- 1 Introduction to Sajama National Park
- 2 Geography and Climate
- 3 Biodiversity: Ecosystems, Flora, and Fauna
- 4 Population in the Park
- 5 Natural Attractions
- 6 Activities: Recommended Routes and Excursions
- 7 Practical Information for Visitors
- 8 Conservation and Threats
- 9 Photo Gallery
The Sajama National Park (SNP) in Oruro, Bolivia, is one of the mightiest destinations in the country. With its hiking trails leading to the summit of the volcano, the biodiversity featuring lush fauna and flora, its ecological richness, cultural stories, and the activities that can be carried out in the park, it is undoubtedly an unmissable place. In this guide, we explain in detail all the relevant aspects of Sajama so that you don’t miss anything during your visit.
Introduction to Sajama National Park
The Sajama National Park is situated in the northwest extremity of the Oruro department in Bolivia. It is located within the Sajama province and encompasses the municipalities of Curahuara de Carangas and Turco.
It borders the north with the La Paz department and to the west with the Republic of Chile. The geographical coordinates of the reference quadrant of the park are approximately 17° 56′ 57.24″ South latitude and 69° 08′ 31.55″ West longitude to 18° 17′ 37.46″ South latitude and 68° 44′ 25.74″ West longitude. It is nestled in a mountainous and volcanic zone, surrounded by impressive landscapes and unique panoramic views in this region of Bolivia.
Established on August 2, 1939, through Supreme Decree s/n of 08-02-1939 and Law s/n of 11-05-1945 under the Spanish name "Parque Nacional Sajama," its main objective is to protect the queñua forest (Polylepis tarapacana) and preserve the ecosystems of the semi-arid high Andean region, conserve species of wildlife, protect watershed areas, and promote scientific research. Over time, laws have been enacted to ratify its establishment and expand its scope, encompassing the Mirikiri and Sajama hills.
The central aim of SNP is to support Bolivia’s national conservation goals by safeguarding the biodiversity and ecosystems of the high Andes. It seeks to reconcile human activities with nature conservation, promoting the recovery and development of resource management systems.
Among the park’s management objectives are the protection and preservation of queñua forests, as well as the conservation of threatened or endemic wildlife species. It also aims to safeguard the upper river basins and preserve the region’s cultural and historical heritage. Additionally, programs for environmental education, scientific research, and the development of sustainable models for natural resource use are promoted.
The SNP holds importance not only for conservation but also for tourism. Currently, most visitors come from countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Asian countries. However, it’s important to highlight that domestic tourism still constitutes a small proportion of visitors. The development of ecotourism and nature-based recreation is encouraged, always considering the conservation of the area and its resources.
Meaning of the Name "Sajama"
The name ‘Sajama’ is derived from an Aymara deity, reflecting the cultural significance that the park holds in Bolivia. Throughout history, this area has served as a home for diverse indigenous communities, which have cared for and respected this sacred territory.
Geography and Climate
Geography and Topography of the Park
It hosts the highest summit in Bolivia, the Sajama Volcano. This park is characterized by its volcanic geography and the high plateau, dominated by vast plains interrupted by imposing mountains and volcanoes.
Climate in the Park
The climate of Sajama National Park is arid and cold, with extreme temperature conditions. Strong frosts are experienced throughout the year, and cold is constant in the area. The month of January stands out as the wettest, with an annual precipitation ranging between 270 and 400 mm.
Average annual temperatures in the park hover around 10°C, indicating generally cold conditions. However, it’s important to note that temperatures can significantly drop during the night and at higher altitudes, so being prepared for extreme cold is necessary.
A distinctive feature of the climate in this region is the high solar radiation during the day. Due to the altitude and geographic location, the park experiences intense sun exposure, resulting in sunny conditions and clear skies for much of the year.
Situated within the endorheic Altiplano watershed, the region’s waters do not drain towards the sea but accumulate in lagoons and salt flats within the high plateau itself.
The most important rivers that cross the park are the Sajama River and the Turco River. These rivers are fed by the melting of the Sajama and Payachatas snow-capped mountains located in the region. The waters from these rivers eventually drain into the Sajama and Tomarapi-Cosapa basins.
The hydrographic basins of Sajama National Park are crucial for maintaining water resource quality and ecosystem balance in the region. Additionally, the lagoons and salt flats present in the high plateau also contribute to the diversity of landscapes and habitats within the park.
