The last light of the day glistened on the ice-capped peaks of the surrounding volcanoes and, as the sun dropped quickly out of view, the temperature plummeted alarmingly fast. The altiplano village of Sajama in Bolivia stands at 4200m above sea level. At this altitude it’s freezing cold at night and the air is thin and in short supply. But none of that seemed to worry the players in a five a side football match who were running around in shorts. I was out of breath just trying to pull my socks on. The crowd of supporters looked smugly warm in their layers of alpaca shawls and rugs, while my nose went red and my feet seemed to go dead in my shoes.
The match, somewhat oddly, was accompanied by a small band of musicians, drums crashing, cymbals clashing and horns doing whatever horns do. I’d arrived that afternoon on the long haul by bus up from Arica on the Chilean coast. The village is just a small collection of primitive adobe thatched houses and it’s hard to tell which are the streets and which are people’s yards. After dinner I was in bed by 8.30 trying to get warm under heavy layers of alpaca blankets. My traditional adobe hut seemed designed to trap the cold in.
Sajama is in fact also the name of the national park which is close to the Chilean border and is still pretty much off the beaten track. It’s quite difficult to get to and lodgings are basic, plus, did I say how cold it gets? After three nights I still couldn’t get used to it, but the sublime scenery more than compensated.
On the first day I walked along the dirt track heading north out of town to some natural hot springs. To the right was Volcan Sajama and to the left a large plain with many alpaca (although they could have been llamas, I still can’t tell the difference) and behind that the twin volcanoes of Parinacota and Pomerata, both towering over 6000 metres. The sun was fierce during the day and the altitude made each step hard-going, so after six hours I was glad to get back to the hostel. But then the sun went down, and, did I tell you how cold it gets?
I felt more acclimatised on the second day and walked west of town past the little stone church and across the plain towards the twin volcanoes. After about an hour I entered a beautiful valley and a few miles further on I came across the geysers. I stepped gingerly between them, trying to be as sure-footed as the alpacas (or llamas). The waters bubbled, steam rose and the edges of the holes glimmered red and orange.
On both days trekking what struck me the most was the wonderful sound of silence. It felt so far from anywhere and I saw only a few other determined tourists. I spent 3 nights there and would like to have stayed longer, but the cold was getting to me. Apart from having been overawed by the landscape, I also came away with a huge admiration for the people who live with such extremes of temperatures and altitude. It’s a harsh life and I was lucky that I could just dip in and out.