16.2619° S, 68.1520° W - Huayna Potosí, Bolivia

Adventures in the Andes: Climbing Huayna Potosí


, by Charlie Boscoe

Sunrise from the summit of Huayna Potosí. Photo: Boscoe Collection

Hiking and climbing in the Andes Mountains is an utterly unique experience: you can base yourself in a big city and drive straight into the world's most extensive (by area) mountain range. There's no prolonged trek through foothills, no gradual entry into the high mountains - you leave your hotel, hop in a 4x4, and drive into mind-blowing alpine terrain. This makes it a very different experience from hiking and climbing in most alpine ranges, and it's certainly a world away from trips like Mera Peak or other similar objectives in the Himalayas.

The logistics are simple, and so is the acclimatization process if you climb in the Bolivian or Ecuadorian sections of the Andes. Both countries have high-altitude capital cities, meaning you can fly in and then spend a few days exploring the sights and smells, all while gaining some valuable red blood cells! Although culturally interesting, the few days spent exploring cities at the start of most expeditions are essentially a waste of time, but in Ecuador and Bolivia, they're a vital part of the trip. Getting acclimatized while sleeping in a hotel bed, eating at restaurants, and taking in some culture feels both satisfying and enjoyable - it's certainly unusual, so don't get used to it if you plan to make more high-altitude trips in other parts of the world! We have an entire article on how to acclimatize to high altitude, but when climbing in Ecuador and Bolivia, you can discard much of it and simply enjoy a few slow days at the start of your trip.

La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, nestled high amongst the Andes. Photo: Belikova Oksana, Shutterstock

In this article, I'll focus on one of the most popular Andean peaks - Huayna Potosí, which stands at an impressive 6,088 m (19,974 ft) and is easily accessed from Bolivia's capital, La Paz. There are countless ways of acclimatizing for an attempt on Huayna Potosí, but spending a few days checking out the fascinating culture of La Paz (3,640 m/11,942 ft), followed by a few days at Lake Titicaca (3,812 m/12,507 ft) and finally by completing the trek to and up Pequeno Alpamayo (described in the guidebook at the foot of this article) is one of the best ways of doing it. After getting some higher altitude under your belt, you can head back to La Paz for a couple of relaxing days before heading to Huayna Potosí rested and raring to go!


From La Paz, it's only an hour or so of driving to reach the foot of Huayna Potosí, and from the trailhead, the hike up to the mountain hut from where you launch your summit bid only takes a couple of hours. Having a slow morning, lunch at a decent restaurant in La Paz, and then heading to the mountain in the afternoon is perfectly feasible! The cluster of mountain huts that serve Huayna Potosí are pretty basic, but they do the job, and you'll need to start in the middle of the night anyway, so forget luxury - getting a bit of rest is the best you can expect!

A hideously early start is required to get up Huayna Potosí and back to the trailhead with a good safety margin, so drag yourself out of your bunk, get your gear on, and start shuffling. There is no getting around the unpleasantness of alpine starts, so I won't sugarcoat this part of the day. Just get your head down, try not to overthink, and get climbing.

Huayna Potosí dominating the view on the approach to the mountain. Photo: Pyty, Shutterstock

The reward for such a short sleep is an epic view across the northern Andes that reveals itself as the sun begins to creep over the horizon. The range's vastness and rugged beauty are apparent as soon as you can start to see, so savour it and enjoy the shade and colour of the light changing with every passing minute. There isn't much technical difficulty beyond a short, steep-ish snow slope midway up the glacier, but you need to keep your wits about you to pick a safe line through the various crevasse fields. Huayna Potosí is a popular peak, so there is likely to be a trail to follow, but don't just trust it unquestioningly - judge for yourself whether it's in the right place, rope up, and employ all normal glacier travel practises.

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If you've got your timing right, you should be close to the summit by the time daylight arrives - and what a summit it is! Despite the relative technical ease of the standard route up the mountain, other flanks of Huayna Potosí are steep, exposed, and dramatic, so the summit feels much more airy and "out there" than you might have expected. Carefully look around at your surroundings, both in the distance and close-up, and then descend back the way you came all the way to La Paz! The city's altitude, which likely felt brutal when you first arrived there, will feel very manageable after climbing Huayna Potosí, so indulging in a beer or two shouldn't cause too many ill effects!

Descending Huayna Potosí with clouds building in the distance. Photo:Michal Knitl, Shutterstock

Having recovered from both the climb and the ensuing celebration, consider taking on Illimani - the highest mountain in Bolivia's Cordillera Real and a logical next step after Huayna Potosí.

For descriptions of the Huayna Potosí ascent, the trip up Illimani, and our suggested acclimatization trek, check out the guidebook below: