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Oruro, Bolivia


Altiplano, plain and simple

Stretching southward from La Paz, west from the city of Oruro to the Chilean frontier, and all the way down to the Salar de Uyuni is a harsh, sparsely-populated wilderness of scrubby windswept basins, lonely peaks, and glaring, nearly lifeless salt deserts. This is the archetypal Altiplano, a land of lonely mirages and interminable distances. Though the air retains no warmth, the land and sky meet in waves of shimmering reflected heat and the horizon disappears. Stark mountains seem to hover somewhere beyond reality and the sense of solitude is overwhelming.

The nights are just as haunting. Even in the Arctic, you’d rarely see blacker night skies or icier stars. As soon as the sun sets, you’ll learn very quickly that this air has teeth. The cold is so intense that it chills through and through in a matter of seconds and there is little available, it seems, that can conquer it.

Capital city of the Altiplano, Oruro lies north of the salty lakes Uru-Uru and Poopó and south from La Paz.

Geologically, the vast plateau was a deep intermontane valley in the days of the Tyrannosaurus rex. When the Andes were much newer than today, during the Cretaceous period some 100,000,000 years ago, erosion in those mountains filled the valley with a 15,000-metre-deep deposit of sediment. Thus was the Altiplano born. With such porous alluvial soil, the fertility of the basin is predictable, but especially in the south, the presence of salts, lack of adequate moisture, and a rocky surface character make agriculture here a challenging venture.

Altiplano - Cultural Landscape

The few people who inhabit this region live at the ragged edge of human endurance. They are among the hardiest living anywhere on earth. They contend with wind, drought, bitter cold, and high altitude with none of the modern conveniences which make such things bearable in the harsher climates elsewhere. These people labour unceasingly throughout their lives to wrest an existence from this land. Miners, farmers, and herders; the campesinos of the Altiplano deserve a great deal of respect for their accomplishments.

Even given the opportunity of relative prosperity in the developing lowlands, the Aymara have chosen not to leave their ancestral home. This is the same hardy group of people that managed to resist efforts of the Incas to assimilate them, body and soul, into the Empire. They refused to accept the Quechua language and the culture of the conquerors from the west and were the only major conquered tribe to get away with it.

For the visitor with fortitude and a sense of adventure, this area will prove a paradise. Scattered about the surreal landscape are steaming, towering volcanic peaks, flamingo-filled lakes stained by minerals and algae into rainbow hues, dozens of hot pools and springs, and the vast featureless salt deserts of Coipasa and Uyuni. Only the most intrepid and well-prepared will want to venture beyond the rail lines into the heart of this loneliness where transport is scarce and expensive and amenities are few. Those who do will be rewarded with a first-hand view of some of the most interesting geology, culture, and landscapes that the world has to offer.

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The Oruro region, with its simplicity of terrain and its isolation, represents the typical image of the Altiplano. Here an overwhelming majority of the inhabitants are of pure indigenous heritage. Oruro is also an ages old religious center. The city was founded on November 1, 1606 on the site of the previous ancient city of the Uru people, and baptized with the name of Villa Real de San Felipe de Austria de Oruro (in honor of King Phillip of Spain), in the wake of discoveries of rich silver lodes in the area, as well as for its strategic location halfway between La Paz and Potosi.

Time has mercifully led to the shortening of the city’s name, to Oruro, which was likely derived from the ancient Uru ethnic group that occupied the region. This culture remains, for the large part, shrouded in mystery, even though, throughout the region, the Urus left carved stone, ceramics, the vestiges of dwellings, weapons and tools, as samples of their stages of development.

Oruro is accessible from La Paz, a trip of three hours and thirty minutes over a straight, paved road.

Climate in Oruro

Located at an altitude of 3,710m above sea level, Oruro is well known for its cold weather. From May to early July, night time temperatures combined with cool wind can bring the temperature down to about -30ºC.

Temperatures are warmer during August, September and October, after the worst of the winter chills and before the summer rains. Summers are warmer, but despite the fact of being an arid area, there is quite a lot of rainfall between November and March.

What to do around Oruro

For most Bolivians, Oruro becomes interesting only once a year (scroll down for detailed information about Oruro Carnival), but the region as a whole offers several attractions in the realms of geography and culture.

Consider Sajama National Park with Bolivia’s highest peak, Mount Sajama, at 6,542 meters above sea level, and with the strange keñua forests (see below).

Continuing westward by paved highway, one arrives at the Pacific coast city of Arica, Chile.

In the cultural realm, the area around Lake Poopó secludes several little known but interesting churches.

