• Sajama National park, Bolivia

    Sajama National Park in Bolivia is quite simply amazing. It doesn´t feature much in the guide books, it’s pretty hard to reach and generally just too much hassle for most. However this means vast unspoilt landscapes remain surrounded by spectacular mountains, empty hot springs and a real sense of adventure. It really is one of the greatest places I have ever been.

    Llama's in Sajama park, Bolivia


    Our approach started in Oruro located in the cental altiplano of Bolvia. It was an unexciting and slightly random town, we were there to explore the city but quickly decided to book a bus back out again. The bus we booked was bound for Arica in Chile, but we were planning to hop off in the middle of nowhere and walk or hitchhike into the Sajama national park. In reality we couldn´t quite follow the Spanish instructions at the bus office but it seemed the bus we had booked, didn´t go exactly where we wanted. We had to get a local bus 125km to meet another bus from La Paz at a random road junction and I suspect we paid more for this privilege than the locals! After waiting for an hour in the middle of nowhere we caught the connecting La Paz bus heading to Arica. A kind Chilean man, who is now my facebook friend, translated our plans for getting to Sajama for the driver to understand, so everything was working out just fine. Then we missed the turn off to the park, apparently we could get a taxi easier from Tambo Quebo the border town, I suspect the driver just forgot! After 2 hours waiting for a taxi in Tambo Quebo it seemed walking might have been a better option. Thankfully we were allowed to sit in a telephone booth shop, if that’s the proper name for these places, to keep warm. The border is at 4000m+ so the air is pretty cold as sunset approaches. The warm ‘shop’ was in reality the dodgey border crossing fixer. It was interesting watching, as every 5 minutes another man came in and handed over cash, received cash or received small parcels over the counter. This was clearly the place you could get whatever you wanted in the area. (except a taxi!) Apparently the taxi drivers were all at the Fiesta or something, but finally a local man was tracked down and in the now complete darkness we handed over 100 Boliviano´s to finally get into the park. As I said accessibility for the independent traveler is not straight forward.

    Flags flying on the altiplano in Bolivia

    The shot below is a stunning sunset over the village of Sajama.
    Sunset over the volcanoes in Sajama
    After a scary and bumpy ride down a long dirt road we pulled up in a village, it was almost completely dark except for the odd electric light flickering. We entered the only open hostel in the village. A 5 year old boy showed us to our room. We had our own 6 bed dorm in a domed, hobbit like building covered with grass and made with mud brick walls. The en suite had no hot water but was pleasant enough as it avoided a cold late night trip outside! At 4600m the village was rather chilly under the clear and starry sky, not even the bright glare of the perfectly defined Milky Way helped. We brought food with us so chose to decline the hostel dinner on offer. This seemed a lucky escape when we entered the kitchen. I am pretty used to eating at random places and from roadside stalls but this was different, dirty plates everywhere a rack of dead animal parts, bones and a hacksaw for preparing, kids running around and few dirty pans used for cooking. Maybe the altitude prevented bacteria but I was happy as Marion prepared our boring pasta, the other few guests enjoyed their dinner in ignorance of what lurked behind the kitchen door!

    Llama's in Sajama National Park, Bolivia

    Next day we hiked for about 6km which at that altitude was quite breathless. We arrived at some remote empty hotsprings, with the best view you could possibly imagine, take a look at the photos!

    Small mud brick village in depths of Sajama

    We walked back between Llamas and volcanoes, visited deserted mud brick villages, saw the odd nomadic looking man aimlessly wandering around.
    There was another hike we were recommended which was to some geysers and up some hills with great views. Another option is a hike/climb up  Sajama the highest mountain in Bolivia at about 6542m, which we passed on. Apparently the locals had a football game at the top a few years back, so can’t be that bad to climb!
    Traffic jam at altitude, Chile and Bolivia border crossing
    After a few days staying in and exploring the park we shared a lift back to the border. We then hitched across no mans land to Chile with a kind border official, his car had seen better days so we gave him a few Bolivianos for the ride, retrospectively thinking it is probably not the done thing to give Chilean border officials cash, but never mind. We then hiked into the almost as stunning Lauca national park in Chile, which deserves its own blog post!

  • Exploring Potosi, Sucre and Oruro, Bolivia

    A quick tour of Potosi, Sucre and Oruro three cities that sit proudly on the high Altiplano of Bolivia. Potosi fabled for its silver mines is actually the highest city in the world at 4090m. It has outstanding colonial architecture with a beautiful renovated central square. The square is lined by Potosi cathedral and the Spanish Colonial Mint. The dominating Cerro Rico was rich in silver from 1556 to 1783 about 45,000 tons were mined. The Spanish decimated indigenous labour and imported 1000s of slaves to endure the mines, it is fair to say the history of the city and mines is hard. The current mines are a bit of a tourist attraction where you can go and see what a hard life the miners have, most are drunk or on narcotics it seems. The life expectancy is less than 40. We declined to take a day trip to the mines and instead explored the fascinating streets and buildings. There is a bit of an ethical dilemma here as to whether the ‘extreme’ tourist mine tours help or hinder the progress towards safer conditions.

    There were numerous interesting artisan shops, I purchased some nice warm hand woven Alpaca socks and a fashionable hipster Alpaca jumper. Marion picked up a nice scarf and some woven wall hangings all at very fair and pretty sustainable prices. If we didn’t have 2 months of ski touring ahead we would have bought more of the locally made artisanal textiles.
    Cakes in Potosi, Bolivia
    Next up was the stunning Colonial Acrhitecture of Sucre, a good spot to take time out and learn Spanish or exploring the surrounding villages. The downtown is well preserved with many interesting buildings. There is also a good sized covered market full of lots of random stuff. We bought a few nice woven items but it was significantly pricer than Potosi. It is also known as the Chocolate capital of Bolivia as the French translation hints at. TO be honest I wasn’t blown away by the chocolates, maybe I just didn’t buy the good stuff though! At 2810m it is not super high but a nice all round cool climate. It felt pretty warm during August i.e. mid winter when we were visiting.
    National Day celebrations in Potosi, Bolivia
    As the constitutional capital of Bolivia it hosts many interesting buildings such as Sucre cathedral, the national library, The house of freedom and the Archbishops house. All date from colonial times and most share the whitewashed exterior that I felt defines the city.

    We were fortunate to time our visit with Bolivia´s national day on 6th August. This meant huge celebrations, many marching bands, a few well dressed dignitaries, military parades and so many versions of the national anthem!

    Potosi was hosting a national marching band event, while Sucre was more of an event fitting of its constitutional capital status, with endless marches of endless groups of people. The entire city must have been involved. It went on for literally two days. We came back at 9am after a late night and they were still marching!
    From Sucre we bussed up to Oruru an eight hour ride so we paid a couple dollars more for the cama deluxe bus. It also left at a convenient time. Sadly it had no working toilet, massively bald tyres and generally a scarily worn out. No toilet all night was interesting we had to ask the driver to stop then find spot by roadside, fine for me but Marion found it less tolerable! It was also bit disconcerting trying to sleep on a bus when it is dark outside but the road is twisting and turning up and down some seriously under engineered roads in the Andes all at some great altitude. It was probably best not to see all the roads but then again your imagination runs wild with what was behind the veil of darkness!

    Oruru was dull we arrived at 6.30am and decided to leave as soon as possible. We wanted to get direct to Sajama National park, this proved hard, no one would help. We were sent on two wild goose chases to random bus offices around town trying to find a bus. It seemed like one should exist but it was beyond us to find it. We bought a ticket to Arica in Chile then we just had to get off by the border so we could hitch or taxi into the park. The village of Sajama is 15km off the main road so walking at the 4400m altitude is not your best bet. In hindsight getting a local bus to Patacamaya a junction with the La Paz-Arica road would be the best option and getting a ride from there would be possible.

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