In August, 2017, I hiked an approximately 600 km (373 mi) route across Bolivia’s Altiplano region. An otherworldly landscape of salt flats, volcanoes, fantastical rock formations and coloured lakes, to the best of my knowledge it was the first time such a journey had been undertaken on foot. What follows is an overview of the second and final stage of the journey, which culminated on the summit of Volcan Licancabur (5,920 m / 19,423 ft), located on the Boliva/Chile border.
Click here for an overview of Stage 1 from Coipasa to San Augustin, which included a crossing of the World’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni.
Stage 2 – At a Glance
Distance: 305 km (190 mi) approx. (including 22 km from volcano summit to Laguna Blanca Outpost)
Duration: 8 days
Start: San Agustin village (3,838 m / 12,592 ft – Lowest elevation Stage 2)
Finish: Summit of Volcan Licancabur (5,920 m / 19,423 ft – Highest elevation Stage 2)
Temperatures: The highest temperature was 15°C (59°F) and the lowest was -18°C (-0.4F).
Highlights – (In no particular order): 1. Volcan Licancabur; 2. The stoic flamingos of Laguna Hedionda; 3. Sunset over the rock labyrinth SW of Copacobana; 4. Cowboy camping under the crystal clear Altiplano skies; 5. Sol de Manana geothermal field, and; 6. A dawn soak in one of the world’s highest hot springs besides Laguna Chalviri.
Maps / GPS – I put together the Altiplano Traverse route on Gaia GPS and Google Earth (see google map above). During the hike I carried paper maps of the route and a basic overview map of the Altiplano region (i.e. a cut down section of the National Geographic map of Bolivia). In regard to navigation tools, I used a Suunto M-2 compass and the Gaia app on my phone.
Additional Planning Beta: While hiking-specific information on the Altiplano was pretty much non-existent, I did find some useful online beta regarding resupply, water (see below) and route options via a few long distance cycling websites. The excellent Andes by Bike was particularly helpful.
Language: Most folks in Bolivia don’t speak English, so a basic grasp of Spanish will be very useful for anyone considering this route.
Getting There and Away:
- Northern Terminus: Coipasa – To the best of my knowledge there is no regular public transport to the village of Coipasa. I caught one of the regular mini buses from the city of Oruro to the town of Sabaya. From there I arranged a ride in a private vehicle to Coipasa.
- Southern Terminus: Laguna Blanca Border Outpost. Located just south of Laguna Blanca and around 22 km (13 mi) hike west from the summit of Volcan Licancabur, this bustling outpost has basic accommodation and a restaurant. Due to its location on the principal jeep road between the popular tourist towns of San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) and Uyuni (Bolivia), this is the place to to organise your onward travel. No need to tee anything up in advance, as there are always lots of jeeps with space heading in either direction.
Internet: There was service in the villages of Coipasa, Salinas de Garci Mendoza, Coquesa and San Agustin.
Permits: The southern most section of the Altiplano Traverse – from around Laguna Colorada to the border – passes through the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa. Named after a Bolivian war hero, it measures approximately 7,145 km² in area, and with over 40,000 visitors per year it is the most visited tract of protected wilderness in the country. If you are hiking north to south, you can pick up a permit at the park office on the northern edge of Laguna Colorada. As of 2019 the entrance fee is 150 Bolivianos for foreigners (approx. US$22).
Gear: Click here for my full gear list from the Altiplano Traverse. My base weight for the journey was 4.75 kg (10.5 lb), and total weight was 6.5 kg (14.4 lb).
Resupply: I purchased food along the way. The offerings were slim, but I’ve never been picky when it comes to food out in the boonies. Irrespective of where I’ve hiked over the decades, I’ll always eat what the locals are having.That said, there ended up being a lot more resupply options than I originally anticipated. From north to south, my resupply points were as follows:
- Coipasa – Starting point of the traverse. I bought food from La Paz, but the small salt mining village does have a small shop on the plaza where basic supplies may be purchased. The elderly lady that runs the store has rooms you can stay in at the back of the store (Note: This is where I lodged the night before beginning the hike).