Amidst the small Altiplano villages found in the region, the church of Curahuara de Carangas houses the most important collection of allegorical frescos in Bolivia, dating back to 1610. Other churches in the region are worthy of interest and may be visited in an excursion from either Oruro or La Paz, as is the case of excursions to Sajama National Park and most four-wheel drive expeditions into the Andes.

Archaeological remains such as the chullpares (necropolis) of Condor Amaya are also found in the region as are cave paintings and pre-Columbian forts.

The Coipasa salt flat, extending over more than 2,000 square kilometers and at 3,600 meters above sea level is perhaps more beautiful but less awesome than its more famous counterpart at Uyuni. The history of the Chipaya ethnic group in the Coipasa area dates back to 2,500 years before Christ. Today, Santa Ana de Chipaya is a living vestige of that history, and its inhabitants have maintained their ancient customs in spite of the transculturation process.

Most of the places mentioned above are visited during an Andean Expeditions with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, covering a trajectory from La Paz to Sud Lípez.

There is also a railroad connection of Uyuni and Southern Bolivia from Oruro every two days (consult for updated train schedules at the time of preparing your trip to this region).

Oruro Carnival

UNESCO World Cultural Heritage

Oruro’s annual carnival is known throughout the country simply as Carnaval. Everyone knows that Carnaval takes place in Oruro, and any other carnaval celebration must be prefixed with a location so as to distinguish it from the original Carnaval of Oruro. (See collapsible panel below for more information about the Oruro Carnival.)

click here to openEl Carnaval de Oruro

The town of Oruro, situated at an altitude of 3,710 metres in the mountains of western Bolivia and once a pre-Columbian ceremonial site, was an important mining area in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Resettled by the Spanish in 1606, it continued to be a sacred site for the Uru people, who would often travel long distances to perform their rituals, especially for the principal Ito festival.

Oruro Carnival

The Spanish first banned these ceremonies in the seventeenth century, but they continued under the guise of Christian liturgy: the Andean gods were concealed behind Christian icons and the Andean divinities became the Saints.

As the Spanish priests introduced Christianity, they soon encouraged the Indians to perform their traditional dances and songs for the Catholic saints' feast day observances. The Ito festival was transformed into a Christian ritual, celebrated on Candlemas (2 February). The traditional llama-llama or diablada in worship of the Uru god Tiw became the main dance at the Carnival of Oruro.

By the mid-18th century carnaval became an annual event in Oruro. As Indian laborers joined the celebration, city officials made efforts to control rowdiness by naming the Virgin Mary patron saint of the festival.

The Carnival, which takes place every year, lasts ten days and gives rise to a panoply of popular arts expressed in masks, textiles and embroidery. The main event in the Carnival is the procession or Entrada.

It is a parade of thousands of dancers and musicians. The sumptuous costumes, beautifully painted masks, folk dances and songs bear witness to the influence of indigenous and Spanish cultures.

Oruro Carnival

During the ceremony, the dancers walk the four kilometres of the processional route and repeat the journey for a full twenty hours without interruption. More than 28,000 dancers and 10,000 musicians organized in about 50 groups take part in the procession which still shows many features dating back to medieval mystery plays.

Field research was undertaken in order to inventory and catalogue the twenty-one dances and forty-seven fraternities of the Oruro Carnival in their interrelated aspects, which include music, costumes and choreography.

The Carnival of Oruro is now inscribed on the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2001).

However, the decline of traditional mining and agriculture is threatening the Oruro population, as is the desertification of the Andean high plateau, which is leading to massive emigration. Urbanization has given rise to acculturation as well as a growing generation gap. Also unfortunate is uncontrolled financial exploitation of this Carnival.


Bolivia Carnival Dates:

Carnaval 2016 - February 6 until February 9
Carnaval 2017 - February 25 until February 28
Carnaval 2018 - February 10 until February 13
Carnaval 2019 - March 2 until March 5
Carnaval 2020 - February 22 until February 25
Carnaval 2021 - February 13 until February 16
Carnaval 2022 - February 26 until March 1

Ask us to arrange your trip to the next must-see Bolivia Carnival! Contact us now!

Sajama National Park

Oldest national park in Bolivia
and home to its highest mountain

Established in 1939 to protect the rare vicuña and endangered keñua forests, this reserve is comprised of a semi-arid high Andean system and a semi-desert high plain between 4,000 and 6,500 meters high.

