Getting Real High In Bolivia – La Paz, Lake Titicaca, and the Cordillera Real

Official flag of Bolivia

Official flag of Bolivia

My body is saying “Whoa!’ as it adapts to an unfamiliar situation.  In the past eighteen hours it’s gone from Toronto at 100 meters above sea level to La Paz at 3500.  The joke on the plane as we approached El Alto International was that we had to ascend to land safely.  El Alto is yet another 600 meters higher than La Paz, which sits in a deep gorge cut into the Altiplano, the high plains of western Bolivia.

I will take it very easy for the first few days as I acclimatize.  At least Bolivia is in the same time zone as Toronto so jet lag is not added to the list of adaptations required!


For this visit to Bolivia I’ve gone the organized small group route. A UK trekking company, Mountain Kingdoms, had exactly what I had in mind.  My wife Laila is relieved to know that I won’t be on my own and it is plush to have someone handle all the details.  The major drawback, other than the increased cost, is that you get to walk in an Anglo bubble through a multicultural society where Spanish, Aymara, and Quechua all have official status. The flag to the left, the Wiphala, acknowledges the indigenous peoples, and was made the second official flag in 2009.

In about a week’s time we’ll  start a 120-kilometer trek down the Cordillera Real mountain range to the east of Bolivia’s capital city. I should be feeling better by then!

Bolivia overview with red circle for La Paz:Titicaca

The map above locates Bolivia – south of the equator and landlocked with Brazil, Peru and Argentina as some of the countries whose borders it touches. Its one million square kilometre size makes it the world’s 26th largest country,  and its population of eleven million puts it in the same range as Belgium, Haiti, and Cuba – and a bit less than my home province of Ontario in Canada.

As far as the weather goes, La Paz’s September corresponds roughly to March in the northern hemisphere. The chart below illustrates La Paz’s temperature range and rain for the various months of the year –

La Paz temperature range and rainfall

The Altiplano has two seasons – one wet and one dry.  Tourist high season and prime trekking time corresponds to the middle of their dry season (April-October) thanks to pleasant daytime temperatures, much less rain and clearer skies.  It will be colder though, especially overnight in our tents  as we make our way south from Nevado Illampu  to Huayna Potosi on the trekking trails of  the Cordillera Real, another 600 to 1000 meters above La Paz’s 3500 meter altitude. It looks like we may have snow from September 13 onwards  –  the two-week forecast below is for down in La Paz!


Two-thirds of the country is either a part of Amazonia or the lowlands – but the Bolivia I’ll be visiting is the rather small northern piece of the Altiplano close to the border with Peru at Lake Titicaca.  The red circles on the maps above and below give a rough idea of the limits of my travels.  There is obviously much more to Bolivia than my twenty-four day visit will allow me to get to. If nothing else, I expect this visit will give me every  reason for a return.

Bolivia close up

Still, I do get to spend four or five days in de facto Bolivia’s capital, officially known as La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de La Paz.  My hotel, the Hotel Rosario,  is right around the corner from El Mercado de Hechiceria (the Witches’ Market) and a short walk from the Iglesia de San Francisco and the political heart of the city at Plaza Murillo. Tomorrow I hope to take a ride on the city’s new aerial cable car transit system Mi Teleférico.  It should make for some incredible views and photo ops!

Rough Guide map of Bolivia

Rough Guide map of Bolivia

More acclimatization time – four days –  will be spent in Copacabana and on the Isla del Sol in Lago Titicaca.  I’m looking forward to the walk along the Incan pilgrim’s trail from one end of the island to the other to see Titikala,  the Sacred Rock, a powerful mythological focal point of the Incan world.  We have also got a day slotted in to see what is left of the pre-Incan ritual centre of Tiwanaku, one of the Americas’ great pre-European-contact centers of civilization.  It was significant enough for the awed Incas to incorporate –  or maybe that should read appropriate? – it into their mythic world view.

Bolivia Trip - Satelite Map of Route

Bolivia Trip – satellite Map of Route – click on to enlarge

But the main focus of the trip are the two weeks I get to spend on the upper flanks of the Cordillera Real, the Royal Range to the Spanish. The satellite image above captures the terrain from Lago Titicaca and Isla del Sol  over to the mountain range on the east side of the Altiplano that has dazzled travellers through the centuries.

our yaks approaching Renjo La

our yaks approaching Renjo La west of Everest

The new mostly west side route we’ll be taking down the Cordillera avoids the worst of the mining activity and the roads which have spoiled a long section of the classic Trans-Cordillera traverse via the east side. In the Khumbu region of Nepal it was the yaks who carried our gear and supplies. On this trek, just like on my Peruvian Andes mountain trips, donkeys will be doing the hard work while we walk with day packs and camera gear. Pretty plush I’d say!

arierro and donkeys approaching Punta Union pass with the Quebrada Santa Cruz below

los burros approaching Punta Union Pass with the Quebrada Santa Cruz below

My Spot Connect gps tracking device will be coming along for the walk. It’s been on  canoe trips over the past few years to reassure everyone back home;  I also took it to Cuba a few winters ago for my bike tour of the southern part of the island.  I still remember hiding the thing as I approached the military checkpoints at the entrance of a number of Cuban towns – my fear overriding the fact that they probably would not  have known what it was anyway!   This time I won’t have to worry about having a forbidden device.

