Stretching in a broad arc across western Bolivia, the Andes define the country's geographic zones. The Western zone features the Andes and the Altiplano. The Central zone features the Semitropical Yungas, the Highland Valleys, and the Gran Chaco. The Eastern Zone features the Tropical Lowlands.
Geography 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; and Peru to the northwest.
The country is bisected from north to south by the Andes Mountains. Most of the largest cities are located in these highlands, which constitute one of the highest inhabited areas in the world.
The highland region is an important economic and political center. However, the eastern lowlands have recently seen rapid population and economic growth.
Bolivia is a biodiverse country, home to a wide variety of plants and animals. According to the Global Biodiversity Index, Bolivia is the 18th most biodiverse country in the world, with 1,435 species of birds, 259 amphibian species, 407 species of fish, 382 species of mammals, 315 species of reptiles, and 14,729 species of vascular plants.
Bolivia features a drastic variation in climate from one region to the other, from the tropics in the eastern llanos to polar climates in the western Andes. In addition, temperatures are strongly influenced by elevation.
In many areas of the country, summers are wet, and the high altitudes of population centers keep things relatively cool. However, April through October is winter, which is mostly cold and dry.
Map depicting the countries on the continent of South America
The Natural and Geographic Landscape of Bolivia
Stretching in a broad arc across western Bolivia, the Andes define the country's three geographic zones:
the eastern zone features the Tropical Lowlands
Map showing Bolivia's three geographic zones and their departments
Western Zone: 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. While making up the country's western border, the range heads south and 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, 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 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.
Central Zone: 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 that continue eastward until eventually meeting 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 comprises the rolling hills, valleys, and basins 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 as a harsh and almost impenetrable flat land of thick brush, cacti, grassy expanses, and some forested areas. The region is hot and dry; however, it is highly diverse in terms of its flora and fauna.
Eastern Zone: 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 comprises the Beni and Pando departments and the northern part of the Cochabamba Department. It consists of tropical rainforests. However, 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.
Wide, slow-moving rivers drain the northern lowlands. The largest of these rivers, the Mamoré, Beni, and Madre de Dios, 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.
Bodies of Water
Grande River (Guapay River)
Physical map of Bolivia
The following is a list of terrestrial ecoregions in Bolivia, as defined by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Bolivia is in the Neotropical realm. Ecoregions are classified by biome type - the major global plant communities determined by rainfall and climate.
Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests
Tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests
Tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannas, and shrublands
Flooded grasslands and savannas
Montane grasslands and shrublands
Map of Bolivia's ecoregions
Departments are the primary political subdivisions of Bolivia. There are nine departments, each of which is represented in the Senate by four Senators.
List of departments, followed by their capital cities in parentheses:
La Paz (La Paz)
Santa Cruz (Santa Cruz de la Sierra)
Map depicting the departments of Bolivia