Stretching from sky-high peaks (the three Cordillera mountain ranges) down to semitropical lowlands (the Yungas), Bolivia’s Northwest provides some of the most varied and spectacular trekking in the country, and indeed the continent. It’s not too far from the capital, but is still one of the best places for adventurous travelers to get off the beaten track.
Making the dramatic descent, trekkers will pass traditional Aymará villages, completely isolated from the outside world except by miles of tiny Inca trails. It is difficult to visit the region independently, but tours, either privately or in small groups, can be easily arranged through travel agencies in La Paz.
Mountain biking has also taken off in a big way, and is a quick, easy way to get down to the Yungas from the highlands. The 200km-long mountain range of the Cordillera Real offers some fantastic high altitude experience for experienced mountaineers and hikers alike, with more than 600 peaks over the 5,000m mark, of varying difficulty. The even more remote Cordillera Apolobamba, to the north of the Cordillera Real bordering Peru, has been penetrated by tourists only recently and there are still many areas that have yet to be discovered. It can be a difficult and often inhospitable area to visit, but as off-the-beaten-track travel goes, it’s almost unbeatable.
The Madidi National Park starts on the northern slopes of this mountain range, and is another good choice for trekkers. Although it can be difficult to access, nature enthusiasts will be well rewarded; the park encompasses high mountains and thick jungle, making it home to an incredibly diverse range of flora and fauna. Meanwhile, to the south of the Cordillera Real, the Cordillera Quimsa Cruz is the smallest of the Cordilleras, but as remote as the Apolobamba and offers similarly remote mountaineering possibilities.
In contrast, the Yungas, the area between the highlands and the Amazon basin is a well-established chillout spot for Bolivian and foreign tourists alike, thanks to its pleasant year-round climate. The most frequented town in the Yungas is Coroico, which has a good supply of tourist services, including several good eateries and hotels. Activities such as horseback riding, mountain biking, whitewater rafting and trekking can easily be arranged from here.
The colonial town of Sorata is also a popular weekend getaway thanks to its pretty streets and impressive scenery, and makes a good base for hiking and mountaineering expeditions. There are many well-trodden walking trails in this area, that vary in difficulty and altitude, and take anything from a couple of hours to several days. Many tourists use Coroico or Sorata as a base camp for these treks.