An Altiplano Adventure: Sajama to the Salar de Uyuni

Bolivia is one of the most geographically diverse countries on earth, a land of contrasts and extremes. You can travel by boat deep into the Amazon basin (see previous posts) or you can climb high into the Andes north of La Paz in the Cordillera Real (see more previous posts). In between these two extremes lie dozens of different eco-zones as well as indigenous peoples and cultures.

If there is one landscape above all others that Bolivia is famous for, it is the Altiplano. A vast swath of breathtaking high plateau (up to 4500m in altitude) that extends from northern Argentina and Chile across the whole of Bolivia and into southern Peru, the Altiplano defines people’s perceptions of Bolivia. It is a seemingly barren and inhospitable place, but on closer inspection it is home to many animal and plant species and some of the most beautiful landscapes imaginable.

Typical Altiplano scenery, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Alpacas being herded, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Travelling south from Sajama National Park close to the border with northern Chile, it is possible to drive on dirt tracks that run parallel to the border, and which follow a beautiful chain of volcanos (some still active) that stretch 4000km south to Tierra del Fuego. Eventually you’ll reach the south-western tip of Bolivia where it borders Chile and Argentina, from where you can head into either of those two countries at remote boarder posts.

It is an incredible journey into some of the wildest places in Bolivia, a journey that has few rivals in Latin America. The route passes through remote communities of Aymara llama and alpaca herders; past abandoned villages and beautiful adobe churches; along the shores of brightly coloured lakes that are home to hundreds of flamingos; bubbling geysers and hot springs and the enormous salt flats of Coipasa and Uyuni (so huge they can be seen from space) also await exploration.

Altiplano geyser, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Navigating the car down a riverbed, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Starting the journey in Sajama National Park in the north west of Bolivia you drive through a vast landscape and under near-permanently cloudless skies. At times the sense of isolation is overwhelming. We spent a night at the lovely community run Albergue Ecoturistico Tomarapi in the small settlement of Tomarapi, about 10km from Sajama village, where we were lucky enough to witness a sunset that seemed to set the sky on fire.

Sunset strikes Vulcan Sajama, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, Bolivia

The following day we headed south on bumpy dirt roads, past several high altitude lakes with flamingos and a number of small villages en route to the Salar de Coipasa.

Adobe church at Tomarapi, Vulcan Sajama in the background, Bolivia

A flamingo takes flight, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Abandoned village near the Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

Emerging out of this arid landscape the sheer brilliance of the Salar de Coipasa is a shock to the system – dazzlingly white under the intense altiplano sun. Once a large lake that fed Lake Titicaca, the Salar de Coipasa is now a huge salt flat covered in a salt crust made up of hexagonal shapes that seems to stretch to the horizon.

Smaller, less well known and with only a fraction of the tourists who visit the nearby Salar de Uyuni, Coipasa is none-the-less an amazing place where you can stand in absolute silence and not see another soul.

The dazzlingly white Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

The dazzlingly white Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

Car on the salar, Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia

Heading south again we made for the small village of Tahua, which nestles under Volcano Thunupa, where the lovely Tayka Hotel de Sal (www.taykahoteles.com) awaited our arrival. The Tayka chain of hotels are run on sustainable principles and are located in some of the most dramatic places you’re likely to ever find a hotel. They are probably the most luxurious accommodations in the region, which comes at a price but one worth paying.

The Hotel de Sal is located just on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni and we arrived just in time to watch the sun set with a cold beer in hand…of which more later.

Bolivian Sunset

It might be my love of the sundowner that makes me an aficionado of the sunset, but the stunning extremes of colour that sunsets provide is something I’ll never tire of watching – especially if it comes with a vodka and tonic. I can’t say I have the same feelings towards sunrise, I’ve seen a few but it’s not my favourite time of day.

Sunset is a magical time, especially for a keen amateur photographer like myself. I’ve been fortunate to have witnessed some beautiful sunsets in some extraordinary places around the world – the sunset in the desert north of Timbuktu will live long in the memory. Bolivia’s diverse landscapes – from the high Andes to the Amazon Basin – have provided sunsets to match any I’ve seen before.

The hills of the Corillera de los Failles that form the backdrop to our home in Sucre have been the setting for many a pleasant sundowner while watching the sky explode with colour. It is an ever changing palette and now the rains have come the scattering of cloud has made sunset even more impressive.

Sunset over Sucre, Bolivia

This photo was taken as the sun set and a tremendous storm ranged across the mountains, there was thunder, lightening and heavy rain – but none of the rain landed on Sucre itself.

Sunset and a storm over Sucre, Bolivia

Sunset and street lights over Sucre, Bolivia

Although Sucre’s backdrop of mountains is impressive, you’d have to go a long way to find a backdrop to match that of La Paz at sunset.

La Paz sunset with Illimani in the background, Bolivia

Travels around the country have also witnessed some stunning sunsets. These are from the high altiplano in Sajama National Park, the first was taken just as an adult and baby llama crossed in front of me.

Sunset and llamas, Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, with Vulcan Sajama, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, with Vulcan Sajama, Bolivia

The next shots come from the Amazon basin, first in the small village of San Ignacio de Moxos where the entire village seemed to gather at the nearby lake Isiboro to cool off, most people left as the sun went down but a few people stayed in the water until darkness descended.

Sunset over Lago Isiboro, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sunset over Lago Isiboro, San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Walking back from the lake to the village of San Ignacio several vehicles kicked-up enough dust to get this pattern in the sky and the haziness in the trees.

Sunset in San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

I love the way water and sky combine at sunset, there was no better example than when we sailed up the Rio Mamore in the Bolivian Amazon.

Sunset over the Rio Mamore, Amazon Basin, Bolivia

Sticking with the water theme, I’ll finish this montage of sunsets with two from Lago Titicaca.

Sunset over Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Sunset over Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Sajama National Park

Cancelling the climb of Vulcan Sajama meant we had a day to explore the surrounding area. At first it looks uniformly barren, with some small, tough plants that sustain a surprisingly large llama population, which in turn supports a much smaller human population, and has done so for millennia.

The reality is a bit different, and the region is dotted with hot springs, ancient burial sites, small adobe churches and high altitude lakes with abundant bird life, including flamingoes. A stark, beautiful landscape that constantly surprises.

It’s a wonderfully beautiful landscape, one that is a photographer’s dreamscape. Welcome to the Sajama National Park…

Adobe church on the outskirts of a small village in the middle of the altiplano, Bolivia

Adobe church on the outskirts of a small village in the middle of the altiplano, Bolivia

High altitude lake with a small population of flamingoes, Bolivia

High altitude lake with a small population of flamingoes, Bolivia

Chullpas, Incan burial sites, that have survived thanks to the low rainfall in the region, Bolivia

Chullpas, Incan burial sites, that have survived thanks to the low rainfall in the region, Bolivia

More chullpas, restored to their original colours, Bloivia

More chullpas, restored to their original colours, Bloivia

Salt marsh and mountains, Altiplano, Bolivia

Salt marsh and mountains, Altiplano, Bolivia

Flamingo lake, Altiplano Bolivia

Flamingo lake, Altiplano Bolivia

Flamingoes take flight, Altiplano, Bolivia

Flamingoes take flight, Altiplano, Bolivia

The view from a pre-Hispanic fort on a small hilltop, Altiplano, Bolivia

The view from a pre-Hispanic fort on a small hilltop, Altiplano, Bolivia

Road to somewhere? Altiplano, Bolivia

Road to somewhere? Altiplano, Bolivia

Abandoned village, Altiplano, Bolivia

Abandoned village, Altiplano, Bolivia

We even managed to enter Chile illegally, Altiplano, Bolivia

We even managed to enter Chile illegally, Altiplano, Bolivia

Adobe church with Vulcan Sajama, Altiplano, Bolivia

Adobe church with Vulcan Sajama, Altiplano, Bolivia

Graveyard in Sajama village, Altiplano, Bolivia

Graveyard in Sajama village, Altiplano, Bolivia

Graveyard in Sajama village, Altiplano, Bolivia

Graveyard in Sajama village, Altiplano, Bolivia

The final frontier: climbing Vulcan Parinacota (6330m)

Learning from experience not being a strong point, after the climb of Pequena Alpamayo, Jeff and I headed off to the Sajama National Park, home to Vulcans Parinacota (6330m) and Sajama (6549m).

The latter is the highest point in Bolivia, and the original plan was to climb Parinacota and then Sajama over a six-day period. Joining me for this delight was a French guy called Jan and a second mountain guide, Pedro. As it transpired, things weren’t to go to plan.

Except when we were sleeping in the tents at the various base camps and high camps, Sajama village was to be our base for the trip. Situated in the west of Bolivia only a few kilometres from the Chilean border, Sajama National Park is a dramatic landscape that frequently resembles the moon and is seemingly populated mainly by llamas, vicuña and alpaca. Beautiful, but when the sun goes down fearfully cold.

