I’m advised that the bus back from Rurrenabaque to La Paz isn’t that bad. It isn’t to be fair. It’s late, bumpy, takes four hours longer than the twelve I was suggested but it’s fine. I’m covered in mosquito bites and still not entirely past my diarrhoea. My skin and nails are a rusty green after the Amazon swim and some mystery nasty has stung my ear which is swollen and throbbing. All my clothes are filthy with the humid sweat. So bring on the cool, lifeless Altiplano climate I think as I’m borderline spooning with the stout cholita sat next to me. Bring it on.
16 hour bus from Rurrenabaque to La Paz.
90 minutes stuck in a taxi in La Paz (some protest has bought the streets to a standstill).
2 hours bus to Patacamaya.
And I’m 40 minutes late for the one micro a day that goes to Sajama. Sigh
There are micros going to a village halfway between so I figure that must be better than the ugly, dusty pit stop that is Patacamaya. I make eye contact with a driver which is a pretty serious commitment around here so I’m obliged to him and knowing micros can take a while to fill I ask if I can get lunch, ‘si’ and I’m ushered into a café. Two minutes after getting my soup, he’s back, ‘Listo?’. No, I’m not ready funnily enough. This happens about three more times before I decide to abandon my meal. At least I’m not left behind.
Carahuara de Carangas
‘Toto, I don’t think I’m on the gringo trail anymore’. Kids stare at me like I’m an exotic creature, an alien. This pale giant, hermit cangrejo with his home on his back. Wrapped in bright green straps, wicking t-shirt and ginger tinted beard (yes I admit it). All alien. The hostal I’d read of does exist! They have a penchant for bad taxidermy and I think they put Gokku on my bath mat.
It’s high time I have my first hike so I head for the nearest hill.
Scrambling through the rippling fronds of hillside on the way over is a mess of crumbling dirt and cactus. Every plant here clearly relies on having a ‘stabby’ quality. I startle a hare and keep low to avoid curiosity from the local youths. Sometimes when you travel every stranger is a saviour and sometimes every stranger is a danger. It’s not really up to them, more down to how tired I am and what’s in my pockets.
The walk is hard for the unadjusted but not so far and the views are vast. It’s also my first real moment of solitude so I sing and dance to Big Star amongst the broken glass, crisp packets and stones that mark the sacred sight.
Next day I take in the sights.
The hostel owner says my bus comes to the village but the ice cream vendor says I have to go to the crossroads 5km away. Always trust ice cream, I wait at the cruces, watching the lorries and llamma hearders for two hours then, onwards!
Parque Nacional Sajama
The national park is a broad Altiplano valley at about 4250m, full of llama and hardy plants. Flanking this are rows of snow capped 6000m+ volcanoes. The views are open and impressive from just about anywhere.
I link up with two Swiss (Lukas and Claudia) and two French (Laetitia and Joffrey, yes that Joffrey. There’s never enough pigeon pie…) and we check out the hostels. They’re all pretty much the same so we settle on the one that has a nicer breakfast area with a heater prominently placed in the centre (It doesn’t work and there is clearly no intention for it to work; it’s a spiderweb to draw us in). There is no heating anywhere making Sajama the coldest place I’ve ever been indoors. It’s very cold, bearable when fully wrapped, but very cold. We negotiate a price with the twelve year old boy who is on duty; it’s clearly beyond his station so he goes upstairs for the boss. A fourteen year old girl emerges and becomes our main port of call while there. I sympathise, it’s a bloody remote and tiny place to be a teenager, she does her schoolwork when she gets a minute between working.
I develop a strained relationship with my shower who in a moment of tourettes madness I call Terrence. He takes three minutes to heat, during which time you’re being faintly sprayed and blasted with cold air in the tiny room. Then about 45 seconds heat, then cold. Then repeat. It’s cold enough when not naked and wet, my body shakes quite violently as I bargain with him in the interim. But when he’s on hot; pure bliss and all is briefly forgiven.
The French couple have big mountain ambitions so we all go on a couple of acclimatising hikes.
First, up a spur on the massif of Nevado Sajama (6,542m), Bolivia’s highest mountain. We go just over 5000m, and it’s a real struggle for breath when we hit the steep volcanic dust and subsequent scramble. I have moments of empathy for the mountaineers who sack in the struggle, lay on the mountainside and let it be. But I do make it and with no real altitude sickness. The views are stupendous.
Apparantly the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, played a game of football on Sajamas glaciated summit. It was a stunt to prove that the country’s altitude wasn’t too great for a kickabout in their failed bid to host a major tournament. Legend/ propoganda says he scored the deciding goal. Hard to imagine Dave Cameron or Theresa May going to the same lengths…
Second, we go on perhaps the parks premier hike (as opposed to climb) past three high altitude lagoons.
We had much excitement over the prospect of the hot springs at the end, it had spurred us on during the days harder moments. They weren’t quite the wonderland we’d hoped for. There are two pools, one’s not warm enough to combat the frigid air. The other was about five/ six inches deep, dirty and full of beetles that had some disconcerting motivation to crawl all over us. In the right spot, without breathing deeply you could just about submerge, which was necessary as it was below freezing out. In this state of stasis it was almost pleasant. The promised hot showers were cold so drying and dressing was done at record pace; I awaited the pas de deux with Terrence to remove all the grit. It was about a five minute walk to our pickup and our swimming costumes froze solid on the way.
So Sajama is quiet and well off the main track, few other travellers I’d talked to have heard of it. That being said we all had this feeling that it was just a few years away from becoming a prominent notch in the gringo rut. It’s absolutely gorgeous, the road out is good and it offers highly rewarding high altitude climbing/ hiking that is accessible to beginners. We could picture a big party hostel (‘Get drunk at the world’s highest bar!’), quad bikes charging towards the hot springs and jet skis on the Lagunas. Hopefully it remains a quiet haven, but if development means heating, that would be pretty nice.