Planning a long term visit to a country can be difficult. When we first started our Pan Am adventure, we loosely based our route by choosing cities we would like to visit and finding the shortest route to visit them all. We tried to talk to as many overlanders as possible for suggestions and plugged that into our schedule as well. This strategy worked pretty well for Central America but the countries in South America are much larger and require a more methodical approach in order to make sure we hit all of the must see stops. Now, we generate a list of twenty or thirty places, mark them on a map and figure out the best route to see them all.
National Parks have gradually become our focus as we continue south. In Bolivia, Sajama National Park seems to be one that gets skipped as it is right on the Chilean and Peruvian borders. The main highway from Copacabana routes traffic through La Paz and, from La Paz, traffic is routed due south. To get to Sajama National Park, it is necessary to return to the western side of the country. We had a week to burn while waiting for our mechanic appointment so a visit to the national park was a great way to use the time.
On our way to Sajama National Park, we stopped and paid a visit to one of the many chullpas along the way. These Chullpas are funeral towers made of straw, stones and mud for burial of the dead. We poked our head in the hole and were surprised to see a few skeletons at the bottom. Pretty strange! These were likely built about 700 years ago and require a fair amount of upkeep as rain gradually washes away the mud. We saw nearly 30 chullpas along the way and many of them were on the verge of destruction from years of neglect.
Sajama National Park is dominated by the tallest peak in Bolivia, the Sajama Volcano. This inactive volcano tops out at 21,463 feet, and it situated right in the center of the park. A massive glacier is situated right on top and rock is exposed only due to the sheer cliffs around the volcano. A few miles away, several other glaciered volcanos, equally as impressive, line the park boundaries. Between these volcanos, relatively flat, sparsely grassy plains, or altiplano, complete the park’s terrain.
Our camp spot for four nights in Sajama National Park was near a small geyser field on the north end of the park. We planned to camp in several different places throughout the park but were forced to stay in one place as a rogue screw poked a hole in our hydraulic line that raises and lowers the top of the camper. It took only a few minutes to locate the red hydraulic oil leaking everywhere and an hour to tape it up to keep the mess to a minimum. Over the past month, it seems like the previous 22,000 miles of hard driving has begun to catch up with us. With the leak secured, we grabbed a beer and soaked in the hot mineral water right by the camper.
The camp spot was complete with our very own herd of llamas.
And plenty of neat hot springs.
Over the next few days, we made the most of being “stuck” in one spot by sleeping in, reading, watching movies, hiking and soaking in the mineral waters at night. Our solar panel worked wonders in the intense sun keeping our battery topped off entirely. This was especially important as temperatures dropped below freezing every night and we ran our furnace for a short time each day to warm things up.
During our second to last day, cabin fever set in and we couldn’t take it anymore. A nice hike was just what we needed. We set out ambitiously and we covered the first two miles pretty quickly. The next few miles were at a gradual incline and, with a starting elevation over 14,000 feet, our pace dropped quickly. The terrain surrounding us varied with each step. Initially, the altiplano we had become familiar which changed to a valley of large stones making hiking difficult. Next, the trail turned to soft sand, then gravel, then rock and eventually dirt. Near the end of our hike, we looked around and the landscape resembled what we would expect on the moon’s surface. Rugged peaks surrounded us and we were met with a large beautiful lake as we crested the saddle between two mountains.
To our surprise, we found a rudimentary sign marking the Bolivian/Chilean border at the top of the saddle and we happened to be on the Chilean side. Oops! We thought our first footsteps in Chile would be at least a month later but it was still pretty cool to see.
We saw these weird green fungus or some type of plant covering rocks all of the way up. I couldn’t stop touching them!
As much as it pains me to write this, we marked a first time experience as we returned from our hike. Soaking in the hot water running next to our camper was refreshing and kept us somewhat “fresh” over the previous four days but not having a shower for nearly a week was beginning to catch up with us. We needed a shower and knew it would be several more days until our next shower, so we embraced our inner hippie and took our first bath in a river. It was satisfying in that the water was warm but, really?, bathing in a river? We smelled much better after the bath but think the hippie lifestyle isn’t in our future.
Before leaving our camp spot in Sajama National Park, we had plenty of preparation work to do being that our hydraulics were out of commission. Since the hydraulic line for raising the top was leaking like crazy, we decided we would not attempt to raise the top until we could replace the line in La Paz. Our bed in the camper is over the cab itself, which can’t be accessed unless the top is raised. Fortunately, we can convert our dinette area into a bed with a little work. It took a bit of magic (read as over organized accountant) and we had the dinette bed ready for for use and all of our other stuff tucked away to make living with the top down bearable. When the time was ready we pumped the jack just enough to pull the supporting pins for the top and dropped it all of the way without a problem.
Daily temperatures during our visit varied widely with highs between 65 and 70 and lows between 25 and 30. The cooler “hot springs” by the camper were frozen solid as we were preparing to leave and the big diesel engine agreed it was cold. Reluctantly the truck started with a bit of coaxing although we both cringed as it roared to life. It is nice to know where our cold temperature limits lie and we will be happy to use our diesel conditioner that my dad gave us when we left Arizona. We weren’t sure we needed to carry any extra stuff with us including cold weather diesel additive but parents know best and we are happy to have it for Bolivia.
Leaving the park, the road looped around the north end of the Sajama Volcano along dusty, washboard, rocky roads. The road passed through llama ranch after llama ranch and we laughed and laughed as they tried to play chicken with our truck only to make a totally graceless lurch at the last second to get out of the way. Our appreciation for llamas has grown steadily and we have come to know them as derpy, sassy, dorky animals that we can’t help but love.
Sajama National Park was a wonderful place to visit. With plenty of hiking trails, interesting towns, beautiful views and geothermal features, we highly recommend this park.