher) and is accessible on day-trips from Coroico. The most challenging trip is down the Río Tuichi, which runs from the high Andes down into the rainforest of the Parque Nacional Madidi.