If you love llamas, alpacas and vicuñas then Sajama National Park is where you want to be. You will see thousands of these cute camelids in the park and hundreds more on the drive. It’s a remote spot in Bolivia, but worth the drive if you’re a llama lover like us.
We didn’t even know about the thousands of camelids in the area when we decided to go to the park. We came to see its famous tall volcanos, geysers and thermal baths. Imagine our happy surprise to see so many llamas and alpacas too!
Sajama National Park is located high on the Altiplano in western Bolivia, not far from the border with Chile. The drive to the park passes very interesting landscape. It begins as a flat plain covered with ichu grass. Occasional small coulees break up the monotony of the flat land. After a while the soil becomes red and interesting rock features dot the side of the road. Up ahead we saw the distinct cone shape of a volcano. Soon we were below Nevada Sajama, Bolivia’s tallest mountain. At 6,543 m (21,467 ft), the snow-capped peak commands your attention.
Across the plain are the twin volcanoes of Parinacera (6,348 m/20,827 ft) and Pomcrape (6,282 m/20,610 ft). Parinacera sits on the border between Bolivia and Chile.
Being on the Altiplano means that the park is located at a very high elevation. The town of Sajama is within the park boundary and is set right beneath its namesake, Nevado Sajama. Located at 4,250 m (13,945 ft ft) it is extremely cold in the village and the constant strong winds make it feel even colder.
The dusty town felt more like a ghost town than a viable village. When we were there in August 2022, most of the houses appeared to be empty and almost all of the businesses were closed. Whether it was the time of year, or a post-Covid victim, we’re not sure, but it is a lonely place. Surprisingly though, in this desolate village there is a lovely old stone church. Iglesia Natividad is very picturesque on its own, but with Nevado Sajama in the background it becomes the perfect scene for a postcard.
The best part of this area are the number of llamas, alpacas and vicuñas. There were hundreds, if not thousands of the furry camelids. Most of course were on farms; bred for their wool and even their meat. Llama is on the menu in most parts of Bolivia. Don’t worry though, no llamas were harmed at our expense.
It felt like a dream to walk in the middle of the huge herds. Many were skittish and would walk away as you approach. If you stand still though, their curiosity kicks in and they start to walk toward you! Llama lovers will understand the thrill of this experience.
In addition to practicing to be llama herders, we visited a few other places of interest in the park.
Located 12 km from town, Lago Huanacota is set near the base of Nevada Sajama. On the walk to the lake we soaked in the views of this unusual landscape. Small farms with rustic buildings can be seen in the distance. The fields are filled with Ichu grass growing in distinctive triangular tufts. It seems incredible that much survives over 4,000 m.
We were actually a little disappointed when we first saw the lake because it’s set on the side of a gravel road in a bare field. Once we walked around to the other side though, we were pleasantly surprised. The view of the lake in front of the tall volcanos is outstanding.
A herd of llamas were wandering around the lake with us. They kindly stopped to pose for a few pictures in front of the lake and volcanos.
You can walk or drive from town on the relatively flat road (12 km). We had expected a hike, but it was all on the dirt road.
Between the town and Lago Huanacota are a few natural thermal baths. When we visited one was open to the public. Before reaching the bath we crossed over streams and small coulees which added interest to the bare land.
Natural hot water continuously flows through the large bath. It is built up with stone walls, but the floor is natural rock and sand. The steamy baths are a real treat, especially in this cold, forsaken place.
There is a small fee to enter (30 Bolivianos). It includes a towel and access to the change rooms. The fee was more than worth it.
Surprisingly Sajama National Park was not created to protect the country’s highest peak. It was actually formed to protect the interesting looking queñua tree (also spelled queñoa). Until 1939 when it was declared a natural reserve, the trees were being cut down for their timber at an alarming rate. Today, small forests of queñua, cling to the sides of the lower slopes of Nevado Sajama. These curious looking trees are easy to spot with their gnarled branches and paper-thin red bark.
Growing at altitudes between 4,300 and 5,200 m (14,100 and 17,060 ft) these forests in Sajama are considered to be the highest forests in the world.
Other Things To Do
There are a few active geysers 8 km from town. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit them.
You can also hike to the summits of each of the three volcanoes, but they do involve crossing snow and glaciers. Guides and equipment need to be hired in La Paz as there are no tour companies in Sajama.
Where to Stay
It appears that there used to be quite a few hotels and hostels in town but when we were there only two were open. We were glad to find a nice, family run budget hotel. Oasis Sajama has hot showers and heaters in some rooms. Even with the heater turned on we used 4 blankets on our bed at night.
What to wear
The entire park is at or above 4,200 m and is very cold. Make sure you bring plenty of layers of warm clothes for the day and at night to sleep. It can get to -30° C at night in the winter and not all hotel rooms have heaters.
How to get to Sajama National Park
Many tour companies in La Paz offer trips to the park and include guides for different activities. It’s also easy to get there on your own. Buses leaving La Paz destined for Oruro will drop you off in the town of Patacamaya. From the bus stop, walk toward town until you see a busy street filled with collectivos (mini-buses). There is only one a day to and from Sajama. It leaves Patacamaya around 12:30 pm and leaves Sajama at 6 am every day. If you catch a bus in La Paz by 8 am you will arrive in time to catch the minibus. Once in Sajama you can easily walk to most destinations.
The national park entry fee is 100 Bolivianos.
Coming Next – Cochabamba, Bolivia’s Garden City
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To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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