There are few places on Earth that can rival the breathtaking natural marvels of the Altiplano in Bolivia. Although technically spanning across Peru, Chile, and Argentina, a staggering 90% of this high-altitude plateau lies within the borders of Bolivia. Encircled by a network of interconnected minor ranges of the Andes Mountains, the Altiplano stands as the heart of South America’s spine.
Our adventure unfolds, beginning from the northern edge where La Paz graces the landscape and the Cordillera Real dominates the horizon. From there, the Altiplano unfolds southward, unveiling one well-kept secret after another in its undulating terrain.
In the deep southwestern corner, where the Red and Green Lagoons nestle amidst 20,000 ft ( 6,000m) volcanoes, the plateau pushes further south to the ancient Sud Lipez Range, where ancient civilizations once sought refuge from the frozen winds at 14,000 ft (4,270m).
Our journey commences with acclimatization time in La Paz, perched at a lofty 12,000 ft (3,660m) above sea level. From there, we venture to Lake Titicaca, a sparkling gem nestled at 12,500 ft (3,810m) shared between Peru and Bolivia. The Island of the Sun, cradled within the shimmering cold waters of the Andes, is revered as the birthplace of the Inca Empire. To the east, the Cordillera Real and Apolobamba ranges provide a stunning backdrop, displaying a juxtaposition of rugged power and serene tranquility.
Our route leads us further south to the world’s largest salt flats, the Salar de Uyuni, which stands as the lowest point on the Altiplano, remarkably sharing the same elevation as downtown La Paz! During the rainy season, this white desert transforms into a celestial mirror, covering over 3,900 sq mi (10,000 sq km) from edge to edge. There’s no place like it on Earth. Approximately 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, this area was part of the colossal prehistoric Lake Minchin, later evolving into the shallow Paleo Lake Tauca. The remnants are the modern lakes of Poopó and Uru-Uru, along with two vast salt deserts, Salar de Coipasa and the much larger Salar de Uyuni to the south. NASA even utilizes this immense salt flat to calibrate its instruments in outer space.
At the heart of the Salar de Uyuni lies the imposing Mt. Thunupa at 17,460 ft (5,321m), a stratovolcano gracing its northern edge. During the wet season (December to March), it becomes challenging to traverse the salt flats due to the inundation of salty water, posing a hazard to vehicles. In contrast, the dry season offers an expansive landscape, granting the freedom to travel in any direction. The widest point can take nearly three hours to traverse! Along the way, we explore caves that house pre-Inca mummies and other caves adorned with petrified algae hanging from the ceilings in cascading colors and delicate plant matter. These petrified algae are believed to be precursors to modern-day petroleum.
Our journey takes us further south, where altitudes swiftly ascend from the 12,000 ft (3,660m) of the Salar de Uyuni to 14,000 ft (4,270m) in the Sud Lipez region. We navigate through passes that approach 16,000 ft (4,875m) and encounter volcanoes reaching nearly 20,000 ft (6,100m). Amidst the landscape, vast lava flows from extinct volcanoes provide refuge from the harsh winds and scorching sun at high altitudes. These lava canyons were once home to ancient civilizations, leaving behind petroglyphs in caves and on large stone walls, hidden from the masses. These sites also yield arrowheads and other artifacts, offering a glimpse into a time before the advent of written language.
In the remote southwestern corner of Bolivia lie the most astonishingly colored lagoons. The most renowned is the Red Lagoon (Laguna Colorada), but equally stunning are the Green, White, Yellow, and Light Blue lagoons. Here, three species of flamingos – the James, Andean, and Chilean flamingos – find their sanctuary, breeding and feeding in these lagoons, nourished year-round by microscopic organisms. Wild vicuñas, a relative of the wild Guanaco and domesticated Alpaca and Llama species, also call this region home. In this high-altitude desert, you’ll encounter the ostrich-like American Rhea, standing at nearly 6 ft. tall and adorned in beige, grey, and brown plumage, seamlessly blending into the Altiplano’s color palette. These creatures can reach speeds exceeding 65 kph/40 mph when evading predators, offering a captivating glimpse into prehistoric times.
As our journey veers eastward, we pass by hot springs, smaller salt flats, bofedales (high-altitude wetlands), and multicolored deserts. The overall color scheme paints subtle pastels of beige and brown, with the snow-draped peaks of extinct volcanoes casting their shadow over purple, orange, and yellow swathes. This creates a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of natural erosion patterns across the landscape.
Approaching the eastern edge of the Altiplano, near the border with northern Argentina, we enter canyon country. This is a corner of the plateau where only the most resilient miners can eke out a living from the rugged mountains. Ciudad Roma, an eroded landscape reminiscent of Roman buildings atop a citadel, greets us with stunning erosions that appear as though a massive candle factory has melted before our eyes. These formations stand tall above deep, sandblasted canyons, while small, meandering brown rivers snake through the terrain, all beneath the wings of soaring condors.
Although the Altiplano is a boundless realm of adventure, its edges reveal geographical marvels, such as the Tupiza canyons, where erosion takes on a breathtaking new dimension. Here, multi-colored canyons, in shades of red, yellow, beige, grey, and purple, house an array of stunning cactus varieties. Tupiza offers a unique and welcome lower altitude (9,800 ft / 2,990 m) and a Mediterranean climate, providing a refreshing respite in this seldom-visited corner of Bolivia.
As our journey nears its conclusion, we head northward, making our way to the colonial-era city of Potosi (13,420 ft / 4,090 m). We then descend to Hacienda Cayara, a 400-year-old hacienda that serves as a living museum and hotel, nestled in a well-protected canyon 2,000 ft. below Potosi. This region played a pivotal role in the Spanish Crown’s accumulation of wealth from silver, mined through the labor of native Indian slaves for nearly 500 years until Bolivia declared its independence in 1825.
Our remarkable Altiplano journey concludes in La Paz, where we gather for a farewell group dinner at an innovative restaurant renowned for using locally grown natural foods and crafting traditional Bolivian cuisine. It’s a delicious ending to an extraordinary adventure through this unique and captivating region.