2015 Cordillera Real Trek Route

the track created by my Spot Connect of our  Cordillera Real Trek Route

When I get back in late September I hope to have my memory cards filled with image files  and short mp4 videos that I can shape into a series of posts on what is going to be a most excellent Bolivian adventure.  In the meanwhile, it is time to get out into the streets and try my limited castellano on the Paceños.  I really should have spent more time in August on my Spanish language practice!

Hasta luego, amigos!

Bolivia Map from Lake Titicaca to the Cordillera Real - Things To See and do

Bolivia Map from Lake Titicaca to the Cordillera Real – Things To See and do

Next Post: A Travellers’ Guide To La Paz, Bolivia – Things To See And Do

See Also:  Trekking Bolivia’s Cordillera Real – Maps, Basic Info, and Planning Advice

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8 Responses to Getting Real High In Bolivia – La Paz, Lake Titicaca, and the Cordillera Real

  1. dakinex2 says:

    Awesome…what a wonderful adventure! I love how you include your itinerary and maps. Makes me feel a part of it somehow. Happy Trails. Janie

    • true_north says:

      Janie, how can you tell that I spent thirty-five years in high school history classrooms!

      So far, so fascinating though I am feeling a bit spaced out!

  2. dakinex2 says:

    Awesome! Love your posts, and the fact you show your itinerary and maps, makes me feel a part of the journey. I was curious if this is a do it yourself trip or if you used an outfitter? Happy Trails (I posted this before, but wasn’t signed in, so not sure if it was actually completed) Janie

    • true_north says:

      I started off planning to do it on my own . I did so for a bicycle trip in southern Cuba, my Patagonia ramble, and some climbing in Ecuador.

      My wife was relieved this time when I found a ready-made tour with a UK trekking company – mountain Kingdoms. I’ll be joining eight other people – all Brits I think – in a couple of days.

      • dakinex2 says:

        I am now curious on how you handled the Cuban paperwork. I know Americans are supposed to have a reason for traveling or go with some group, which isn’t appealing to me. Your current trip still seems like a great one, even tho you are using an outfitter. I did the Machu Picchu trek back in the early seventies with a map from the tourist office. We saw one local the whole week we were gone. I hear it has way too many people on it now. Can’t wait to see your pics! Janie

      • true_north says:

        Janie, I’m a Canadian so there were not the complications faced by you in the States. Many Americans have come up to Toronto or Montreal and flown down to Havana from there.

        The logistics of the Trans-Cordillera Real trek that we did would make it difficult for all but the very hardcore trekkers to do on their own. At the least they would need a guide, an arriero, and three or four donkeys to move the gear and supplies along. In 15 days we saw a party of four (with guide, etc.) and one couple in a tent near the end of the trek. The Annapurna Circuit village-to-village trek it is not!

        Stay tuned for some maps and pix when I get back to T.O. I am currently in American Airlines hell, twelve hours late in my return from La Paz, and overnighting at Miami airport after arriving past midnight. The Holiday Inn voucher seemed more trouble than it was worth for three hours of “sleep” so I figured I’d stay at the airport! I am not alone as there are other people in transit who have made the same choice.

  3. Bolivia2016 says:

    I have a question about your trek in Bolivia, how much water did you carry? 1 or 2 litres? Was there places to fill water bottles along the way?

    • true_north says:

      Since I was part of an organized group everything was pretty much taken care of.

      The cook team made water available from large containers before we set out in the morning. My one-liter Nalgene bottle was sufficient, though some did fill a second bottle. There were occasionally streams along the way but no one made use of that water. Given the number of animals – sheep, llamas, etc. – in the upper valleys, it would certainly require treatment before use. In Torres del Paine I used Steripen to treat the water i took directly from streams but TDP does not have the animal population that the Cordillera Real does.

      During the course of the day you’d want to make sure to drink at least a couple of liters of water. Cups of coffee and tea, bowls of soup…the cook crew made sure that we were well hydrated. If you are a part of group you’ll have nothing to worry about.

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

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