Biodiversity: Ecosystems, Flora, and Fauna
The ecosystems present in Sajama National Park are representative of the Bolivian high plateau, including puna grasslands, wetlands, and bofedales (peat bogs), the latter being essential for the survival of high Andean fauna.
It is part of the Southern Puna Ecoregion, an ecological region that spans various areas of the Andes in Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. This ecoregion is characterized by its high altitude and cold, dry climate, with vegetation adapted to the extreme conditions of altitude. It also belongs to the Subecoregion Desert Puna with Snow and Subnival Zones, encompassing desert and semi-desert areas where snow and subnival zones (areas below the snowline) are found. This altitudinal variation gives rise to different types of vegetation, including the High Andean Vegetation of the Western Cordillera.
Plant species in Sajama adapt to the extreme conditions of the desert puna, one of Bolivia’s driest areas. Examples include the queñua forests (Polylepis tarapacana), open and shrubby woodlands. These forests are found at elevations between 4,200 and 4,800 meters above sea level and surround the Sajama snow-capped mountain. Other species present in this unit are Azorella compacta, Deyeuxia cabrerae, Deyeuxia brevifolia, Parastrephia quadrangularis, Chersodoma jodopappa, Senecio puchii, and Perezia purpurata.
There are also semiralos and ralos queñuales, which are similar to queñuales but with smaller and less dense queñua trees. Other vegetation units include high and low rocky hill vegetation, tholares of Parastrephia lepidophylla, tholares of Fabiana densa, tholar-pajonal, scree vegetation, Iru-huichu grasslands, high Andean bofedales, and saline bofedales on plains and valleys.
In areas with scarce vegetation, there are lagoons with shoreline vegetation dominated by Elodea sp., and kollpares, which are plains adjacent to bofedales with saline vegetation like Salicomia sp., Poa sp., and Distichlis humilis.
These different vegetation units reflect plant adaptation to extreme conditions of drought, low temperatures, and altitude in the park. Each of them plays an important role in the ecosystem and contributes to the diversity and resilience of flora in this area.
The park hosts a variety of fauna species adapted to puna conditions. Some of these species are threatened and are listed under CITES and IUCN.
Only two native fish species have been recorded in the park: burruchyalla (Orestias sp. group agasii) and suche (Trichomycterus sp.), which inhabit different bofedales in the area.
The presence of amphibians and reptiles in the area is limited. Among the amphibians are Pleurodema marmorata and Telmatobius marmoratus, while the reptiles present include Liolaemus signifer, L. alticolor, Velosaura jamesi, and Tachymenis peruviana.
There are 71 species of birds recorded in the park. Notable among them are the suri (Pterocnemia pennata) and the Andean flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus), both of which are threatened.
A total of 27 mammal species inhabit the protected area of Sajama National Park, including the Andean armadillo (Chaetophractus nationi), taruca deer (Hippocamelus antisensis), Andean mountain cat (Oreailurus jacobita), and vicuña (Vicugna vicugna). However, it’s important to note that populations of armadillos, pumas, and vicuñas have shown signs of recovery in recent years. Additionally, the Andean fox (Pseudalopex culpeus), ferret (Galictis cuja), and skunk (Conepatus chinga) are common in the area.
These fauna species, whether threatened or more common, contribute to the biological diversity and ecosystem balance of the region.
Population in the Park
Socioeconomic and Demographic Context
According to the 2002 National Population and Housing Census, a population of 5,278 people was recorded in the municipality of Curahuara de Carangas, with 54% men and 46% women. However, data from GRAMA in 1997 showed a population of 2,132 inhabitants in the protected area.
In terms of health services, it has been observed that the majority of the population lacks proper sanitation facilities and uses latrines, especially in areas with higher tourist influx.
Regarding the supply of drinking water, most cantons do not have piped water supply and rely on springs, sources, and rivers. Larger population centers such as Cosapa, Lagunas, and Sajama have access to piped water outside homes.
Until a few years ago, the area lacked an electrification system, except for the fuel-powered generators used in ranger shelters. Currently, larger settlements have electricity.
A decrease in the use of vegetal fuels as an energy source has been observed in recent years, replaced by liquefied gas, kerosene, and others. However, people with low resources tend to maintain the traditional practice of using plant materials as an energy source.
