Hey there, fellow wanderer! Ever felt the urge to breathe in the crisp air of high-altitude plains while gazing upon landscapes so surreal they could be from another planet?
If you nodded or even if you just raised an eyebrow in curiosity, let me take you on a mental journey to the heart of South America: the Bolivian Altiplano.
Picture vast stretches of salt flats mirroring the sky, ethereal lakes dotted with flamingos, and ancient cultures that seem to whisper stories from the past. Intrigued? Let’s dive deeper, shall we?
What is the Altiplano?
So, what’s this Altiplano I’m waxing poetic about? In the simplest of terms, the Altiplano, which translates to “high plain”, is an extensive plateau nestled in the Andes. But it’s so much more than just a “high plain”. Spanning both Bolivia and Peru, this region is not just geographically significant but is an integral patch in Bolivia’s incredible landscape, biodiversity, and tourism hotspots.
Bolivia’s chunk of the Altiplano isn’t just a stunning vista for photographers and travelers; it’s the heartbeat of the nation. The terrain has deeply influenced Bolivia’s history, culture, and even its economy.
Imagine centuries-old trade routes snaking across the plains, ancient civilizations rising and falling, and traditions birthed that continue to thrive today. Do you feel the weight of history yet? Stick around, because the Altiplano has a lot more stories to share!
The Geography of the Altiplano
Alright, let’s geek out on geography for a moment. Picture this: vast high plains stretching as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the majestic rise of mountain ranges and the gentle undulations of valleys. You’re not just imagining any plain, but the Bolivian Altiplano. Nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Now, for my fellow map enthusiasts, you’ll find the Altiplano sandwiched between two mountain behemoths: the Cordillera Occidental to the west and the Cordillera Oriental to the east. This positioning gives the Altiplano its unique geographic character and those jaw-dropping panoramas.
The Altiplano is a high-altitude plateau, that boasts an average altitude of around 3,750 meters (12,300 ft). Mind-boggling, right? This makes it one of the highest inhabited regions in the world. Imagine waking up every day with your head almost literally in the clouds!
The Climate of the Bolivian Altiplano
Given its lofty altitude, the Altiplano has a climate that can be best described as a high-altitude desert. But what does that mean for you, dear traveler?
First off, expect some wild temperature swings. The sun overhead might tempt you to shed layers during the day, but come nightfall, you’ll be rummaging for every piece of warm clothing you packed. It’s this very dance between the warm days and chilly nights that adds a touch of adventure to every Altiplano trip.
And rain? The Altiplano sees its fair share during the wet season, which typically stretches from December to March. While the rain can occasionally play spoilsport to your plans, it gifts the region with an invaluable treasure: Lake Titicaca.
This sprawling lake isn’t just a sight for sore eyes; it’s vital for the region’s ecosystem, supporting both human and animal life. Plus, have you ever seen a sunset over Lake Titicaca? If not, trust me, it’s something to add to your bucket list.
The Altiplano’s Aymara and Quechua Cultures
When you’re exploring the vast expanses of the Bolivian Altiplano, you’re also stepping into the heartlands of the Aymara and Quechua cultures, two of South America’s most enduring indigenous communities.
The Aymara people, with their deep roots in the Altiplano, are guardians of a millennia-old culture. They’ve woven a tapestry of tradition, evident in everything from their iconic bowler hats to their impressive agricultural terraces.
While visiting, you might come across an Aymara shaman, or yatiri, performing a ritual blessing, or ch’alla, to pay respects to Pachamama (Mother Earth). It’s an intimate connection with nature that’s still very much alive today.
Their festivals, like the Alasitas Fair in La Paz, are colorful displays of gratitude and hope. During this event, people buy miniatures of their desires for the coming year, in hopes that the Andean gods will grant them in full size.
The Quechua, known to many as the descendants of the Incas, have a rich linguistic and cultural heritage that spans several countries. In Bolivia, their vibrant textiles are a feast for the eyes, each pattern narrating a story. Listen closely, and you might hear the soft cadence of the Quechua language, a melodic reminder of the Andes’ ancient civilizations.
