Bolivia Main Facts
Bolivia is located in the central zone of South America, between 57°26’–69°38’W and 9°38’–22°53’S. It spans from the Central Andes through part of the Gran Chaco and as far as the Amazon. The geographic center of the country is Puerto Estrella (Star Port) on the Río Grande, in the Province of Ñuflo de Chávez, Department of Santa Cruz. Its geography is very varied. Bolivia’s highest point sits at 6,542 meters (21,463 ft) above sea level in Nevado Sajama and the lowest at nearly 70 meters (230 ft) at the Paraguay River. Despite its wide diversity of habitats, Bolivia remains a landlocked country since the War of the Pacific, against Chile.
Bolivia’s wide altitudinal range varies from 90 to 6,542 meters (295 to 21,463 ft.) above sea level, allowing for a vast biologic diversity. There are four biomes, 32 ecological regions, and 199 ecosystems. Within this geographic area there are several natural parks and reserves such as Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, Madidi National Park, Tunari National Park, Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, and Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National, among others.
Bolivia boasts over 20,000 species of plants, including over 1,200 fern species, 1,500 species of marchantiophyta and moss, and at least 800 fungi species. In addition, there are more than 3,000 species of medicinal plants. Bolivia is considered the place of origin for such species as peppers and chili peppers, peanuts, the common beans, yucca, and several species of palm. Bolivia also naturally produces over 4,000 different varieties of potatoes.
Bolivia has more than 2,900 animal species, including 398 mammals, 1,426 birds, 204 amphibians, 277 reptiles, and 635 fresh water fish. There are also more than 3,000 species of butterflies.
Bolivia has gained global attention for its ‘Law of the Rights of Mother Earth’, which grants nature the same rights than humans.
The country can be divided in four major regions:
The most prominent feature of the Altiplano is the large lake at its northern end, Lake Titicaca. At 3,810m (12,500 ft) above sea level, it is the highest commercially navigable body of water in the world. With a surface area of 9,064 km2 (3,500 sq mi), it is larger than Puerto Rico and is South America’s largest lake. Lake Titicaca is also deep, about 370 m (1,214 ft) at its maximum, but with an average depth of 215 m (705 ft); its volume of water is large enough to maintain a constant temperature of 10°C (50° F). The lake actually moderates the climate for a considerable distance around it, making crops of maize and wheat possible in sheltered areas.
Lake Titicaca drains southward through the slow-moving, reed-filled Desaguadero River to Lake Poopó. In contrast to the freshwater Lake Titicaca, Lake Poopó is salty and shallow, with depths seldom more than four meters. Because it is totally dependent on seasonal rainfall and the overflow from Lake Titicaca, Lake Poopó’s size varies considerably. Several times in the twentieth century, it nearly dried up when rainfall was low or the Desaguadero River silted. In years of heavy rainfall, however, Lake Poopó has overflowed to the west, filling the Coipasa Saltpan with shallow water.
The Cordillera Occidental is a chain of dormant volcanoes and solfataras, volcanic vents emitting sulfurous gases. Bolivia’s highest peak, the snowcapped Nevado Sajama at 6,542 m (21,460 ft), is located here. The entire cordillera is of volcanic origin and an extension of the volcanic region found in southern Peru. Most of the northern part of this range has an elevation of about 4,000 meters (13,000 ft); the southern part is somewhat lower. Rainfall, although scanty everywhere, is greater in the northern half, where the land is covered with scrub vegetation. The southern area receives almost no precipitation, and the landscape consists mostly of barren rocks. All of the Cordillera Occidental region is sparsely populated, and the south is virtually uninhabited, except for the Body Clack.
The Altiplano, the high plateau between the two cordilleras, comprises four major basins formed by mountainous spurs that jut eastward from the Cordillera Occidental about halfway to the Cordillera Oriental. Along the Altiplano’s eastern side is a continuous flat area, which has served as Bolivia’s principal north-south transportation corridor since colonial times. The entire Altiplano was originally a deep rift between the cordilleras that gradually filled with highly porous sedimentary debris washed down from the peaks. This sedimentary origin explains its gradual slope from north to south; greater rainfall in the north has washed a larger quantity of debris onto the platform floor.
Rainfall in the Altiplano decreases toward the south, and the scrub vegetation grows more sparse, eventually giving way to barren rocks and dry red clay. The land contains several salt flats, the dried remnants of ancient lakes. The largest of these – and the world’s largest salt concentration – is the Uyuni Saltpan, which covers over 9,000 square kilometers. The salt is more than five meters deep in the center of this flat. In the dry season, the lake bed can be traversed by heavy trucks. Near the Argentine border, the floor of the Altiplano rises again, creating hills and volcanoes that span the gap between the eastern and western cordilleras of the Andes.