The literacy rate reached in the area was 14.6% in 1992, below the department’s average. Localities with the highest number of illiterates are in the northern zone, such as Huaylluma, Sajama, and Chajalla, while Lagunas and Cosapa have a lower proportion of illiterates (7%). These results are related to proximity to educational centers. Most individuals have received education only up to the basic level, while a smaller percentage has reached intermediate and secondary levels.
The park is home to five communities that contribute to fauna and flora protection, with their main source of income being tourism. These communities have constructed accommodations for tourists and also offer traditional meals based on llama and alpaca meat.
The Payachatas are two towering twin volcanoes located in Sajama National Park. Parinacota and Pomerape form this majestic duo, with heights reaching 6,342 meters and 6,282 meters, respectively. These volcanoes are considered sacred by indigenous communities in the region and represent an iconic attraction of the park’s landscape.
Pomerape is a volcano situated within the protected area. With an altitude of approximately 6,282 meters, it is part of the impressive Western Andes mountain range. Its imposing presence and snow-covered summit make it a standout attraction for mountaineering enthusiasts and adventurers.
Parinacota is a stratovolcano that is part of the imposing Payachatas of Sajama. Standing at an altitude of approximately 6,342 meters, its snowy peak and impressive form make it one of the most prominent attractions in the region. Ascending to the summit of Parinacota presents an exciting challenge for mountaineers and offers breathtaking panoramic views.
Sajama Volcano is Bolivia’s highest mountain, with an altitude of approximately 6,542 meters. Located within the park, this majestic volcano draws climbers from around the world seeking to conquer its snowy peaks. Beyond its natural beauty, Sajama Volcano holds cultural significance and is considered sacred by indigenous communities in the region.
The Sajama Lines consist of a series of ancient geoglyphs and petroglyphs protected within the national park. These mysterious lines and figures etched into the earth are a testament to the region’s ancestral past. They are an archaeological and cultural treasure that reveals the ancient cultures’ connection to the natural environment and the park’s landscape.
Lake Huanakota is a beautiful lake with crystal-clear waters, surrounded by incredible landscapes that create a tranquil and serene natural setting. You can enjoy panoramic views of the lake as you walk along the trail that crosses it, admiring its beauty and the wildlife that inhabits it.
The thermal baths offer a relaxing and rejuvenating experience amidst an impressive natural setting. These natural hot springs, heated by volcanic activity, allow you to immerse yourself in warm waters and enjoy their therapeutic properties. They also offer beautiful panoramic views and are the perfect place to relax your muscles after a day of adventures in the park.
Queñua Forests: The Highest in the World
The queñua forests are another must-see attraction in Sajama. These trees, considered the tallest in the world, create a surrealistic landscape that captivates all visitors.
Activities: Recommended Routes and Excursions
Trails of Sajama National Park
Walking and exploring the trails of Sajama National Park is a popular way to connect with nature and enjoy its impressive landscapes. Here’s a selection of trails that allow visitors to immerse themselves in the beauty of this unique natural environment.
Laguna Huanakota Trail
This one-day trail takes you through the park to panoramic views of Laguna Huanakota. It’s a picturesque hike that allows you to enjoy the tranquility of this beautiful lake.
For more experienced hikers, the Sajama Trail offers an exciting challenge. It takes you to the summit of Sajama Volcano, the highest mountain in Bolivia, standing at over 6,500 meters. This is the highest point in Bolivia and presents an exhilarating challenge for mountaineers. It’s important to be in good physical shape and acclimatized to the altitude before undertaking this hike.
High Altitude Lakes Trail
This two-day hike takes you through the park, offering panoramic views of various attractions. One of the highlights of the trail is the stunning views of Lake Altura. It’s a rewarding experience for those seeking a longer adventure.
Geysers and Thermal Waters Trail
While many people access this area by 4×4 vehicle, you can also opt for a 9 km hike to explore the intriguing geyser field and enjoy the thermal waters. It’s a unique opportunity to witness fascinating natural phenomena.
These trails offer diverse experiences and allow visitors to immerse themselves in the beauty and biodiversity of Sajama National Park, providing a direct connection with nature and an opportunity to enjoy panoramic views and discover hidden wonders.