The Inti Raymi, or Festival of the Sun, is a spectacular Quechua celebration. Held during the winter solstice, it’s a grand homage to Inti, the sun god, full of dance, music, and traditional feasts.
Did you know? The Quechua and Aymara languages are still widely spoken in the Altiplano, and many road signs are bilingual!
Biodiversity and Ecosystems of the Altiplano
Let’s take a walk on the wild side. The Altiplano isn’t just breathtaking landscapes; it’s a buzzing hub of life, defying the odds at such dizzying heights. The flora and fauna here have pulled off a fantastic evolutionary trick: they’ve adapted to thrive in high-altitude conditions where the air is thin and the temperatures often swing wildly.
For plant lovers among us, the Altiplano is a treat. While it may not be the lush tropics, the plants here have an understated beauty. The ichu grass, for example, is a resilient little plant that provides essential fodder for local livestock. And then there are the moss-looking llaretas, perfectly suited to the colder climates of the high Andes. They grow very slowly and can live extremely long.
But it’s not just the plants. From the graceful vicuñas (a relative of the llama) to the elusive Andean foxes, the animal life here is just as fascinating. Birdwatchers, keep your binoculars at the ready; the Altiplano skies are frequented by species like the Andean flamingo and the giant coot.
The ecosystems of the Altiplano are, in a word, unique. This isn’t just a throwaway line; some of the habitats here are truly one-of-a-kind, found nowhere else on this planet.
Top Places to See and Experiences in the Bolivian Altiplano
Lake Titicaca & Isla del Sol
Perched high in the Andes at over 3,800 meters above sea level, Lake Titicaca holds the title of the highest navigable lake in the world. It sprawls across the border between Bolivia and Peru, creating a vast expanse of deep-blue water set against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks. But beyond its natural beauty, the lake is drenched in myths and legends.
The Isla del Sol, or “Island of the Sun”, is the largest island on Lake Titicaca and is considered sacred in Inca mythology. According to legend, it’s the birthplace of the Sun God, Inti, and the first Inca emperor, Manco Capac. As you walk its terraced hills, dotted with ruins, you’ll feel the weight of the centuries around you. The island has no motor vehicles, enhancing its tranquil atmosphere. From its shores, the panoramic views of the surrounding lake are truly mesmerizing.
Tip for travelers: When visiting, consider staying overnight. The sunsets and sunrises here, with the lake reflecting the kaleidoscope of colors, are experiences that words can barely do justice.
Salar de Uyuni
Imagine stepping onto a vast canvas where the earth meets the sky on an endless horizon. That’s the sensation you get at the Salar de Uyuni. Covering over 10,000 square kilometers, it’s the world’s largest salt flat, formed from ancient prehistoric lakes.
During the rainy season, a thin layer of water transforms the flats into a giant mirror, reflecting the sky so perfectly that it’s hard to tell where the horizon lies.
But there’s more to this place than just the salt flats. The area is dotted with islands, like the Isla Incahuasi, covered in towering cacti and offering vantage points for panoramic views. And then there’s the Train Graveyard, where old steam locomotives lay abandoned, a testament to a bygone era.
Did you know? The Salar also holds vast lithium reserves, a key component for electric batteries.
Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve
This protected area is like a distilled version of all the wonders the Altiplano has to offer. Spanning 7,147 square kilometers, the Eduardo Avaroa Reserve is a mosaic of geysers, hot springs, colorful lagoons, and unique rock formations.
Among the reserve’s many treasures is the Laguna Colorada. The reddish hue of this lagoon, caused by algae and plankton, provides a stark contrast to its surroundings and serves as a feeding ground for three species of flamingos. As you watch these elegant birds stride through the shallow waters, the sight feels almost otherworldly.
Another highlight is the Sol de Mañana geothermal field, where bubbling mud pots and steaming geysers remind visitors of the volcanic forces simmering just beneath the Earth’s crust. Another incredibly beautiful lake is Laguna Verde, next to the border with Chile.
Traveler’s tip: The high-altitude desert can get chilly, especially during the evenings and early mornings. Dressing in layers is key, and don’t forget to pack warm clothing!
