Updated May 29th, 2017.
When it comes to trekking in South America, there are a number of famous hikes that always make travellers’ itineraries. Tales of conquering high-altitude climbs to reach Machu Picchu in Peru, battling thick jungle to arrive at the Lost City in Colombia, or trekking through glacier-dominated terrain in Torres del Paine in Chile, are those which normally inspire the greatest degree of hiking wanderlust.
But whether you’ve dreamed about or have actually experienced some of these South American highlights, you’ve probably never contemplated walking in another country here: Bolivia.
Often scratched entirely from backpackers’ travel lists, Bolivia has an array of barely-known walking routes and undisturbed countryside aching to be admired. Often described as the ‘Tibet of South America’ for its range of high altitude treks, there are a multitude of accessible walks (many of which don’t need a guide) that combine incomparable diversity of Andean and tropical landscapes with the fact that you’re unlikely to come across too many other hikers en route.
An essential destination for the intrepid hiker, here’s a list of some of the routes for seeing Bolivia by foot.
1. The Alternative Inca Trail
Location: Reserva Biológica Cordillera de Sama near Tarija.
Time required: 2-3 days.
A short bus journey from Tarija, the walk begins in the Reserva Biológica Cordillera de Sama at 3,400m above sea level. It includes a circuit of the Tajzara Lakes, a 2000m descent down paved Inca trail, and panoramic views across La Valle de la Concepción, Bolivia’s wine region.
At certain times of the year, the Tajzara Lakes turn pink with the flamingos that migrate here. Before taking the path to the Inca trail, hike around the lakes to enjoy breath-taking views of cloud-topped mountains reflected on the water and wild camp on the shore beneath a showcase of brilliant stars. Once back in Tarija, a visit to local vineyards or evenings spent dining al fresco in the south’s balmy climate are a well-deserved, post-hike treat.
Recommendations: Without any accommodation or food options on the route, it’s essential that you take a tent and cooking equipment. For more information, check out trekking Bolivia’s alternative Inca Trail.
2. The Takesi Trek
Location: Starting from Ventilla, near La Paz and ending in Yanacachi.
Time required: 2-3 days.
One of the more popular routes in Bolivia that can be walked without a guide, the Takesi Trek also forms part of the numerous paved Inca trails that once raced across the Bolivian countryside.
Beginning at the lofty heights of 3,200m just outside of La Paz, the well-marked trail winds down into the sweltering rainforests of the Yungas region, ending close to the beginning of the infamous Death Road. Passing through a range of landscapes, from bare, high-altitude passes, to the steamy humidity of lush jungle vegetation, there’s no finer way to experience Bolivia’s diversity of flora and fauna in one walk.
Recommendations: Although there is the possibility of accommodation, thanks to the trek winding through a series of tiny villages, don’t bank on it. Taking a tent and a stove is your best bet and food is most likely available to buy en route. Find more specific details here.
3. The Laguna Glaciar and Laguna Chillata Route
Location: Sorata near La Paz
Time required: 2-3 days
One of the most popular treks in the Sorata region, this walk requires acclimatisation to high altitudes but offers stunning, ice-capped views in return.
Beginning in the town of Sorata, the path passes through eucalyptus groves up to Laguna Chillata – a lake still revered for its supposed healing powers. After passing a night here, walkers reach the dizzy 5,038m heights of the Laguna Glaciar, where rose-tinged sunsets and sunrises, views of the imposing nearby mountain Illampu, and a glacier that seems to slip into the lake make up for the lung-busting effort of reaching such high altitude.
Recommendations: This route is possible without a guide, but you will need to be well-acclimatised and fit given the high-altitude walking and the fact that you’ll camp at over 4000m. Reports of travellers getting robbed around here have been common over the past few years, so ensure you check the situation with local people in town before attempting the trek. The bonus of using a local guide (which can often be arranged directly upon arrival in Sorata) is a) you’ll support the development of tourist infrastructure and increase wages for local people, and b) you’ll have a mule to carry your rucksack – an option you may wish you’d have taken if you do go it alone.
4. The Maragua Crater
Location: Two hours from Sucre
Time required: 2-3 days according to your route
With 2,000 year old cave paintings, dinosaur footprints, and landscapes that look like they’ve come straight out of “The Land Before Time”, Maragua is an unmissable detour from the Bolivian capital, Sucre.
There are two main routes, both of which hike through the strange yet stunning rock formation of the Maragua Crater, encounter dinosaur footprints, and finish in the village of Potolo. The 3-4 day trek starts with a visit to the Incamachay and Pumamachay cave paintings, whereas the 2-3 day option begins by descending a section of Inca trail. Both include passing through a number of tiny, Bolivian villages where it’s hard not to feel a lot further from civilisation than the two hours it takes to drive here.
Recommendations: Bear in mind that local tour companies such as Condor Trekkers (where 100% of their profits go to the local communities with whom they work) can offer reasonably-priced guiding services for this route. Given that much of the path is badly marked, this is a positive way of ensuring you support the local communities and avoid wasting time by getting lost.
About the writer: A former English teacher in Manchester in the UK, Steph Dyson left her classroom in 2014 to travel, volunteer and live in South America. Since then, she has worked with rural libraries in Sucre, Bolivia, taught English and helped run a campsite in La Paz, Bolivia and delivered workshops to young people in orphanages and albergues in Cusco, Peru. Join her as she shows you how to Travel Adventurously and Volunteer Meaningfully at Worldly Adventurer.