Bolivia and Illimani - a Dream Fulfilled
Bolivian Flag
© May 2001 Adam Helman


Appreciation of natural beauty comes as a welcome part of conscious existence. We all differ in what is considered attractive. That said, all will concur that to actively seek beauty, whatever the form or arena, constitutes a major impetus to travel both distances great and small.

So it was upon viewing the great white mass of Nevado Illimani in 1994, but a short distance from the Bolivian metropolis of La Paz, that I set my sights upon its lofty summit as the end goal for a future visit.

Illimani as viewed from La Paz.

This mountain is at once many things to many people. To the native Aymara Indians the great peaks are cautiously revered. Evil spirits are presumed to lurk on-high, their wrath appeased by offerings and sacrifice. Illimani is especially viewed with awe. Given its massive triple peak structure; isolation from peaks in its immediate surround; and its considerable height (21,201 feet), it is little wonder that Illimani has for centuries held particular respect among the native peoples.

Illimani as viewed
from La Paz.

In a modern light Illimani is far and away the most famous mountain in a country replete with vertical relief. The Andes are at their widest in Bolivia with the most well known range in that nation being the Cordillera Real ("Royal Range") that runs for 100 miles northwest to southeast. There are several peaks in the Cordillera Real exceeding 20,000 feet and hundreds, some unclimbed, over 5,000 meters (16,400 feet).

Within this avenue of giants Illimani sits at the extreme southeastern end in splendid isolation. Visible from La Paz some 25 miles distant, it is close enough to appear and thus figure very prominently in the minds and spirits of the people. Streets, songs, and all manner of commercial goods are named after it.

Nevado Sajama (21,436 feet).

In the Bolivian west near the Chilean border, lies the Cordillera Occidental. There sits Nevado Sajama - a stratovolcano which, at 21,436 feet, happens to be the tallest mountain in Bolivia. So for want of some 250 additional feet, Illimani would be tallest in the land. Sajama lacks the history, location, beauty and overall appeal of Illimani. As a result, it is less often climbed.

Nevado Sajama

There are few mountains which one may associate with an entire nation. Japan has Mount Fujiyama; Switzerland has the Matterhorn; New Zealand has Mount Cook. Bolivia has Nevado Illimani.

The chief goal of this vacation clearly was to climb to the summit of the highest peak on Nevado Illimani. At 21,201 feet above sea level, Pico Sur ("South Peak") posed, if nothing else, a considerable challenge from its altitude alone. In addition Illimani attracted me because, if successful, its summit would become the highest altitude I had reached on firm ground. The previous record was atop Africa's highpoint, Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet). Finally, Nevado Ilimani3 also happens to be slightly (by just 81 feet) greater than 4 vertical miles above sea level. Owing to a fascination with numbers, this too inexplicably attracted me.

During the period set aside for acclimatization several lesser hills and mountains were to be climbed. These were to include my first "fifteener" (a peak whose elevation was in the range of 15,000 to 15,999 feet), and my first "sixteener".

Bolivia political map

Aspects of Bolivian culture were also to be re-explored, and, in particular, a personal survey of the various local dishes was planned for times and places where the hygienic conditions for the food preparation was considered acceptable to a foreign traveler.

I elected to travel with a partner in order to mitigate the risks associated with traveling alone in a third world country. These risks are largely associated with personal safety and include freedom from thieves and pickpockets.

Political map
of Bolivia.

Robert Packard is a retired professor of Mathematics who currently lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was more than a worthy companion as he had climbed some 3,000 mountains, including "4 1/2" of the seven summits (i.e. the highest point on each continent), and has run up the most impressive list of USA county highpoints of anyone (cf his completion map on my website for people who enjoy hiking to county highpoints).

For Bob as well, Illimani was quite attractive since he had been higher but once (on Aconcagua, the western and southern hemisphere highpoint in Argentina (22,834 feet)). Furthermore Illimani would prove to be his first "21er".


Experience demonstrates the essentiality of a willingness to accept unforseen events as the inevitable consequence of foreign travel. This flexibility of mind should be available at all times, as well as the loathsome realization that in most cases, forced plan alterations are generally for the worse.

For instance, the original vacation itinerary underwent serious amendment as the result of a threatened road blockade for May 1 - the Bolivian Labor Day. As explained below, our plans were altered despite the fact that the blockade never actually occurred during our visit.

The vacation was divided temporally into three parts whose nature and duration were dictated by the need for adequate acclimatization prior to the ascent of Illimani: For myself the duration of the entire vacation was fixed by the amount of paid leave I had accumulated at work. Presumably Bob, being retired, had no such constraint. Nevertheless he had personal obligations to attend afterwards - so feeling compelled to leave two days earlier than myself.

In addition to these three periods which subdivide the time actually spent in Bolivia, there was, for each of us, a day of air travel both before and afterwards. These two days are included below in the detailed account of this vacation.

Note 1 - The level of detail in this account given over to various subjects is a reflection of what I considered important on this vacation. If you are not interested in either mountains; exotic lands; or interesting food, then I humbly recommend that you look elsewhere for your reading enjoyment.

Note 2 - Clicking on any photograph will bring up the original, full-size image.

3I intentionally retain this incorrect spelling so that search engines can readily find this story when surfers mistakenly type "Ilimani" as key word.

Preparation Ascent Final Chapter