Sajama village with Vulcan Sajama as a backdrop, Bolivia

Sajama village with Vulcan Sajama as a backdrop, Bolivia

While Vulcan Sajama is a big lump of a mountain, Parinacota is a picture perfect cone-shaped volcano that features in every child’s picture book of volcanoes. Parinacota is one of two volcanoes next to each other that were important in Incan mythology and religion, and are still known as ‘The Twins’.

The near perfect cone-shaped Vulcan Parinacota, Bolivia

The near perfect cone-shaped Vulcan Parinacota, Bolivia

'The Twins', Parinacota and Pomerape, Bolivia

‘The Twins’, Parinacota and Pomerape, Bolivia

After a night in the village, we headed to Parinacota high camp, which sits on the saddle between the two volcanoes at approximately 5100m. Unfortunately, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, and a low pressure system in the Pacific was creating strong winds that were sweeping across the ocean and Chile to where we were attempting to climb – winds over 100km/h at ground level.

Regardless, we started the walk to high camp (5100m), but after half an hour Jan was forced to turn back suffering from the altitude. He and Jeff returned to the village, while Pedro and I continued up to high camp. As we pitched the tents in strong winds I couldn’t help wishing I was going back to the village and a proper bed situated between actual walls.

On the walk to high camp the high winds were evident on the top of Parinacota - blowing snow and ice clouds around, Bolivia

On the walk to high camp the high winds were evident on the top of Parinacota – blowing snow and ice clouds around, Bolivia

The calm before the storm - relaxing at Parinacota high camp (5100m), Bolivia

The calm before the storm – relaxing at Parinacota high camp (5100m), Bolivia

While the winds grew stronger as the sun started to descend, the unusual weather conditions had scattered a lot of cloud across the sky, creating one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen…even now the photos don’t seem real.

Sunset with Vulcan Sajama, Bolivia

Sunset with Vulcan Sajama, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, Bolivia

So, after a stunning sunset, some food and honey-laced tea against the freezing weather conditions, we retired to our tents to endure a night of high winds in preparation for a 2.00am start up the mountain. I wasn’t looking forward to the climb, it would be a vertical ascent of over 1200m and I hadn’t slept all night due to the wind and the cold; as we set off towards the bottom of the ice fields the wind was getting stronger.

After fours hours of walking I was feeling almost incapable of climbing another step. We’d been walking through fields of ‘penitants’, spikes of ice anywhere between 6 – 18 inches in height created by the winds. Penitants make walking on the ice pretty hard going and they suck the life out of your legs; getting a constant stride pattern is impossible and it just drains you of the will to live, especially when the hill is at a rakish 35 – 45 degree angle.

When we were about 300m below the summit the sun started to come up, and I was ecstatic to have a five minute break to watch it illuminate Vulcan Sajama and the valley below.

Sunrise over Sajama from around 6000m on Vulcan Parinacota, Bolivia

Sunrise over Sajama from around 6000m on Vulcan Parinacota, Bolivia

We set off again for the summit, but by now the wind was so strong I was getting blown about, and at one point I was almost blown off my feet. With little other than a drop of 2000m down ice fields below me I was getting worried. Plus I could no longer feel my feet. When we were about 100m below the summit we started getting blasted by ice and snow being whipped off the mountain by high winds – not a good sign when your on the high street, high on a mountain it spells trouble.

At this point, Pedro suggested we (by which he meant I) might want to head back down as the wind conditions were getting dangerous. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this was music of a particularly sweet kind to my ears. Although we were only a short way off the summit, I could barely put one leg in front of the other and, with the wind really battering us, down was the sane option.

The walk down was exhausting – more fields of penitants and more high winds. After a mere three agonising hours of constant descent we were off the ice and onto rock again. Another hour and we were back in the high camp where I collapsed in a heap inside the tent. Pedro, experienced mountain guide that he is, looked as if he’d just been out for a brisk walk around the park; he made some tea laced with more honey – which may have saved my life.

A field of smallish 'penitants', nasty, horrible 'penitants', on the lower slopes of Parinacota, Bolivia

A field of smallish ‘penitants’, nasty, horrible ‘penitants’, on the lower slopes of Parinacota, Bolivia

A few hours walk back down to the trail head and we were in the 4×4 headed back to the village and a rest day. After a large dinner and a family-sized bar of chocolate, I slept for 12 hours solid. Waking up the next day, I was still exhausted and the weather conditions had deteriorated further, winds stronger than before. I’d developed a chesty cough – known locally as the ‘cumbre cough’ – which was the final nail in the coffin of climbing Sajama.