Archaeological Sites: Tiwanaku Ruins
Step into a time portal and find yourself amidst one of South America’s most enigmatic ancient cities: Tiwanaku. Located just a short drive from La Paz, this UNESCO World Heritage site was once the spiritual and political center of the Tiwanaku Empire, which predates even the mighty Inca civilization.
As you wander among its grand temples, intricately carved monoliths, and sunken courtyards, you’ll be faced with more questions than answers. How did the Tiwanaku people move those massive stones? What secrets lie behind the Gate of the Sun, with its mysterious carved figures? While many of its puzzles remain unsolved, one thing is certain: the skill and sophistication of the Tiwanaku culture leave a lasting impression.
Did you know? The Ponce Monolith, standing tall in the center of the site, is covered in intricate carvings and is believed to represent a significant figure from the Tiwanaku period.
The Bolivian Altiplano is more than just its renowned landmarks. Every corner of this high-altitude desert hides natural treasures waiting to be discovered.
Take the Desaguadero River, for example. This winding waterway, which connects Lake Titicaca to the smaller Lake Poopó, has played a crucial role for local communities for centuries, providing a lifeline in this arid landscape. Along its banks, you might catch glimpses of local life, from herders tending to their flocks to kids waving as they play by the river’s edge.
Then, let the stress melt away in the natural hot springs scattered across the region. Polques Hot Springs, with views of snow-capped peaks, is a favorite among travelers. After a day of exploring, what’s better than sinking into a warm bath provided by Mother Nature herself?
Traveler’s tip: Remember to pack your swimsuit! And, if you’re keen on catching the geysers in action, visiting them during the early hours guarantees a spectacular steamy show.
Immersing oneself in the Altiplano isn’t complete without delving into its vibrant culture. Let’s start with the bustling local markets. From the maze-like stalls of La Paz’s Mercado de las Brujas (Witches’ Market) to the kaleidoscope of colors in rural bazaars, these markets offer a sensory overload. You’ll find everything from fresh produce and local delicacies to handcrafted textiles and traditional potions.
But if you time your visit right, you might just witness the region’s soul-stirring festivals. The most renowned is the Oruro Carnival, a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. With its colorful parades, traditional dances, and spirited music, this festival is a cultural extravaganza that celebrates the blend of indigenous and Christian traditions.
Don’t forget to meander through the Altiplano’s traditional villages. Here, you’ll see centuries-old customs alive and well. Witness the artistry of local weavers in Tarabuco, or share a mate de coca (coca tea) with villagers in Sorata.
Did you know? Mate de coca is believed to help with altitude acclimatization. So, when in the Altiplano, drink as the locals do!
Salar de Uyuni & Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve: Classic 3-Day Tour Itinerary
Day 1 – Uyuni → Salar de Uyuni → San Juan
- Car trip: Uyuni & Train Cemetery → Playa Blanca Salt Hotel | 36 km (22 mi), 1 hour
- Car trip: Salt Hotel → Incahuasi Island | 61.7 km (38.3 mi), 1 hour
- Car trip: Incahuasi Island → San Juan | 88.4 km (55 mi), 1:30 hour
For the first stop of this tour, you don’t go very far. Just outside of Uyuni, a site has become an unmissable attraction: the train cemetery. In this place, abandoned rusting trains have become an entertaining visit for every visitor in Uyuni. And yeah, I have to admit it’s fun to climb on the rusty locomotive carcasses. They also make cool photography opportunities.
Once the climbing-on-abandoned-trains session is done, it is time to finally head to the place we came here for, the Uyuni Salt Flats! After crossing the small village of Colchani, your eyes are glued to the bright white strip of the salt flat along the horizon, getting wider and wider, until you suddenly find yourself on it.
It is a surprising feeling to be in a car in the middle of this flat and empty landscape. It is so featureless that you can’t even tell if the car is going rather slowly, or speeding like crazy.
7 km from the edge, the Playa Blanca Salt Hotel was the original salt hotel that was built on the Uyuni Salt Flat. It is now closed due to its environmental impact. It’s a nice stop because it is the first time you actually get to walk on the salt crust and you start realizing how huge it is. In the distance, the bluish mountains look like they are floating.