It highlights a significant sample of high-Andean ecosystems, the highest woodlands in the world (keñua bush/tree forests), shrubbery, bofedales swamps, and high grasslands. Sajama National Park’s strategic location bordering on Chile’s Lauca National Park gives the vicuña a larger territory for circulating in without danger.

click here to openMore about Sajama National Park and the "Payachatas"


The mountain range includes the majestic, snowy cones of Nevado Sajama, the highest mountain in Bolivia (6,542 m / 21,463 ft) and the Payachatas or twin volcanoes: Mt. Parinacota (6,110 m / 20,046 ft) and Mt. Pomerape (6,232 m / 20,446 ft). Of course this place is a climbers’ paradise, but the area also features a variety of options for soft adventure travel activities.

Apart from the strikingly beautiful panoramas, natural attractions include thermal springs, keñua forests and typical high-Andean fauna. On the cultural side, archaeological sites abound in the region, including polychromed chullpas or pre-hispanic burial sites, cave paintings, and pucaras defensive buildings among others. The more recent colonial architecture is also well worth a look and includes some of the finest examples of religious artwork in the Andes.

The native population, proud of what they have, has always tried to preserve their way of life and environment. The park was the first protected area in Bolivia (declared a natural reserve in 1939). The region’s main inhabitants are Aymara Indians of Caranga origin, grouped in ayllus. The area is one of the ones that has best preserved the traditional indigenous social organizations, the customs and mythic-religious beliefs. During the 1980s, the citizens of the counties that make up the Park grouped together in an organization called “Jacha Carangas” (“Great Carangas”), with the purpose of strengthening the ayllus and improve the production activities.

It is estimated that to date, about 300 families live in the surroundings of the park and about 100 in the park’s interior. The population’s main occupation is camelid herding and yarn spinning. Circular houses, traditional to the Aymara, can still be found today. Agriculture is much reduced due to the extreme climatic conditions (freezes and dry land are prevalent) and the crops are limited to quinoa and luki potatoes. The communities that live in the area maintain their socio-economic as well as religious traditions, following the same pattern they have followed for almost 500 years.

The reserve is jointly administered by park service officials and the indigenous people, the Aymara. It has proved an example of sustainable resource use and healthy tourism. As all protected areas in Bolivia are inhabited, nature conservation is not possible against the will of the local people. It is necessary to take their traditional rights, existing value systems and social organization into account.

West from Sajama and adjacent to it is Chile's Parque Nacional Lauca, a Biosphere Reserve nominated by UNESCO in 1983. The 140,000 ha park is filled with wildlife and interesting sites. The twin volcanoes of Parinacota and Pomerape (called collectively as Payachatas) rise majestically above Lago Chungará and are a highlight of most trips to the park. Both volcanoes are perfectly conical with snow covered peaks and the views are outstanding.

Access is by paved road from La Paz and Oruro in Bolivia, and connecting with the city of Arica (176 km west of Parque Nacional Lauca) in nearby Chile.



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Oruro is located in the western part of Bolivia.

Oruro and the Altiplano

Through our intimate, small-group tours and private expeditions in this area you will be able to visit sites most tourists, even seasoned travelers, never find.

Oruro is accessible from Arica, Cochabamba, La Paz, Potosí and Uyuni.

Join us on a discovery of a lifetime in Oruro.

Combine Oruro and the Altiplano with one of our selected excursions near this area:


La Paz & Lake Titicaca
{ short bolivia excursion - fully customizable }


Uyuni - Salt Flats & Sud Lípez
{ short bolivia excursion - fully customizable }


Cochabamba - Andes & Amazonia
{ short bolivia excursion - fully customizable }

The following packages also include this area
among other destinations.


La Paz / Tiwanaku / Lake Titicaca / Carnaval de Oruro / Sajama & Lauca National Parks / La Paz
{ sample bolivia trip - fully customizable }


La Paz / Sajama & Lauca National Parks / Rurrenabaque / Madidi & Pilon Lajas National Parks / La Paz
{ sample bolivia trip - fully customizable }

Feel free to customize any travel package according to your own personal interests and the specific activities you expect...

Join us on one of our Natural History Tours or a Cultural Exploration into the heart of South America. Our programs are offered throughout the year, on a (very) small group basis and mostly in private.

You may also want to make an enquiry or design your own program of activities in this area.

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You may also check other Special Interest Travel and unusual tours or expeditions around Bolivia, including:

• La Paz, Tiwanaku, Lake Titicaca
• Uyuni Salt Flats & Sud Lípez Red & Green Lagoons
• Colonial Cities of Sucre and Potosí
• Central, Inter-Andean Valleys of Cochabamba
• Santa Cruz - the Lowlands & Jesuit Missions
• Bolivian Rainforests & Amazon Basin
• Cuzco & Machu Picchu Extensions

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