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).
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.)
El Carnaval de Oruro
Bolivia Carnival Dates:
Carnaval 2016 - February 6 until February 9
Ask us to arrange your trip to the next must-see Bolivia Carnival! Contact us now!
Oldest national park in Bolivia
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.
More about Sajama National Park and the "Payachatas"
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Oruro is located in the western part of Bolivia.
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:
The following packages also include this area
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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