VIRTUAL TOUR – Salar de Uyuni
Hike on and around the famous Incahuasi Island, and discover the off-the-beaten-path Fish Island (3 panoramas).
Copy the following code and paste it on your website:
You can modify the display size of the virtual tour by changing the “width” and “height” values in red (in pixels or percentage).
Embedding the virtual tour is completely free, you are just required to keep the attribution as provided in the code.
The virtual tour opens in a lightbox. Use your mouse to move around the 360° panoramas.
But the real discovery of the Salar de Uyuni comes when you reach the Incahuasi Island (“House of the Inca”), covered with the famous giant cacti. This island is often mistakenly called “Fish Island”. The real Isla del Pescado, or Fish Island, is the largest island on the Salar, and it is located 22 km / 13.5 miles northwest of Incahuasi Island. It is usually not visited with group tours, but I could go during my private tour.
Isla Incahuasi has been organized to welcome tourists, with a small restaurant and other small buildings, and a hiking trail leading to the top of the island. The doors, rubbish bins, and signs are all made of cactus wood. It’s actually very pretty, but also a little sad when you know how slow-growing they are. I wonder how many they had to cut down.
Anyway, luckily, there are still plenty of them left and it’s a real delight to hike in such a unique place, surrounded by an “ocean” of white. You can be sure this day will remain in your memory for many, many years!
After some time enjoying the Isla Incahuasi and the surroundings, it is now time to leave the Uyuni Salt Flats and head south, to the village of San Juan to spend the night.
Day 2 – San Juan → Salar de Chiguana → Lagunas → Arbol de Piedra → Laguna Colorada
- Car trip: San Juan → Laguna Cañapa | 85 km (53 mi)
- Car trip: Laguna Cañapa → Laguna Hedionda → Laguna Chiar Khota | 12.5 km (7.5 mi)
- Car trip: Laguna Chiar Kkota → Arbol de Piedra | 60 km (37 mi), 1:20 hour
- Car trip: Arbol de Piedra → Laguna Colorada | 18 km (12 mi), 30 mins
We are now leaving the Uyuni Salt Flats and the Daniel Campos Province behind, to penetrate the no-less otherworldly landscapes of the Nor Lipez Province. Actually, you leave a salt flat behind to immediately enter another one, the Salar de Chiguana. But don’t imagine a second Uyuni. The Chiguana Salt Flat is much smaller and less concentrated in salt, less white.
At some point, the car will need to cross the railway linking Uyuni and Tupiza, The driver will probably ask you to get out of the car so you don’t get too shook, which is a good opportunity to walk on the salt flat. In the distance, the cone of the Ollagüe Volcano, on the border with Chile, is getting closer.
An hour after crossing the railway, tours often stop at a spot with strange rock formations that you can have fun climbing, which makes a great viewpoint of the Ollagüe Volcano. It is from that moment that you also start gaining altitude and passing the 4,000 m / 13,000 ft mark.
Half an hour later, you finally reach the Laguna Cañapa, the first of a series of shallow salt lakes. These lakes are really a big feature of this region and on top of being gorgeous, they are unique ecosystems. If you have good binoculars (or even if you don’t), you will have fun watching the flamingo colonies that live on the lake.
The same can be said about the following lakes, the Laguna Hedionda and Laguna Chiar Kkota, but the colony at Laguna Hedionda is the most spectacular. There are 3 species of flamingoes that live in the region: James’s flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi), the Andean flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus) and the Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis). The 3 species can be distinguished by their size and the shape/color of the beak.
We had lunch on the shore of the Laguna Hedionda at 4125 m / 13,533 ft and had plenty of time to fully appreciate the fabulous landscape around us. I was also lucky enough to spot a beautiful culpeo, the Andean fox (Lycalopex culpaeus). Later on, at the Laguna Chiar Khota , we spotted a herd of vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna) that was pretty close. Incredible landscapes and wonderful wildlife come together, what could make me happier?
