Sajama – hidden Bolivian gem

Visiting Sajama national park was not exactly on our list. We knew that the park existed but it was far from our planned route. We changed our opinion and decided to go there after short talk with French couple we met in ToroToro national park (more about ToroToro in another article). They told us that there are some really nice hikes, views, lakes and it is not that difficult / expensive to visit.

Getting to Sajama

So we were on our way. Leaving ToroToro, in tiny minibus heading first to Cochabamba. From there we boarded a bus to Oruro. It was a long ride and it was already dark when we got there. We asked at the information how to get to the town of Patacamaya, town from which busses to Sajama are going. Sadly it was not from the new terminal but the old one which is located in the center of the town.

Unable to locate local busses and unwilling to pay for taxi we walked instead. It was little bit scary, dark streets, lot of dogs but we safely made it. We decided to look for some accommodation nearby and were surprised when we learned the prices. First three hotels we visited were over 100 BoB for a night. Fourth one was the lucky one, only 80 BoB for two of us for a night. It was quite ugly, sheets looked dirty and there were only two toilets for more than 10 rooms. But it was enough for a night.

Old bus station in Oruro
Old bus station in Oruro

First thing to do in the morning was to withdraw money as we were told there are no ATMs in Sajama and they don’t accept cards there. There are three ATMs close to the terminal so no problem here. Finding a bus was bigger challenge. There were no usual bus company stalls inside the terminal.

We asked around and were sent to the other side of the building, there was a lady standing outside and yelling names of different towns nearby. She was selling tickets. When we asked her about Patacamaya she pointed us to a gentleman standing next to a small van. He was going there. Car was not full yet, so we paid 20 BoB and entered a car. There were still two places available so we waited for more people to turn up. It did not take more than 30 minutes and we were on the way. It was very quick journey, Patacamaya is only 130km far from Oruro and the road was really good (it is main road from La Paz to Potosi and Sucre).

The town is quite long, everything is happening along the main road going through it. Many shops, stalls and even more mini busses going to La Paz and Oruro. Lot of people yelling and offering a ride to these towns. Finding a bus to Sajama was more difficult, as we found out there is no regular service, they are going every other day. But we were lucky this time, there were already four French tourists trying to go there and they found one willing mini bus driver to get them there. He told them (us) it would cost 300 BoB to go there. We agreed but asked him to wait a little while for more people so we can split the cost and get there little cheaper.

We had more than an hour of time so we decided to walk around, get a coffee and coca mate and buy some food. After all that we returned to the mini bus. We still had time so Tana decided to look for a duck tape to make some amends to her backpack. I sat down and waited with the backpacks. One strong blow of the wind tipped nearby parasol which fell down and hit me in the forehead. I was shocked and angry. It also started to bleed. When Tana returned I was sitting there with a piece of toilet paper pressed to my head. She was little shocked when I told her what happened. Comforted me and applied some ointment to my wound. Shortly after we boarded the bus and were on our way to Sajama.

Bus was full, but most of the people were leaving earlier, so driver still charged us full 300 BoB (50 per person). Drive was long and boring, it even started to rain but we were allowed to move our bag-packs from the roof inside.

First look

Arrival to the Sajama village was disappointing. I’d say it was a shit-hole, no more than 100 houses in total and half of it was probably abandoned. Near the beginning of the village were two hotels where we asked about a price for a night. They offered us a bed in a dorm room for 60 BoB per person, quite a lot for a dorm. It was already quite full – mostly French tourists.

We decided to look at one more place marked on iOverlander – Tienda / Alojamiento America. It was little further down in the village. I am glad we did that. For 35 BoB per person we got our small private room. They even cooked there, nothing fancy but a lot cheaper than in the other hotels. I think we paid 15 BoB for each meal. As a bonus dining room was also a village shop, all under one roof.

Church in Sajama
Church in Sajama

Some people from hotels arrived in the evening to have a dinner here (their dinners were 30 BoB or more in their hostels). We were told that they plan to go to the volcano. It is a hike which starts at two in the morning and can be done only with a guide. It costs 1500 BoB – this price is split among the group. So after the dinner we went with them to their hotel where they were organising the hikes. Sadly each group is limited to three people and they were already full. We took it as a sign and decided to do a long walk around the mountains and lakes instead. It was time to go to bed. Room did not have a heating but there were lots of blankets on each bed (looks like this is normal in most parts of Bolivia).

Refreshed after good night sleep we went out to get a breakfast. Lady managing the store and restaurant told us that she does not have any bread but we can get biscuits instead. Interesting breakfast, but it was better than empty stomach.

Our first (and last) hike

We were ready to start our 30km hike, it would not reach any high peaks but walk around them, also around lakes and even will lead us across the Chilean border. Trail started few meters from our hostel. We had a nice view at the mountains and met multiple llama herds. First stop on the way were geysers. They are not real geysers you know from Yellowstone, more like a hot ponds with boiling and bubbling water. Also there are no fences around and you can get literally right next to them. It is possible to get to geysers by car, we found that out when a French couple with a guide arrived.

After quick snack we were on the way again. We had more than 20km ahead of us. Road was slowly going up and there were mountains growing on each side of it. We passed some unofficial campsite and a small cave. Few more kilometres and we were suppose to cross Chilean border and finally see first lake – Laguna Casiri Macho. So we walked and walked and walked little bit more and then we finally arrived. First we saw a sign marking Chilean border and then there was a lake. It was little cloudy and windy but we sat behind big boulder and enjoyed the views and our lunch. French tourists with a guide passed us, which was actually lucky for us. They were going in different direction than we assumed we should go. So we double checked the maps and found out that they were right.

