Northern Bolivia

Hot springs in Sajama National Park, wrestling in La Paz, and hiking the Cordillera Real

October 7, 2018 - 11 minute read -
travel hiking bolivia overlanding south-america

Hauling back up onto the Altiplano

After visiting the incredible Salar de Uyuni, the beautiful and horrifying colonial mining town of Potosí, travelling to white city of Sucre, we really enjoyed relaxing in a garden bliss in Cochabamba. It was great to find ourselves at a lower altitude (Sucre is ~2,800 m and Cochabamba is ~2,560m) and enjoyed the warm weather and clement nights – but to get to La Paz we needed to climb over the Andes once more. It was a bit of a harrowing drive, with heavy fog and gnarly road works slowing traffic to a standstill.

driving conditions

Sajama National Park

We decided on making the long detour to the relatively unknown Sajama National Park on the altiplano next to the border with Chile. It includes the incredible Navajo Sajama, the highest peak in Bolivia. Between the peaks and arid valleys, llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas graze at their preferred high altitude. The scenery is just spectacular and the dry climate provides unubstructed views year-round.

Getting there was a long, but worthwhile, 150km dash off of our original route heading to La Paz. The road is good pavement from the turn off of the main highway, mainly due to the fact that is Bolivia’s only sea access through the Chilean port near Arica. This is because of the Atacama border dispute, where Chile annexed all of the Bolivian Coast and the Southern Tip of Peru in the 19th Century. In order to cool things off, Chile allows Bolivia to ship goods through a narrow strip of land which winds itself right next to Sajama NP.

The trade zone

Once in the park, the road deteriorated quickly into bumpy washboard. We decided to take a 9km detour to the geothermal hot-springs and had some fun fording rivers and putting our big tires and high clearance to use. We saw some amazing views of Nevado Sajama and the local wildlife on the way.

Herds of llama are still kept by the local inhabitants of the park

Nevado Sajama, aka 🍦🗻

Boil, boil, toil and trouble

The hot springs in Sajama are one of our favorite campsites to date, and we were left alone with a wonderland of bubbling pools of different temperatures. Most too hot to touch, some were the perfect temperature to soft boil some eggs (bonus! volcanic hot springs egg salad recipe) with a nearby river that was just warm enough to take a dip in the frigid winds on the next morning.

Shy vicuña at Laguna Huayna Khota

But while the thermal pools are warm, the air is absolutely not! Our grey water tank froze and we had ice covering the inside windows when we woke up in the morning.

La Paz

The amazing teléferico system of La Paz & El Alto

La Paz (The Peace) is a crazy city! It’s not peaceful it all! There’s a parade or music in the streets or fireworks constantly! We stayed in Zona Sur at the bottom of the Verde Teléferico line where it was actually a little quieter, but not by much. One day we all (us + Camila and Eseben) hiked up to the very end of the Red Line to appropriately named city of El Alto (The Tall or The Lofty, it’s 4,150 meters/13,600 ft up there) to the Sunday market to see some wrestling.

Cholita Wrestling

First we spent a few hours wandering the endless market eating cakes covered in coconut, coconut juice, grilled chicken kebabs, orange juice, donuts, salty faba, sweet vino tinto, and all sorts of other snacks while exploring piles of used shoes, new knives, flasks made of calves heads (weird), old school Toyota LandCruisers (droolworthy), and miles of fabric for those epic skirts the Andean women wear.

Then the wrestling started! At the time it seemed smart to buy a bottle of singani to warm up with, although we probably should’ve just picked up a cheap blanket, and we huddled on concrete bleachers watching two ladies with loooong braids slap the bejesus out of each other. We thought it was going to be a tourist spectacle, but it was about 2/3 local market goers, and 1/3 tourists (sitting on comfy plastic chairs on the other side of the ring – we wanted to be able to snuggle up and share our bottle so we opted for the bleachers).

We laughed, we screamed, we cried (not really), we cheered, and we booed. We learned the word castigar, “to punish.” We hated on the double-dealing referee. We loved ‘La Reina del Ring.’ We had a really great time.