- Luca – Located just south of the Salar de Coipasa, this tiny village has an equally tiny store. A bit of a bonus, as before setting out I had no idea what was and wasn’t on offer in the village. I picked up extra water, chocolates and six boiled eggs to go.
- Salinas de Garci Mendoza – Biggest town on the route. A few different accommodation options and small shops.
- Coquesa – Located at the bottom of Tunupa volcano. Well supplied shop on plaza. Multiple accommodation options.
- Isla Incahuasi – Food and water available at the small store. No camping allowed, but ask at ticket office and they let you stay in a little community hall/room. Nice view over salt flats.
- Chuvica – Small store – enough to get you to San Agustin. Stayed in one of the villages salt hotels. Note that there is another small store a couple of kilometres further southeast in the outpost/checkpoint of Tanil Vinto.
- Julaca – Semi-deserted, former railway town. Possible to buy water and snacks in small shop (see Altiplano Traverse Stage 1 for details).
- San Augustin – After Salinas, the biggest town on route. Food, water and accommodation available. Small shop near plaza. Friendly locals.
- Laguna Hedionda – Ecolodge de los Flamingos – Restaurant, water, wifi, cheapish rooms available if you ask nicely.
- Hotel Takya del Desierto – Stopped for breakfast. In hindsight it would have been a great place to overnight. The friendly staff let you fill up your water bottles, charge electronic devices, and you don’t have to be staying here to eat at the restaurant. Ask about snacks to go (e.g. sandwiches).
- Huallajara – This was a surprise. A bustling little outpost a few km south of Laguna Colorado. It has better accommodation and resupply options than the lake itself.
- Laguna Chalviri – Accommodation and a small shop. Enough to get you rest of way. Relaxing hot springs (Termas de Polque).
Water: There was a dearth of beta in regards to viable water sources. This meant I usually had to err on the side of caution in regard to how much water I was carrying between villages. I had a total H2O capacity of around 8 litres, and I needed almost all of it on multiple occasions. A few additional notes:
- Extra Sources: Apart from the resupply points mentioned above, I also obtained water in the semi-deserted village of Copacabana and in a stream southwest of there in the Sierra Kheñwal.
- Notable waterless stretches are from Salinas de Garci Mendoza to Coquesa via Volcan Tunupa, and from the Termas de Polque to the finish at the Laguna Blanca Outpost (via Volcan Licancabur). In both cases you are looking at carrying approximately 1.5 to 2 days worth of H2O. Note that due to the large altitude gains and difficult volcanic terrain, the going will be slower on these sections than most other parts of the route.
Trip Report – Stage 2 – Altiplano Traverse
A. San Agustin to Laguna Hedionda (63 km – 2 days)
- Quinoa farming with friends. (see Stage 1 Youtube video).
- Sunset from the rock labyrinth SW of Copacabana.
- Flamingos on the shore of Laguna Cañapa at sunset.
Looking for Barry:
After bidding farewell to my quinoa farming friends from San Agustin (see Stage 1 Youtube video), I hiked along little used 4WD roads to the tiny village of Copacabana. Far from being the hottest place north (or south) of Havana, it was one of the sleepiest hamlets I can remember. Indeed, you know there’s not much happening in a place when you can sit down on the village plaza for an hour, not see a single soul, and then set up your tripod to take a photo of yourself walking along the main street.
Sunsets and Labyrinths
Leaving Copa, I followed a fairly well maintained, yet once again trafficless 4WD road heading SW. A few hours later when the road turned east, I headed cross country into a rocky labyrinth of the Sierra Kheñwal. The sun was almost setting and temps were dropping fast, so I found a relatively sheltered spot to set up my MLD SoloMid (see below), and scrambled up a nearby rocky knob to drink in a wonderful sunset.
B. Laguna Hedionda to Huallajara – (approx. 112 km / 3 days)
- Flamingos at dawn in Laguna Hedionda.
