Southwest of La Paz, the road to Chile passes through some of the Altiplano’s starkest scenery, a desert plain virtually devoid of vegetation presided over by the perfect snowcapped cone of Volcán Sajama. At 6542m, Sajama is Bolivia’s highest mountain, and the first in a chain of icebound volcanic peaks known as the Cordillera Occidental that straddle the Chilean border and mark the edge of the Altiplano – although Sajama stands alone, separated from the rest of the range. Sajama is also the centre of Bolivia’s oldest national park, the PARQUE NACIONAL SAJAMA, established in 1939 to protect the local population of vicuñas, a wild relative of the llama that had been hunted to the verge of extinction for its wool. The animals have since made a dramatic recovery, and large herds can be found grazing 25km or so north of the village at the area known as Patoca.
The park covers roughly one thousand square kilometres, encompassing the entire mountain and a large area of the surrounding desert, where pumas, Andean deer and rheas are also found – though rarely seen. Sajama’s slopes also support the world’s highest forest, a patch of queñua trees that survive up to 5200m. The records don’t stop there: in 2001 the highest football match in the world was played in the crater at the top of Sajama.
Most visitors are climbers, drawn by the chance to ascend a peak of over 6000m that requires relatively little technical expertise. However, the mountain’s lower slopes make for excellent hiking, and there are bubbling geysers and hot springs to be explored in the plain below. West of the park on the Chilean border, the two volcanic peaks of Parinacota (6132m) and Pomerata (6222m) provide a stunning backdrop. Known as the payachatas (“twins”), and considered the female consorts of Sajama, these mountains can also be scaled.