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Brief overview

Bolivia constitutes the geographic center of South America. With a surface of 424,162 sq miles, which is almost twice the size of Texas, the country is located between 57°26’ and 69°38’ of longitude West and between the parallels 9°38’ and 22°53’ of latitude South. Located between the Equator and the tropic of Capricorn, Bolivia is a tropical country. Its three geographic principal zones are the Andean zone, the sub-Andean valleys (Yungas) and the Eastern plains or Amazon.

The Andes

The Andes, the Altiplano and the sub-Andean valleys cover 28 % of the surface of Bolivia (307 000 km2). This region, that has always fascinated travelers, contributed to shape the image of a country of high plateaus and mountains. This image is however inaccurate: as surprising as this may seem, Bolivia is foremost an Amazonian country. Nonetheless, the Cordillera Real, the name that the Andes take in Bolivia, is the geological and economical dorsal spine of the whole country.
In fact, the cordillera of the Andes is one of the geological phenomena the most fascinating on the planet. Born from the pressure of the Nazca plate against the Brazilian shield, the two tectonic plates that constitute South America. This formidable clash elevated the bottom of the oceans, giving birth to the backbone of Bolivia. The cordillera is divided in two ranges--Western Cordillera and Cordillera Real) starting level with the cordillera Apolobamba when entering the Bolivian territory North of Lake Titicaca..

Western Cordillera

This cordillera is 620 kilometers in length, starting from the knot of Vilcanota, in Peru, until the pass of San Francisco, in Argentina. Of volcanic origin, it possesses the highest summit in Bolivia, the Sajama (6 520 m.a.s.l.), as well as the Payachatas volcanoes, in the department of Oruro, at the border with Chile. Towards the South, rises the Cordillera of Lípez, Western edge of the desert of the same name located in the le department of Potosí. The highest summit of this volcanic mountain range or cordillera (some like the Ollague or the Putana are still active) is the Licancabur (5 980 m.a.s.l.) marking the Southern border of Bolivia.

Cordillera Real of the Andes

One of Latin America’s most impressive natural phenomena. This noble title was given by the Spanish conquistadors, stunned by the majesty of this wall of eternal snows. The Cordillera Real, or Eastern, influences directly the climate of the regions it crosses. In the sub-Andean valleys, the rainfall is due to the clouds coming from the Amazon and stopped by the snowy walls. Therefore, in certain areas of the Chaparé region, rainfalls can reach 5 000 millimeters a year! Inversely, on the other side, on the high plateaus, rainfalls sometimes reach levels less than 180 millimeters a year. The Cordillera Real also marks the schism between the two principal regions of Bolivia (Andes and Orient), and is also at the origin of the three hydrographic basins of the country: one of the lakes (Titicaca and Poopo), one of La Plata (rio Pilcomayo) and one of the Amazon. An infrared satellite photo of the cordillera shows us colors corresponding to an underground saturated with mining wealth (gold, tin, silver, wolfram, manganese). The Eastern Cordillera (Royal and Apolobamba to the North) is not an easy one to tame. The best European Alpinists rapidly understood that the climbing possibilities were inexhaustible. To the North, the cordillera of Apolobamba is surrounded by high-mountain swamps, which constitute a unique phenomenon. The glaciers are similar to those of the Cordillera Blanca in Peru. Its most important summits are the Cololo (5 915 m.a.s.l.), the Wilakollo (5 816 m.a.s.l.) and the Chaupi Orko (6 040 m.a.s.l.). Finally, The Cordillera Apolobamba is the home of the Kallawayas (the sacred medicine men of the Andes). The Cordillera Royal, near La Paz, extents over 220 kilometers its summits topped with glaciers. Starting from the quebrada (valley) of Sorata, it crosses the Altiplano, following an arc Northwest/Southeast, to finish in the mountain with three bodies of the Illimani lord, symbol of the Andean capital. 
Its most important summits are Illampu (6 383 m.a.s.l.), Ancohuma (6 427 m.a.s.l.). Chachacomani (6 095 m.a.s.l.), Condoriri (5 640 m.a.s.l.), Huayna Potosí (6 088 m.a.s.l.), Mururata (5 765 m.a.s.l.) and of course Illimani (6 490 m.a.s.l.), the mountain looking over the city of La Paz. All the names of the mountains in the Cordillera Royal refer to divinities or great Aymara lords. At the start of the third millennium, they continue to be revered as such by a large part of the Bolivian population. As a matter of fact, if you visit La Paz, look for Don Antonio Paredes Candia booth, the Bolivia writer who has been the librarian for the University Mayor of San Andrés for the last 30 ans. All the Bolivian legends have been compiled under his wonderful pen. 
The Cordillera of Quimsa Cruz (three crosses), behind Illimani, rises from ranges very rich in natural resources, but the elevation of its summits is not as important. The most remarkable are the Puntiagudo (5 400 m.a.s.l.), the Yunque (5 600 m.a.s.l.), The Inmaculado
(5 600 m.a.s.l.) and the Atoroma (5 700 m.a.s.l.). Quimsa Cruz has become the favorite hideout of mountaineers who like to affront the mountain with bare hands.
The Eastern Cordillera continues in the direction of the North/Southeast in the department of Oruro (Cordillera Azanaques), in the department of Potosí (Cordillera of Chichas), to finish in the Southern Bolivia under the name of cordillera of Lípez, towards Argentina. Between the Western Cordillera and the Eastern Cordillera is locked the Altiplano, region of the high Andean plateaus located at over 3 700 meters above sea level.
Altiplano. A name that make travelers dream! Under the influence of the Cordillera Royal, the North of the Altiplano (La Paz and Lake Titicaca) is the most humid part of the region, with an average of 650 mm of yearly rainfall. The Sacred lake acts like a temperature regulator for all the Peruvian and Bolivian land located in the vicinity of this gigantic water mass of 8 300 km2. As a result, amongst other things, we see a large agricultural productivity and the growth of trees specific to the area (K’eñua, K’iswara and K’olli). Lake Titicaca as well as Lake Popoo and the salars (salt flats of Uyuni and of Coipasa) are remnants of a fabulous inland sea dating from the beginnings of the Quaternary period. These lakes (named by Bolivian researchers Minchín and Ballivián) covered the major part of the Andean Altiplano where we can still find numerous fossilized trilobites.
Central Altiplano (department of Oruro): enjoys a drier climate. There, the cultivation of potatoes and grains from the North leave room for sandy expanses. The region comprises Lake Popoo (2 218 km2) and the salar of Coipasa (2 218 km2), home to the most ancient ethnic group in the Americas, the Chipayas.