Climbing Nevado Sajama, Payachatas, and Other Mountains of the Park
For adventure and climbing enthusiasts, Sajama National Park offers the opportunity to conquer several mountains, including Nevado Sajama, Payachatas, and other impressive peaks. Climbing these mountains is an exciting challenge that requires experience, good physical condition, and adaptation to the altitude.
The best time to attempt climbing Nevado Sajama and other park mountains is between July and September, when conditions are most favorable. However, it’s important to note that snowfall can be expected from October to April, and strong winds and altitude pose additional challenges. Taking proper precautions and having the necessary equipment for a safe and rewarding experience is essential.
During climbs, it’s important to be prepared for extreme weather conditions, as temperatures can drop to -20 degrees Celsius during the night. Additionally, penitentes, ice formations up to one meter in height, can hinder progress at altitude. Caution and avoidance of glacier crevasses, which can be hazardous for climbers, are also essential. Climbing these mountains is a challenging yet rewarding experience that offers the opportunity to enjoy breathtaking panoramic views and connect with the majesty of nature.
Wildlife observation is another popular activity in Sajama. With a bit of patience and luck, visitors can have close encounters with the rich fauna of the park, including vicuñas and Andean condors.
Cultural and Community Tourism
Cultural and community tourism offers visitors the opportunity to learn about local traditions and contribute to the development of the communities living within and around the park.
Practical Information for Visitors
How to Get There and Move Around the Park
Sajama National Park is located approximately 300 km west of La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Visitors can reach the park by bus, taxi, or private car. Within the park, walking or using a 4×4 vehicle is the best option for getting around.
Depending on your location, you can arrive from different points in the country:
From La Paz
- Take a bus from La Paz Bus Terminal to Oruro.
- In Oruro, transfer to another minibus heading to Patacamaya.
- In Patacamaya, take another minibus that goes directly to the village of Sajama.
- Take a minibus from Oruro to La Paz.
- Get off at Patacamaya and find a minibus that will take you to the village of Sajama.
- Take the scheduled bus to Sajama, which departs at 12 pm from the north side of the city, in front of ‘Restaurante Capitol’.
- Make sure to arrive early to secure a seat, as there’s only one scheduled bus per day.
- The journey from Patacamaya to Sajama takes approximately three hours.
- To return to Patacamaya, take the bus that departs from the main square of Sajama at 5:30 am (4 am on Sundays).
- Make sure to be at the bus stop in advance.
- Another option is to arrange a transfer from Sajama to the main road and wait for a bus coming from Arica to La Paz.
It’s important to consider bus schedules and transportation availability in the area. It’s also recommended to wear warm clothing, as temperatures can be very cold in the morning.
Best Time to Visit
Due to its Andean climate with a dry season, the best months to visit are from May to October, which are the months with less rainfall.
Accommodation and Available Services
Accommodation within Sajama National Park is limited and basic, so it’s recommended to book in advance. Visitors can find lodging options in local communities, and there are several campsites for hikers. The nearest towns and localities with hotels and sleeping accommodations are:
- Sajama: The village of Sajama, located within the park, offers rustic and cozy lodging options for visitors.
- Tambo Quemado: This locality is near the park entrance and has simple and comfortable accommodations for an overnight stay.
- Curahuara de Carangas: A short distance from the park, this town offers various accommodation options, from hostels to small hotels.
- Patacamaya: Situated on the route to the park, this city has a variety of hotels and lodgings for resting during your visit.
- Oruro: Though a bit more distant, Oruro is a larger option and has a wide selection of hotels and services for park visitors.
Rules and Recommendations for Sustainable Tourism
Respecting the park’s rules is important to ensure its conservation. These include restrictions on camping and making fires in undesignated areas, as well as the importance of leaving no trace of the visit.
Conservation and Threats
Current Conservation Efforts
Sajama National Park is subject to various conservation efforts by the Bolivian government and non-governmental organizations. Measures have been implemented to protect biodiversity, promote the involvement of local communities in park management, and encourage sustainable tourism.
Threats and Challenges to the Conservation of Sajama National Park
Despite conservation efforts, Sajama faces several challenges and threats. Some of the main ones include poaching, expansion of agriculture and livestock, climate change, and unsustainable tourism. These activities can negatively impact the park’s ecosystems and wildlife, endangering its long-term integrity.