But it’s only the beginning. The deeper you get into the vast landscapes of the altiplano, the more breathtaking it gets. Soon enough, you will be crossing the ochre, endless emptiness of the Siloli Desert – a high-altitude desert at about 4600 m / 15,100 ft above sea level. If you need proof that Nature can be a great artist, you will be served! In the south of the Siloli Desert, every tour stops at the Arbol de Piedra, the Stone Tree.
This amazing rock formation is the direct result of wind erosion.
30 mins later, the extraordinary Laguna Colorada, or Red Lagoon, is awaiting you! This large lagoon is very shallow: 35 cm / 14 inches on average. Its stunning color is due to sediments and algae contained in the water. It is home to a colony of flamingos feeding on these algae. If you have ever wondered why flamingos are pink, now you know why 🙂
I spent the night in a basic accommodation near the Laguna Colorada.
Day 3 – Laguna Colorada → Hot Springs → Laguna Verde → Villamar → Uyuni
- Car trip: Laguna Colorada → Geysers Sol de Mañana | 25 km (15 mi), 30 mins
- Car trip: Sol de Mañana → Hot Springs | 22 km (14 mi), 30 mins
- Car trip: Hot Springs → Laguna Verde | 35 km (22 mi), 30 mins
- Car trip: Laguna Verde → Villamar | 150 km (93 mi), 2:30 hours
- Car trip: Villamar → Valle de Las Rocas | 30 km (18.5 mi), 45 mins
- Car trip: Valle de Las Rocas → Uyuni | 163 km (100 mi), 2:30 hours
On the third day, you truly start to explore the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve and the Sur Lipez Province. You need to get up very early to arrive at the Sol de Mañana Geysers (“Morning Sun Geysers”), as its name suggests, for sunrise. It is a quite surprising place that makes you feel like you are walking on a primitive Earth, as it was during the dinosaurs’ era or even before.
Sol de Mañana is a geothermal area at more than 4850 m / 15,900 ft of altitude, consisting of a group of ponds of boiling water and mud, resulting from volcanic activity under the surface. If you are not very well woken up so early in the morning, don’t worry.
You will be welcomed by a strong sulfur smell that will greatly help you be alert enough to not fall into the boiling mud. Unfortunately, we were there a little too early at dawn, and it was pretty dark. I couldn’t take good pics.
The next stops are the Polques Hot Springs, next to the Laguna de Chalviri, the Laguna Verde, the southernmost point of the tour, and Bolivia. You might get to one or the other first. Our driver suggested rushing to the Laguna Verde first before other cars arrive so we have the place to ourselves, and then drive back to the hot springs. I think it was great.
The Laguna Verde is my favorite (if you omit the constant freezing winds). Located at the foot of the majestic cone of the Licancabur Volcano, the Laguna Verde is a real gem. The “other end of the world” atmosphere of this place is indescribable.
Unlike the Laguna Colorada which gets its colors from life forms in suspension in the water, the Laguna Verde gets its color from mineral elements. And the intensity of the turquoise green varies with the wind. A really, really striking place. And indeed, we were alone.
Since we were getting too frozen by the strong winds to stay any longer, we headed back to the Polques Hot Springs, where we enjoyed a nice breakfast. My swimming shorts were so well packed deep inside my backpack, itself so well packed on the roof of the jeep, that I gave up the idea of dipping myself into the hot springs. Never mind, I was happy enough with wandering along the shores of the Laguna Chalviri, and unsuccessfully trying to take pictures of the birds flying around me.
On our way back north, we stopped again on the banks of the Laguna Colorada, to take a little break from all the driving, until we finally reached the small town of Villamar. This is where we had lunch. Villamar is a village with adobe houses and roofs covered with dry grass. Feels very much like a ghost town, especially when you notice the wreck of a plane’s tail exhibited at the top of a hill.
I really, really wished we had more time to explore the next stop: the Valle de Las Rocas – Valley of the Rocks. It is a large area filled with bizarre rock formations with the weirdest shapes you can imagine. Of course, you get to explore the area a little around the car, but I think this place would have been great for a longer hike. Oh well, better seeing it like this than not seeing it at all.
At the foot of a rock, I came across a beautiful Yareta (Azorella compacta), an iconic plant of the Andes. Yaretas grow between 3200 and 5000 m. They grow extremely slowly (1 mm / 0.04 in) per year, and some specimens are believed to be several thousands of years old.