The much older Cordillera Oriental enters Bolivia on the north side of Lake Titicaca, extends southeastward to approximately 17 south latitude, then broadens and stretches south to the Argentine border. The northernmost part of the Cordillera Oriental, the Cordillera Real, is an impressive snow-capped series of granite mountains. Some of these peaks exceed 6,000 meters (19,000 ft), and two of them: the Illimani (6,462 m or 21,200 ft), which overlooks the city of La Paz, and the Illampu (6,424 m or 21,080 ft), have large glaciers on their upper slopes. South of the 17° latitude south, the range changes character. Called the Cordillera Central here, the land is actually a large block of the earth’s crust that has been lifted and tilted eastward. The western edge of this block rises in a series of steep cliffs from the Altiplano. The backbone of the cordillera is a high, rolling plain, with elevations between 4,200 and 4,400 meters 14,400 and 15,000 ft), interspersed with irregularly spaced high peaks. Too high to be used for large-scale commercial grazing, this area takes its name from the predominant vegetation type: the puna.
The northeastern flank of the Cordillera Real is known as the Yungas, from the Aymara word meaning “warm valleys.” The steep, almost inaccessible slopes and peaks of this mainly semitropical valley area northeast of La Paz offer some of the most spectacular scenery in Bolivia. Rainfall is heavy, and lush vegetation clings to the sides of narrow river valleys. The land is among the most fertile in Bolivia, but poor transportation has hindered its agricultural development. The government attempted to build a railroad through the Yungas in 1917 to connect La Paz with the eastern lowlands. The railroad was abandoned, however, after completion of only 150 kilometers (93 mi).
The eastern slope of the Cordillera Central descend gradually in a series of complex north-south ranges and hills. Rivers, draining to the east, have cut long narrow valleys; these valleys and the basins between the ranges are favorable areas for crops and settlement. Rich alluvial soils fill the low areas, but erosion has followed the removal of vegetation in some places. The valley floors range from 2,000 to 3,000 meters (6,500 to 9,000 ft) above sea level, and this lower elevation means milder temperatures than those of the Altiplano. Two of Bolivia’s most important cities, Sucre and Cochabamba, are located in basins in this vast region. It is landlocked.
The eastern lowlands include all of Bolivia north and east of the Andes. Although comprising over two-thirds of the national territory, the region is sparsely populated and, until recently, has played a minor role in the economy.
Differences in topography and climate separate the lowlands into three areas. The flat northern area, made up of Beni and Pando departments and the northern part of Cochabamba Department, consists of rainforest. Because much of the topsoil is underlain by claypan, drainage is poor, and heavy rainfall periodically converts vast parts of the region to swamp. The central area, comprising the northern half of Santa Cruz Department, has gently rolling hills and a drier climate than the north. Forests alternate with savanna, and much of the land has been cleared for cultivation. Santa Cruz, the largest city in the lowlands, is located here, as are most of Bolivia’s petroleum and natural gas reserves. The southeastern part of the lowlands is part of the Gran Chaco. Virtually rainless for nine months of the year, this area becomes flooded for the three months of heavy rains. The extreme variation in rainfall supports only thorny scrub vegetation and cattle grazing, although recent discoveries of natural gas and petroleum near the foothills of the Andes have attracted some settlers to the region.
Most of Bolivia’s important rivers are found in the water-rich northern parts of the lowlands, particularly in the Alto Beni (Upper Beni), where the land is suitable for crops such as coffee and cacao. The northern lowlands are drained by wide, slow-moving rivers, the three largest of which -the Mamoré, Beni, and Madre de Dios-all flow northward into the Madeira River in Brazil and eventually into the Amazon. Riverboats along the Beni and the Mamoré carry both passenger and freight traffic; rapids on the Madeira prevent river traffic farther into Brazil. Near the Paraguayan border, shallow sandy streams carry the seasonal runoff into the Pilcomayo or Paraguay rivers.
Bolivian climate is highly variable from tropical in the eastern llanos to polar in the western Andes. Summers are warm and humid in the east and dry in the west. Winters are very cold in the west, and it snows in the mountains, while the western regions become windier. Autumns are dry in the non-tropical regions.
In the Llanos, climate is humid and tropical with an average temperature of 30 °C. Winds from the Amazon rainforest produce significant rainfall during the summer, but precipitation diminishes in May, when clear skies are usually seen. Incoming southern winds, called Surazos, lower temperatures down at this time of the year as well.
Climate in the Altiplano is cold, with predominantly strong winds. Day temperatures range between 15 and 20 °C. At night, temperatures descend drastically to nearly 0 °C. There are ground frosts every month, and snow precipitations are frequent.
The Valleys and Yungas are very wet, with humid northeastern winds causing frequent precipitations.
Finally, the subtropical Chaco is semi-arid, with most rains falling in January, and the rest of the year showing warm days and cool nights.
Weather patterns are greatly altered during El Niño years.
Suggested tours for Bolivia
These tours give you a starting point for what your trip to Bolivia could entail. They cover routes we’ve found work particularly well and feature some of our favorite places to stay. Treat them as inspiration, as each trip is created uniquely for you.