One of the most memorable parts of our month in South America, was the six days we spent crossing the Bolivian Altiplano, seeing some of Bolivia’s most remote and awe-inspiring landscapes.
The Altiplano is a high plateau in the Andes Mountains, averaging 3,750 meters (12,300 feet) in height. As James aptly remarked, “if we were in Australia right now, we would be in the flight path!” The Altiplano is located where the mountain range is widest, and extends into parts of Peru, Chile and Argentina, though most of its area lies within the borders of Bolivia.
Our Altiplano journey began on the Peruvian side of the Andean plateau, following our trek to Machu Picchu. We boarded a bus from Cusco to the city of Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, South America’s largest lake. Here we visited the floating islands of the Uros people and learnt about the community’s unique lifestyle on an archipelago of human-made islands constructed with reeds.
We continued by bus to the Bolivian border and wandered the streets of the original Copacabana, namesake of the Brazilian city. A boat took us on a day trip to the Sun Island, a significant pilgrimage site in Incan times, to learn more history and culture of the region. Here, the picturesque Lake Titicaca could be mistaken for the Mediterranean and we did indeed enjoy a lot of sun!
Bolivian salt flats and abandoned trains
After several days spent exploring La Paz we continued our journey south with a bus ride to the mining town of Oruro before transferring to the Expreso del Sur, a train that would take us on to Uyuni. From here we explored the surreal Uyuni salt flats which were still partially submerged by water, remnant of the passing wet season.
We visited the eerie Train Graveyard, littered with corroded train skeletons that were left to rust in the salty winds after the railroad was abandoned in the 1940’s. Our evening accommodation was the Palacio del Sal, a hotel constructed largely of salt, including walls, floor, sections of ceiling and furniture. The salt hotel is by far the most unique accommodation of all our travels to date.
Deserts, lakes and geysers
With guide and driver to navigate us across the disorienting desolate highlands, we continued traversing the plateau’s distinctive landscapes. Along the way we stopped at wind-sculpted rock formations; a desert named for its resemblance to the barren red landscapes in Salvador Dali paintings; steaming geysers; and a variety of lakes. One lake was edged by hot pools where we could take a short dip; another filled with pink flamingos feeding on the resident algae; and another devoid of any wildlife at all but brilliant blue in colour, due to its arsenic content.
We lunched and stayed in seemingly abandoned villages, built on the economies of mining and llama herding. In fact, the town of Villamar had only begun to receive electricity six months before we arrived. Molten wax covered candleholders around the guesthouse were evidence of how recently they had been reliant on raw fire for heat and light.
Occasionally as we drove across the plateau, we waved at enthusiastic cyclists who had chosen to tackle the Altiplano on their own steam. As the entire journey unravels high in altitude sickness zone, I would not attempt this without the proper conditioning.
Our Bolivian Altiplano journey came to a close as we moved into Chile through the most absurd/amusing/worrying border crossing, due to its geographic isolation. It felt a little like a prisoner exchange as we bid goodbye to our Bolivian guide and driver at a shack surrounded by nothing but volcano peaks, and were placed in the hands of our Chilean hosts. The subsequent descent off the edge of the plateau into the Atacama Desert was nothing short of epic, with the Altiplano rising behind us like a giant wall.
I hope you enjoyed some of the sensational landscapes and remote villages we visited in this pictorial and feel suitably inspired to add the Bolivian Altiplano to your bucket list. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments at the end of this post.
Peace, love and inspiring travels,