Rugged Mountains, Glaciers and Ice Caves – Trekking the Cordillera Apolobamba

Bolivia has some of South America’s most diverse landscapes and climates. In such a small country one can experience the highland areas of La Paz, Potosí and Sucre to the lowland jungle and subtropical forests of Rurrenabaque, Buena Vista and Las Yungas within a few days.

This makes the country one of the best in South America for ecotravel and nature tourism. We are always looking for ways to get closer to nature. So when we heard that we could spend a week lost in the middle of Bolivia’s Cordillera Apolobamaba, visiting ice caves, walking amongst llama and alpacas, witnessing glacial waters streaming through vast rugged valleys, and contemplating high altitude lakes each so different from the last, we had to go.

Included in Bolivia’s Area Natural de Manejo Integrado Nacional (ANMIN), the Cordillera Apolobamba is part of the vast Cordillera de los Andes mountain range which stretches from southern Chile right up to Peru.

In 1997 UNESCO declared the area a Man and Biosphere Reserve. During this decade Apolobamba expanded from 300,000ha to 484,000ha to become the western hemisphere’s most extensive protected area.

Fortunately the Cordillera Apolobamba still remains relatively un-trampled by the tourist footprint and so we got to experience it in all its glory, without a sign of other travellers and tourists paths. One of the main reasons for this is that there is no access into Apolobamba by car or bus, the only way to get into the heart of these mountain ranges is to hike. This is what we did.

So with two local guides, Leo and David, a small group of us left La Paz bright and early one morning on our week-long adventure trek into one of the least visited terrains in Bolivia. This was to be one of the most gruelling treks we have done so far. The fact that this is no tourist trail meant that we had no porters and we had to carry our own personal items, along with tents, sleeping bags, a week’s worth of food and cooking equipment on our backs.

We caught a local bus from La Paz to a drop-off point not long after a small village by the name of Ulla Ulla and by the time we ventured into the mountains the sun was beginning to set. After ascending about two hours into the windy and harsh terrain we reached our camping spot for the night (at approximately 4,800 metres altitude) besides a grey-blue lake that would also serve as our water source for the next 12 hours.

After one very chilly night we packed up our tents in the morning and left on a very long, very physically exhausting and emotionally demanding trek through the ascending mountain ranges. Each corner we passed the terrain dramatically changed.

From snowy mountain peaks we passed rose-coloured rockface, high altitude lakes home to white and pink flamingos, miles and miles of peat moss, refreshing waterfalls and sand dunes, until six hours later we reached a point high over the valley which eventually led us to our base camp, at the foot of one of several glaciers.

From our base camp we spent the next two days hiking up (luckily this time without the painfully heavy backpacks) through stunning landscapes, over glaciers and into ice caves.

Coming from South Australia ice and snow are relative strangers to me and so hiking over this unfamiliar terrain was one of the most terrifying but most rewarding experiences ever. Our guides seemed to know this area and every step like the back of their hands, which made the experience more reassuring.

Reaching the top (approx. 5,600 metres above sea level) the views were awe-inspiring and some of the most spectacular we had ever seen in our lives. On the way back down we visited several ice caves, each one so different from the next but all so dramatically beautiful, with frosty turquoise stalagmites and stalactites framing their entrances.


The days and nights seemed to get colder and colder until the day we left our base camp, sure enough on the way to the next camp it started to snow. We had run into a snow storm. For three long hours we walked uphill through hail and snow pelting our faces until we reached flat terrain, where we could finally pitch our tents and bed down for the night.

The next day when the snow finally stopped falling around midday we faced the tough decision of staying put for another night or continuing on for another four hours with the risk of the snow storm coming back. We decided the latter and so after 12 long hours in our tents we started walking again towards Aguas Calientes. Not long after our departure did it start to snow again.

Fortunately once we reached the thermal baths the skies cleared a little and we had fresh water once again from the nearby streams. These aguas calientes have multiple uses for the locals of this region, from hot baths to dishwashing and laundry. In the morning we awoke to the habitual sound of Bolivian music booming from a nearby minivan full of locals coming to have their hot bath at the springs. Meanwhile cholas and cholitas were busying scrubbing laundry in the steaming sulphur-filled stream.

We only spent one night here before the guides realised that the next day was fiesta – Dia de los Santosis[1] – which meant that there would be no transport back to La Paz for the next few days. We had to get to the closest village and track down a moving vehicle or risk getting stuck in the middle of nowhere with no food left.

And so with that we were back on the road, only for about an hour this time, until we reached the tiny pueblo of Hichocollo, where we sat and waited…and waited and waited for a bus, a truck or any means of transport to pass on its way to La Paz.

In the town square sheep and alpaca were roaming amongst local Aymaras on their way to the cemetery, to participate in the yearly oration dedicated to the dead. Our wait continued, but it was fiesta, and no use. As we waited we watched the wretched grey clouds heading over our way and the threat of storms came back to haunt us. Eventually one of the guides managed to swindle us some shelter in a nearby community agricultural centre.

Just as we were about to source some dinner for the evening, Leo came running into the centre proclaiming that he had found us transport back to La Paz. He had spent the past few hours enquiring amongst the locals until one man with a minibus agreed to take all of us back for 2,000 Bolivianos.

Eight very cramped hours later we were back safe and sound in La Paz, from one of the most beautiful, toughest and most unpredictable adventures we have had so far in South America.

But the journey continues…

Proxima estacion, Lake Titicaca!

[1] Also known as Dia de los Muertos. In Bolivia it is an important celebration that melds ‘new’ Catholicism with old pagan beliefs. Families and friends gather at cemeteries with food, music and prayers whereby the dead are expected to return to their homes and villages.

One Response to “Rugged Mountains, Glaciers and Ice Caves – Trekking the Cordillera Apolobamba”
  1. Carole Malinda says:

    So sad that for some people freedom takes so long , even in this day and age.And the struggle continues.

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  • Natasha Malinda from Melbourne, Australia
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