Looking down on La Paz from El Alto

One night we splurged with Eseben and Camila (it was her birthday in a few days!) and went to Gustu, a fine dining restaurant in La Paz that until very recently had a Danish chef. They do a really beautiful interpretation of local Bolivian ingredients and beverages. So good!!! 🥂

Gustu with Eseben & Camila

Witches' stall, complete with dried llama fetuses

One of the fanciful buildings inspired by architect Freddy Mamani in El Alto

And then we continued on to the mountains…

Cordillera Real

The Cordillera Real is omnipresent in La Paz – depending on which teleferico line you take you see a different set of snow covered peaks. It’s a constant reminder that while you might be at a pretty good altitude right now, there’s always some place higher.

So, of course we had to go check it out. We’ve survived the South American winter in Chile, Argentina, and now Bolivia for months with just cold temperatures and none of the seasonal spirit you’d hope for when you’re spending every night at -6 C/20 F. We wanted to touch some gosh darn snow!

We had just gotten the low down from those crazy Danes that hiked for 14 days across the Cordillera Real, and while we were not feeling as crazy as them, we had spent such a lovely time in La Paz feeling pretty good about our acclimatization. We’d been to Sajama and slept at 4300 meters a couple of times already, but still after weeks above 3200 meters we were not ready for hiking at 5500 meters. Holy !#$% it was hard.

But I digress. First, we must get to the Cordillera.

We made the unfortunate choice of trying to leave the city through El Alto during the Saturday market. After Maps.Me and Google Maps both failed us, almost taking us up the steepest road we’ve ever encountered before the locals ran out yelling “no pase!” (does not go through!) – we found out a few minutes later that Google was trying to route us through a staircase. 🤦🏾‍ After soothing our nerves with some much needed lunch, we proceeded to the highway. Unfortunately, to get the ‘highway’, you have to pass through the nightmare of the Saturday market. It took us about an hour to go one kilometer, which afforded us some time to jump out and grab some juices on the way.

Lago Tuni

Once you get out of La Paz (and El Alto) it’s an easy drive down the F-2 and then a well maintained dirt road to a man made reservoir, Laguna Tuni, just north of La Paz. We arrived at a locked fence and a guy promptly arrived on a motorcycle to collect a ‘regalo’ or small gift of 20BOL (~$3USD), unlocked the gate, and let us drive around the ‘private’ reservoir. Laguna Tuni should be called Laguna Turquoise because it’s a perfect beautiful color.

The Valley

Afterwards, you traverse through a golden valley full of llama, alpaca, and river crossings. We arrived at a small community recommended to us by our friends Overlanding the Americas at the trail-head to one of the easiest hikes to access by car in the Cordillera Real. After spending a frigid night at 24ºF (-6ºC) we hauled up to Pico Austria. We were not interested in paying to hike Huayna Potosí, and generally aren’t fans of tent camping in below freezing weather (judge us if you want) so we were happy to compromise with the day hike.

The view from our 'living room'

Hike to Pico Austria

The hike to Pico Austria was truly beautiful, you get panoramic views of the entire Cordillera and even El Alto and Lago Titicaca, and it’s not very long in terms of kilometers, but grueling because of the altitude – the peak is at 5,320 meters/ 17,454 feet.

Sneaky view of La Cabeza del Cóndor at the very beginning

A local family was out for a picnic on the Laguna -- they did the hike to up there in sandals!

stage 1: 'we got this!'

stage 2: 'just a quick break'

stage 3: 'please say it's over soon'

We thought that this was the end, but it was just the pass

The last crazy rock scramble

Yes we're so high you can see Lago Titicaca 40 km (as the crow flies) away

Hey you can see the van (and El Alto) from here!

Huayna Potosí

The Condoriri Massif -- the tallest point to the right is La Cabeza del Cóndor, with Ala Izquierda (the left wing) and Ala Derecha (the right wing) to each side

Ryan getting a good look at Ilusión and Aguja Negra before we both have to sit down from vertigo

parting shot