Mountain Climbing in Bolivia

Seeing amazing wildlife and hiking through ancient ruins may be what come to mind when people think about vacations in Bolivia, but with the Andes mountains running through its Western side, this South American country is great for mountain climbers of almost every skill level and budget from around the world.

If you’re interested in mountain climbing during your visit to Bolivia and are not that familiar with the country, the best way to get started is to head straight to La Paz, which is surrounded by mountains. In fact, La Paz is the highest capital city in the entire world. Because of its convenient location, many climbing teams and ice walking tours use it as a meeting spot. Though there are other climbing spots further south, there are eight peaks near La Paz that have summits above 6000 meters (a little over 19685 feet). All are located in the Cordillera Real (a mountain range that forms part of the Andes).

Huayna Potosí is by far the most climbed mountain in Bolivia, and it is located about 25 kilometers, or almost 16 miles, north of La Paz in the Cordillera Real. The height of Huayna Potosí is surprisingly debatable, because the measured height is 6088 meters (about 19973 feet), but nearly every person who reaches the summit reports a height of around 6110 meters (a little over 20045 feet). The name “Huayna Potosí” is an indigenous Aymara term that means "Thunderous Youth". Local Bolivian legend has it that this mountain was the first and most cherished son of the “king and queen” of all mountains, Illampu and Illimani. The glacial meltwater running from Huayna Potosí feeds one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in the country, providing electricity for many. The mountain is considered by many to be a relatively easy climb— one of the easiest throughout the mountains in the region—though of course there are multiple routes up to the summit. Nevertheless, both beginners and experts alike are known to tackle the climb, which takes three days total for most (this includes the treks to and from base camp).

Though not frequented as often as Huayna Potosí, the other mountains around La Paz are regarded as equally beautiful, have good rock grades and are included in some great climbing tour packages. Illampu is by contrast a much harder climb than Huayna Potosí, but its steep routes to the top still attract a healthy amount of more experienced climbers per year. Illampu’s summit sits atop 6368 meters, or 20892 feet, and it takes about 6 days to climb. Be aware though that because of its difficulty, not all climbing tour agencies do Illampu climbs. If you are looking to go, do not take up any local guide or company that offers to “make an exception”, especially if they’ll only do it for much more money than they normally charge. For your own safety (and budget), you should only climb Illampu with experienced guides who have climbed it before and include it as one of their packages.

Bolivia is also known for its dormant volcanoes, which, for the most part, sit separately from the Andes. Yes, because they are dormant, these volcanoes are also available for climbing. For example, the tallest peak in all of Bolivia is Nevado Sajama at 21424 feet, or 6530 meters. Nevado Sajama is in a pretty perfect conical shape that isn’t too steep, so the whole climb is relatively easy and takes about four days. In fact, it is so flat on the top that in August 2001 the Bolivian mountaineering club (Club Andino Boliviano) held a special soccer event to help raise the profile of mountaineering in the country, as well as protest FIFA’s decision to stop using La Paz as a location for international games because of its high elevation. In an effort to show that elevation does not necessarily create physical strain, two teams of Sajama villagers and Bolivian mountain guides got together to play a soccer game on the flat summit of Nevado Sajama. You don’t have to play soccer once you reach any of Bolivia’s summits, of course, but it couldn’t hurt to brush up on your soccer— fútbol, in Spanish— knowledge before your trip to Bolivia, especially if you’re using a Bolivian climbing guide!

The best time to go mountain climbing in Bolivia is actually in winter, as opposed to summer like in so many other countries. This is because the winters in Bolivia are cold and dry whereas the summers are hot and wet. Summer lasts between November and March while the winter months are April to October. Because the frequent, heavy rains in Bolivia’s summer months make climbing difficult and even more dangerous, it is best to plan your trip for some time between April and October.