South of the Altiplano

This represents the area the most extreme and the most spectacular from a geologic standpoint with, to the West of the department of Potosí, the salar de Uyuni, the largest salt desert in the world (surface of 10 200 km2). The salt extracted is consumed in Bolivia. During the summer (rainy season), a fine water cover transforms the salar in a mirror, the most gigantesque of the planet! The salar of Uyuni possesses the most important lithium reserves in the world. The lithium, a very light metal, is used in space and aeronautic construction, electronics and pharmaceuticals. The reserves buried in the South part of the Salar were estimated) at four million tons by a mission of the IRD (Research and development Institute, ex-ORSTOM. A gigantic treasure for future generations!

South Lípez

Starting south of the Salar, this desolate and arid region possesses quantities of mineral reserves. The peasants grow quinoa, plant of Tiwanaku and Inca civilizations, as rich in calories, proteins and vitamins as milk. This plant cultivated since the time of the Tiwanaku culture is a wonder of the botanical reign. Part of the chenopodiace family (like the spinach). The quinoa réal is one of the best resource Bolivia owns to alleviate the problems of malnutrition. It is also a product very valuable for exports, because it is included in the composition of the very famous chocolate drink Milo. The region of South Lipez shelters 360 volcanic lagunas counting amongst the most beautiful scenery of South America! These lakes owe their color red, green, emerald, amethyst or light bleu to the presence of phytoplankton reacting with the light of day. They are home to one of the most beautiful bird on earth (and one of the rarest), the flamingo James (Phoenicopeterus Jamesis). The most spectacular lagunas are laguna Celeste, laguna Colorada and laguna Verde.

Sub-Andean valleys: Yungas and Chapare

Towards the East, the Cordillera Royal drops steeply to disappear into the Amazon. On these slopes, the subtropical valleys or Yungas are located between 500 and 2 500 meters above sea level. Very humid and hot, the region is well adapted for the culture of citrus fruits, cafe and coca leaf. Where the slopes are not so abrupt, we enter in the temperate valleys like the ones of Cochabamba, Tarija and Sucre where the climate and the relief are comparable to those of some region in the South of Spain. Tarija, for example, is known in Bolivia like the “Little Andalousia” (tierra andaluz), nickname fitting well the character of its inhabitants, the Chapacos, who have the reputation of being slow.

The Orient

The Orient constitutes 72 % of the surface of Bolivia. Very rich in relief and mining resources, the region also is home to the bulk of Bolivian flora and of the fauna. Its great plains have an average altitude of 250 meters above sea level.


The Northwest of Bolivia (departments of Beni and Pando) is covered by the Amazonian forest; a fount of precious wood, wildlife and flora. From Trinidad and towards the South, the vegetation is a type of savannah. First of all, the plain of Moxos, submerged by floods during the rainy season (November-April). It is this phenomenon that certainly has forced the inhabitants of the ancient Moxos civilization to build the gigantic artificial islands (20, 000 “lomas” have been numbered in Beni) to protect people and possessions from the cyclic floods. The life of the Amazon Basin owes much of its wealth to the important web of rivers that, originating in the Cordillera Royal, reach the Amazon before ending their course in the Atlantic Ocean. The rivers Mamoré, Iténez and Madre de Dios are the principal arteries of this immense water web.

Plains of Chiquitos

To the east of Bolivia, in the area of Santa Cruz, the plains of Chiquitos are overhung by small summits (between 700 and 900 m.a.s.l.), while the average altitude of the region is around 400 m.a.s.l. These hills represent very rich mining resources such as iron of “Mutún”, the most important of the planet. In the Chiquitania, are located the “bañados” (wetlands) of Izozog and those of the Pantanal, at the border with Brazil. The area also contains the most beautiful national parks of the Orient: Amboró and Noël Kempff parks. The plains of Chiquitos and those of Moxos, in the Beni, where chosen by the Jesuits to attempt the realization of their utopia.


Located towards the South of the area of Santa Cruz, and covering the East of the areas of Tarija and Chuquisaca, the Chaco was the region chosen by Che Guevara to attempt to create a “foco” (hot spot) guerillero. The Chaco resembles a little the Sierra Maestra where the Che, Camilo, Cienfuegos and the Castro’s brothers embarked in one of the most romantic adventure of the Latino-American history (see “Path of Che”). Here, plains and valleys alternate with dry climate and dense vegetation, but less welcoming and lush than in the Amazon. This region possesses the majority of the reserves of natural gas and petroleum of the country. A wealth that should make Bolivia the principal supplier of natural gas to Brazil (see “Economy”)..


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