After that, we headed back to Uyuni and closed the loop.
Dealing with Altitude Sickness in the Altiplano
You’re heading to one of the highest inhabited plateaus on Earth, and while the vistas are breathtaking, the altitude can quite literally take your breath away. Altitude sickness can be a concern, but with the right preparation, you can minimize the impact:
- Know the Symptoms: Common symptoms include headaches, dizziness, nausea, and shortness of breath. Recognize them early and take them seriously.
- Acclimatization is Key: If possible, spend a few days in a mid-altitude city, like La Paz, before venturing higher. This helps your body adjust to the reduced oxygen levels.
- Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate: The air in the Altiplano is dry, so you’ll need to drink more water than usual. Aim for at least 3 liters a day.
- Local Remedies: The indigenous people of the Andes have been living at these elevations for millennia. Follow their lead by drinking mate de coca, a tea made from coca leaves, to alleviate symptoms. Chew on the leaves if you’re feeling particularly winded!
- Consider Medication: If you’re worried, talk to your doctor about altitude sickness medication before you travel.
Best Times to Visit the Bolivian Altiplano
The Altiplano’s beauty shines year-round, but depending on what you’re after, some months might suit you better:
- Dry Season (May to October): This is the peak travel season, and it’s easy to see why. Expect clear blue skies, cool temperatures, and crisp visibility. Perfect for those postcard shots!
- Rainy Season (November to April): While you’ll contend with occasional downpours, there’s a magical charm to the Altiplano during these months. The highlight? Watching the Salar de Uyuni turn into the world’s largest mirror after a rain. It’s an ethereal experience.
- Festivals: The Altiplano is culturally rich, with festivals happening throughout the year. A highlight is the Carnival in Oruro, usually in February or March, showcasing traditional dances, colorful costumes, and vibrant parades.
What to Pack for the Altiplano
The high-altitude desert of the Altiplano comes with its own unique set of packing challenges. Here’s your checklist to ensure you’re well-prepared:
- Layer Up: Think in layers. The temperature can swing dramatically between day and night. A moisture-wicking base layer, a fleece or woolen mid-layer, and a waterproof, windproof outer layer are essential.
- Protection from the Sun: The sun at high altitudes is fierce. A wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses with UV protection, and a high-SPF sunscreen are non-negotiables.
- Footwear: The terrain can be rugged, so sturdy hiking boots with ankle support are a must. Throw in some thermal socks to keep those toes warm.
- Hydration: A reusable water bottle is key. Remember, the dry air means you’ll be drinking more than usual.
- Camera and Binoculars: Trust us, the landscapes are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. A good camera is essential. And if wildlife-watching is on your agenda, binoculars will come in handy.
- Altitude Sickness Remedies: Bring along mate de coca or coca candies, widely available in Bolivia, to help with acclimatization.
- Personal Medical Kit: Given the remote nature of some parts of the Altiplano, it’s wise to carry a personal medical kit with basics like painkillers, band-aids, and any personal medication.
Remember, while the Altiplano can be challenging, it’s also immensely rewarding. Pack smart, and you’re in for the trip of a lifetime!
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is the Altiplano so high?
The Altiplano, or high plateau, was formed through tectonic uplift. As the Nazca and Antarctic plates pushed into the South American plate, the land rose, resulting in this high-altitude wonder.
Is it safe to drink tap water in the Altiplano?
It’s recommended to drink bottled or boiled water, especially for tourists who aren’t accustomed to local water.
How can I support local communities while traveling in the Altiplano?
Consider buying handicrafts directly from artisans, staying in community-run accommodations, and hiring local guides. This ensures your money directly benefits those who call the Altiplano home.
Are there ATMs in the Altiplano region?
While larger towns like Uyuni or Copacabana have ATMs, many smaller villages don’t. It’s a good idea to carry enough cash for your needs.
What’s a must-try dish in the Altiplano?
Don’t leave without trying llama anticucho, skewered and grilled llama meat, often served with a spicy sauce. It’s a flavorful treat that’s loved by locals and travelers alike!