- Finding a sheltered rocky ledge upon which to cowboy camp at the end of a very windy Day 11.
- The fantastical rock formations of the Arbol de Piedra (“stone tree”) area.
- The Old Testament red Laguna Colorada.
Flamingos of the Altiplano
All three of South America’s species of flamingos can be found on the Altiplano (Andean, Chilean and James’s). These beautiful and stoic birds can be seen casually wading among the region’s icy mineral lagoons in temperatures that regularly drop down to -25°C in winter. Filter feeders, their diet ranges from fish to invertebrates, and from vascular plants to microscopic algae. According to All About Birds.com:
“Flamingos are inextricably woven into the lives of the people of the Altiplano. Traditional uses include harvesting eggs for food, rubbing flamingo fat onto sprained joints, and using feathers in folkloric headdresses. To the people of the Altiplano, flamingos are the ultimate symbols of elegance and physical beauty, figuring prominently in art (pre-Inca to the present) and as proud emblems of cultural identity.”
Arbol de Piedra (“stone tree”)
I reached the Arbol de Piedra not long after the sunset. Located in the Siloli desert, this much photographed geological landmark is a popular destination for Altiplano tour groups, however, by the time I arrived they were long gone and I had the place to myself. After I’d found a sheltered spot to bunk down, I wandered about the surrounding rock formations soaking in the silence and surveying the shapes and colours of Mother Nature’s sculptures. Not for the first time, I was awestruck by what the erosive forces of wind and water can carve out when given enough time.
Situated at 4,278 m (14,035 ft) above sea level, the blood red Laguna Colorada covers approximately 60 sq km (23.2 sq mi) and has a maximum depth of just 80 cm (2.6 ft). The distinctive hue is a result of the algae and plankton that thrives in the mineral-rich water. Laguna Colorada is also home to nearly one-third of the entire population of the rare Jame’s Flamingo, which was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1956.
C. Huallajara to Volcan Licancabur (130 km – 3 days (incl. 22 km to Laguna Blanca Outpost))
- Sol de Manana Geothermal Field
- Termas de Polques (Hot Springs)
- Reaching the summit of the Volcan Licancabur
Pack Shakedown – Bolivian Military Style:
A few hours after leaving the village of Huallajara, I was following a 4WD track when I was stopped by a Bolivian border patrol vehicle. The four soldiers inside wanted to know what I was doing. I gave them the Reader’s Digest version of the traverse, and they looked at me with a combination of skepticism and suspicion. Apparently they had never seen anyone on foot in this area, and they told me in no uncertain terms that what I was doing was extremely dangerous. Keen to diffuse what could have been a potentially tricky situation, I allayed their concerns by detailing some of my backcountry experiences in Bolivia and Peru over the years. I mentioned the recently completed traverse of the entire Cordillera Real (including names of peaks, elevations, villages), along with other specific trips I’d done in the Central Andes dating back to 1996. It took a while, but they finally realized I was just a weird middle aged foreign bloke who knew his stuff, and who for some reason wanted to walk across the Altiplano.
Once convinced I was the real McCoy (or perhaps the real Rodriguez in this case), the tone of the conversation immediately lightened and they started asking me about my gear. They noticed the relatively small size of my backpack and wanted to know what I was carrying. I started telling them about my Mid tent, quilt, and other lightweight items, but after receiving nothing but blank stares, I thought “bugger it”, and emptied my entire pack. Over the next 20 minutes I proceeded to give my four new Bolivian mates an overview of the world of ultralight backpacking gear. They were blown away – particularly by the weight of the MLD SoloMid, which apparently was a wee bit lighter than the canvas models to which they were accustomed.
Eventually we all shook hands and said our goodbyes. They wished me luck on the rest of my journey, and as a parting gift gave me a large bag of coca leaves, which I happily munched on for the remaining few days of my time on the Altiplano.
