Arriba Bolivia: A Climbing School in the Bolivian Altiplano

Sustainable tourism covered by a project

During summer 2013, nine Belgian youngsters, including me, have been living for five weeks in Llallagua, Bolivia, to establish a climbing school in the Bolivian Altiplano. In the past, the town was the mining capital of the country, but at the present day it resembles more a revived cemetery of past away industry. Or how a local described it, “In the future it could become a historical place, an open air museum”. The motto of the city is, “Llallagua – a city of mining, university and tourism”, although the mine is almost empty, the university is one of the worst in the country, and our visit probably doubled the number of tourists this year. But why would someone spend the summer there? And moreover, why would they abstain from the chance to visit the most beautiful and famous places of this hyper-diverse country instead?

© Ingrid Leonard
© Ingrid Leonard

The trip
The trip was the result of a full year of preparation for our voluntary project ‘Arriba Bolivia’. The whole project was conceived and carried out by the Belgian Naturefriends and had the aim to share the experience of active leisure activities in connection with sustainable tourism with the Bolivian youngsters. There was a close cooperation between participants from Belgium and the local partner Celso Apaza Bustos of the municipal government. From the beginning he was involved on-site in the preparation of the project.

© Ingrid Leonard
© Ingrid Leonard

The project
The project comprised the formation of a local group of young climbers and the bolting of new rock climbing routes on a nice crag next to the city. The aim was not to attract tourists, but mainly to give the locals the opportunity to practice this sport in a country full of rocks and climbing opportunities. Isn’t it a bit ironic that lowlanders from a country without mountains have to teach climbing to locals from Bolivia, where there are plenty of mountains?

The establishment of a local climbing association was part of the project, which can be beneficial for the continuation of the activities and makes climbing a sport with easy access. The newly founded group is now responsible for the affiliation of other interested people. They’re also in charge of the maintenance of the donated climbing gear and of finding own resources for renewing it. This organizational part is an opportunity for the participating volunteers to develop their personal skills. Such a chance is virtually lacking in a region where the civil society is rather poorly developed.

© Ingrid Leonard
© Ingrid Leonard

Is this what those people need?
We have often heard this doubtful remark during the fundraising for the project. We raised the question in Bolivia and Celso responded to it, “No, the climbing school is not going to solve our day to day problems, but we have to take every opportunity to pave the way to a more active and healthy leisure time for our youth. Climbing is very attractive in that respect. It can take people out of town and away from alcohol abuse.” One of the most enthusiastic climbers, Boris, noted that he was able to reflect on his own life, while hanging on a rock far above the town.

The more time you spend with local people, the more interaction there is

© Ingrid Leonard
© Ingrid Leonard

To enhance the mutual understanding among the bi-national group, we chose a homestay accommodation. We, the Belgian youngsters, lived with a family of a compañero who is active in the climbing school. Such homestays were not always the easiest way for sure. Suddenly the feeling of inequality which can be seen in the Bolivian society sneaked into our own group. Whilst some had a room for themselves, others complained about sharing a two-room house with six other family members, which included using a public toilet two blocks further.

The more time you take, the greater the experience
We stayed for five weeks in Bolivia and four of these in Llallagua. That is plenty of time, but hardly enough to realize our plans, not to mention visiting the touristic hotspots of the country. Instead, we had the chance to take part in some local traditions. Although practicing the folkloric dances with our Bolivian friends every evening was boring more than once, it allowed us to dance the official university parade together. The next morning, we realized that instant fame fell upon us, when everybody at the bakery asked us how we felt about dancing on the streets for five hours.

© Ingrid Leonard
© Ingrid Leonard

Project tourism
Why did we youngsters want to spend our summer in Llallagua? Indeed, besides the noble goal to have a positive impact on the local community, part of the motivation was getting to know new places and people. Therefore, in my opinion, Arriba Bolivia can be classified as a form of project tourism, i.e. tourism embedded in a development project. In this case the local community wanted to embrace the opportunity of rock climbing, which the landscape around them is offering. Belgian Naturefriends perceived the local youngsters willing to cooperate with them.

Can we learn something out of it? Well, I think Naturefriends and their international member and partner organizations are especially well positioned to foster these kinds of tourism projects. It is obvious that more and more (young) people are interested in new experiences in their area of interest. The receiving partner just has to identify a simple goal that can be reached within a limited time. The interested (group of) people can further prepare themselves for the trip together with their local contacts.

© Ingrid Leonard
© Ingrid Leonard

Want to have more information on Arriba Bolivia? Then have a look at

Interested to discover the heart and the people of Bolivia? Belgian Naturefriends can bring you in contact with their local partner for an in depth visit.

Interested in watching the documentary film about the project (DU/SP/EN/FR)?
Please contact


The author
Niels Jespers is an environmental engineer by study and adventurer by nature. Since more than 10 years, he has been a passionate climber and an engaged Naturefriend, both in Belgium and within International Young Naturefriends (IYNF). He coached the group of young Naturefriends in the Arriba Bolivia project.

Ein Gedanke zu „Arriba Bolivia: A Climbing School in the Bolivian Altiplano

  1. was a good experience, but always climbed in our environment, but without using the safety standards with the correct handling of the ropes, now learned much more. Thanks for the experience.

    Atte. César

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