Trail was little harder to follow now, it lead us between big boulders, some small streams and bogs (we were happy we had waterproof shoes). Second lake was not far, it’s name is Laguna Sora Pata. We had to avoid few more wet areas to get safely around. Also at that time the other tourists turned around and were going back. We were little worried why they are turning, if it is even possible to get through (they were only other people we met there in whole day).

So we asked them why are they turning back and reason was quite obvious. They had a car at the start of the trail and they needed to get back to it. They also asked their guide and he confirmed that we should be able to go through and get back to the Sajama village. At that point we encountered interesting animal – it looked like a jackrabbit mixed with something very soft and fluffy – their name is Viscacha. It also had very strange “face”, it looked like it was very annoyed by our presence and sad at the same time.

Viscacha

From the lake we continued up back to Bolivia. Pass between the mountains we crossed was highest point of our journey so far, we were above 5.000 meters above sea level. Road there was tiring, no proper path any more just soft sand and pebbles. Once we got over it we were looking at our last lake – Laguna Chair Kkota. From that point road was going down, we did not expect that this will be the hardest part of the hike. First part to the lake was steep downhill on the soft sand and stones. We were slipping quite a lot. Maybe because we did not follow recommended trail (we could not find it). From there it was more downhill a lot steeper than previous uphill part.

Laguna Sora Pata from the other side

On the way down we saw interesting boulders completely covered in moss. They looked nice and soft but were still hard as a rock. Also some grass bushes eaten from the inside – empty space being used as a toilet for Viscachas. It felt like ages but we finally made it down to the valley. Quick look at the map told us that we are still far from the village (about 10km). Longer look told us that if we want to get to hot springs we’ll have to make a detour.

Walking in the valley was tiring but at least we were on a flat ground now and path was quite obvious even for us. Views were also amazing on one side we saw the mountains and the pass we just crossed on the other end was a huge volcano with snow capped peak. In the lush green grass in the valley were some interesting birds (probably some fancy geese) and lots of llama skeletons.

Volcano Sajama

Few kilometres later was time for a detour to hot springs. Trail proposed by Maps.Me was at first almost invisible later completely missing. Even though we still walked. After a kilometre or so we checked the map and realised that we are actually returning to the geysers we visited in the morning (reading the map is not my strong skill). We decided not to go there and rather return directly to the village. Problem was that at that time we were in the middle of the pasture with no obvious trails. Returning two or more kilometres back to the original trail was not an option so we walked in the direction of the village instead. There were some paths from time to time but they were probably made by llamas. It was even necessary to cross barbed wired fence few times. Our progress was slow but we were getting there.

Back to the Sajama village

Our happiness was immeasurable when we saw the village from the distance. But there were still some obstacles in the way. Mostly muddy terrain which required some jumping and detours. At the last (and biggest) mud areas Tana had an accident. She decided to took different path then I did and ended up in the mud up the her calves. Mud in her shoes and trousers. Luckily it was not a bottomless pit. We were almost at the village only a river between us and our hostel.

We tried to cross the river (actually looked for a place where it would be possible) but it was too wide and too deep. Tana used the water to wash her shoes and trousers and told me that it is not too cold – actually warmer than the mud. In the end we got to the bridge which we crossed in the morning, got to the hotel, dirty, hungry and tired. We changed clothes and went for the dinner – they were serving spaghetti with fried egg – interesting combination :).

We decided to stay in Sajama for two more days. First day after the long hike was dedicated to resting. Hot shower was something as sometimes you don’t have hot water even in towns in Bolivia. After that we walked around the village a little and read books in our room. Then we decided to have a wine. They were selling bottles of red wine for 50 BoB so we got two of them. It was not very good and our headache next morning was terrible. Even though we managed to pack our stuff and leave the hostel to look for a bus to get out of there.

How to get back to civilization?

We walked around the village main square and visited fancy hotels (as our first bus stopped there when we arrived). No signs of bus stop anywhere. Then we found some paper which said that there was one bus going to Patacamaya every day at six in the morning. It was almost eleven so we were screwed. We wanted to leave at all costs so the decision was made to try and stop some car leaving village and get a ride with them. There were no cars leaving – in an hour we only saw one small truck which was delivering stuff around town but was not leaving it.

We were little desperate when miracle happened. One German tourist saw us sitting next to the road and asked us what are we waiting for. We described the situation and he said that he’ll be going for a gas in thirty minutes and we can get a ride with him. There should be a lot more cars passing the gas station (it is 12km from the Sajama village – situated on the main road) and there is a chance that even some busses will be stopping there.

In thirty minutes we were sitting in his car, our backpacks in the back of his car heading for the gas station. It was a quick ride, we thanked him a lot and were ready to try our luck with busses. There were a lot more cars now, at least one every five minutes. We joined three local people who were already waiting for some car to get them out of there to civilisation. It was a good decision, in 15 minutes a taxi arrived. We managed to get on board, driver, her two kids, 4 local adults and two of us fit into one old combi. It was actually cheaper than the minibus we took to get to Sajama (only 40 BoB pp). From Patacamaya we headed back to Oruro (luckily no overnight stay this time) and took an overnight bus to Sucre. You can read more about it here.

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