Bolivia’s Yellowstone and a Midnight Soak under the Stars
Among the many natural wonders to be found on the Altiplano, two of my favourites were Sol de Mañana geothermal area and the Termas de Polques (hot springs), both of which I visited on day 14 of the traverse. In regard to the former, situated at around 4850 m (15,912 ft) elevation, Sol de Mañana is one of the highest geothermal fields in the world – a 10 km2 (3.9 sq mi) collection of bubbling mudpots, steaming fumaroles and palette of volcanic colours.
Located only a handful of kilometres southeast of this mini Yellowstone, are the Termas de Polques on the shores of Laguna Chalviri. I arrived right on dark, and after procuring accommodation and a bite to eat, I ambled down to the nearby springs. With water temps a comfortable 29°/30°C (86°F), I ended up soaking under the clear night skies for more than an hour. I suspect I could have stayed longer, but with the land of nod calling and a couple of big hiking days still ahead, I eventually extricated myself from the serene pool, and returned to my nearby hospedaje.
To the uninitiated, big volcanoes don’t look that tough from a distance. It isn’t until you reach the base and look up at the loose and rocky 45° slopes that you think to yourself, “s..t, this could be a bit of a slog after all.” As someone who has done his fair share of volcano climbing over the years, I knew what awaited me. And thus it was with a sense of excitement (soon accompanied by feelings of extreme weariness) rather than trepidation, that I made my way up Volcan Licancabur on the sixteenth and final day of the Altiplano Traverse.
I eventually made it to the volcano’s apex in the early afternoon. The views were everything I imagined and more; perhaps the most spectacular finishing location of any hike I have ever done. Apart from the beautiful 360° panorama, a couple of interesting tidbits regarding Licancabur’s summit is that it is home to one of the world’s highest lakes, and is also said to have housed an ancient Incan crypt……..I suspect of some poor bugger who died of exhaustion after making the climb up.
Final Tips for Altiplano Traverse Aspirants
On the off chance that anyone is interested in doing this route, here are some parting recommendations:
- Acclimatisation: Make sure you are acclimatised before the start. The entire route takes place above 3,500 m (11,483 ft), and within the first four days you’ll be climbing to over 5200 m (17,060 ft).
- High level of fitness: Unless you are capable of doing long days right from the beginning, the water carries could prove challenging on the Altiplano Traverse, with multiple stretches of between 30 (18 mi) and 70 km (42 mi) sans H2O. Carry a capacity of between 8 and 10 litres.
- Warmth: It can be colder than a Siberian witch’s titty on the Altiplano with temps dropping down to -25°C (-13°F). And that’s not even counting wind chill, of which there is usually ample. During my hike the coldest it got was -18°C (0°F), but nighttime temps regularly hovered between -5°C (23°F) and -10°C (14°F). In other words, be sure to bring enough gear to keep you warm.
- Winds: In addition to a tent that will hold up well in high winds, camp selection is one of the keys for this hike. Due to the exposed nature of the terrain on the Altiplano, natural wind blocks are often few and far between. On most days of the traverse I’d begin looking for somewhere to camp about an hour to an hour and a half before it got dark.
- Language: A basic understanding of Spanish will prove very helpful, as English speakers are sometimes few and far between in Bolivia.
- Shifting Sands: Bring gaiters to keep the sand out of your shoes, and a bandana or Buff to protect your face from the elements.
- Beyond the Trail: For most folks, trekking in places such as Bolivia means leaving your comfort zone – linguistically, socially, culinarily and culturally. The extent to which you are able to “embrace the discomfort”, will in no small degree influence the quality and depth of your overall experience. If you’re hoping to derive more from the Altiplano Traverse than simply hiking from A to B and taking some pretty landscape photos, you have to make the effort. Always remember that you are the visitor. The onus is on you to accept and adapt. Not the other way around. Here are links to a couple of articles I have written which may prove helpful: Cultural Considerations when Hiking Abroad and The Three A’s.
- Stage 1 – Altiplano Traverse – Salt Flats, Volcanoes and Quinoa
- Gear List: Altiplano Traverse
- Hiking Across Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni