Stretching in a broad arc across western Bolivia, the Andes define the country's three geographic zones: the Western zone features the Andes Mountains and the Altiplano; the Central zone features the Semitropical Yungas, the Highland Valleys and the Gran Chaco; and the Eastern Zone features the Tropical Lowlands.
The Natural and Geographic Landscape of Bolivia
Bolivia is located in the west-central part of South America with an area of approximately 1,100,000 sq km (425,000 sq mi). Landlocked, it borders five countries:
Brazil, to the north and east
Paraguay, to the southeast
Argentina, to the south
Chile, to the southwest
Peru, to the northwest
Stretching in a broad arc across western Bolivia, the Andes define the country's three geographic zones:
Eastern Zone: features the Tropical Lowlands
Map showing Bolivia's three geographic zones and their departments
I. Andes Mountains / Altiplano
The Bolivian Andes run in two main cordilleras. The Cordillera Occidental, or the western range, runs along the border with Chile. It is essentially a range of dormant volcanoes and features many isolated summits. Making up the western border of the country, the range heads south and then continues into Chile. The Altiplano lies to its west.
The Cordillera Oriental, or the eastern range, is a high, broad system of mountains stretching from Peru to Argentina. It is often identified as two separate ranges: the "Cordillera Real" in the north and the "Cordillera Central" in the south. Heading generally south and southeast, it forms the eastern edge of the Altiplano and continues into northern Argentina.
Between the two cordilleras lies the Altiplano plateau which is approximately 800-900 km (500 - 560 mi) in length and 130 - 200 km (80 - 125 mi) in width. The Altiplano plateau is made up of valleys and rolling hills. It includes salt flats, volcanoes, rivers and lakes. Running between the two Andes branches, it heads south from above Lake Titicaca, into northern Chile and Argentina.
The Altiplano hosts the famous Salar de Uyuni along with various other salt flats and lagoons. Its most prominent feature is Lake Titicaca in the north. Many volcanoes lie scattered among the plains and mesas.
The climate in the Altiplano is generally cold and windy. The terrain is mostly treeless and contains sparse vegetation primarily made up of tough clumps of grass (Jarava ichu)), Thola bushes (Baccharis dracunculifolia) and occasional stands of quinoa plants and queñua bushes.
II. Yungas / Highland Valleys / Gran Chaco
The northeastern flank of the Cordillera Real is known as the Yungas. The Yungas contains the rugged, largely undeveloped steep jungle-covered mountains which continue eastward until eventually meeting up with the tropical lowlands.
The upper reaches of the Yungas consist of cloud forests. The climate is hot and experiences high precipitation. Rivers cascade through the region from the glaciated summits of the Andes and eventually empty into the upper Amazon Basin. Rich in flora and fauna, the region is crisscrossed by Inca trails.
The Highland Valleys region lies east and southeast of the Altiplano and has the most hospitable climate in the whole country. It is made up of the rolling hills, valleys and basins that are part of the Central Cordillera.
The soils are fertile and the region mostly experiences a Mediterranean climate. It is the second most populous region of Bolivia and hosts the cities of Cochabamba, Sucre, Tarija and Potosí.
The Gran Chaco region is located in the southeastern corner of the department of Santa Cruz, bordering Argentina and Paraguay. It is characterized by being a harsh and almost impenetrable flat land of thick brush, cactus and grassy expanses, along with some forested areas. The region is hot and dry however, it is highly diverse in terms of its flora and fauna.
Physical map of Bolivia
III. Tropical Lowlands
The Tropical Lowlands region includes all of Bolivia north and east of the Andes. Although comprising over two-thirds of the national territory, the region is sparsely populated. Most of Bolivia's important rivers are located here.
Differences in topography and climate separate the lowlands into three areas:
- the flat and tropical northern area
- the drier rolling hills of the central area
- the semi-arid southeastern area
The flat northern area is made up of the Beni and Pando departments and the northern part of the Cochabamba Department. It consists of tropical rainforest. Because much of the topsoil is underlain by clay hardpan, drainage is poor and heavy rainfall periodically converts vast parts of the region to swampland.
The northern lowlands are drained by wide, slow-moving rivers. The largest of these rivers, the Mamoré, Beni and Madre de Dios, all flow northward into the Madeira River in Brazil and eventually into the Amazon River.
The central area, comprising the northern half of the Santa Cruz Department, features gently rolling hills. It has a drier climate than the northern area. 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. The region also contains most of Bolivia's petroleum and natural gas reserves.
The southeastern area of the lowlands is a continuation of the Paraguayan Chaco. Virtually rainless for nine months of the year, this area becomes a swamp during the three months of heavy rains. The extreme variation in rainfall supports only thorny scrub vegetation and cattle grazing.
Topographical map of Bolivia: plains of Amazon Basin in green, Sub-Andean Zone in red, Eastern and Western Cordilleras in white, Altiplano in gray